William Gibson's Visionary 2003 Director's Guild Speech
Twenty years ago today William Gibson gave a brilliant and inspiring speech to the Directors Guild of America on their first ever Digital Day about the future of media. I search for it every few years, googling half-remembered snippets like meryl streep dog head. After his blog was taken down, it’s been hard to find, so I’m reposting it below without permission until a new canonical version appears.
His core insight:
No matter who you are, nor how pure your artistic intentions, nor what your budget was, your product, somewhere up the line, will eventually find itself at the mercy of people whose ordinary civilian computational capacity outstrips anything anyone has access to today.
As with any exponential, there was no visible progress at first: our devices remained pretty dumb. An early ham-fisted attempt to modify content on the fly was motion smoothing, which was abjectly awful. But in 2023, the constant barrage of AI advances makes it clear Gibson’s vision is finally manifesting.
The first shot across the bow is the ability to boost the dialog of your shows and movies, undoing the director’s dogged efforts to bury it. Audio alterations will give way to video. Your device will be able to edit out swear words, or any content you find objectional, but then fix the video so the actor is saying the new version seamlessly. Dubbing in a foreign language will also alter the video so that characters appear to be speaking the language natively.
More aggressive invasions will follow, such as editing content for length. Don’t want to spend three hours watching the latest bladder-busting blockbuster? Get a customized ninety-minute version instead, focusing on the sub-plots that resonate with you personally. You can “cast” your favorite shows and movies, assigning any actor, living or dead, to play any part. You can view classic films with modern effects or see how a hip director might have filmed an old favorite. Create a cover of any song by any band, or make endless sequels for a beloved movie or show. If you aren’t feeling hands-on, subscribe to content created by other people: friends or a community of saavy super-fans online.
Ultimately, your device will ingest all of culture to synthesize something new: a never-ending stream of personalized content that entertains, informs, motivates, and inspires. It will morph moment-to-moment based on your reaction, which it will infer with sensors. It will be a waking dream you can dip into on any device, for any length of time, whenever you want. This future will be equal parts exhilarating and terrifying since it’s unclear how our societies and economies will reform after the assault.
Read Gibson’s prescient speech below.
A talk given at the Directors Guild of America’s Digital Day
Los Angeles, May 17, 2003
The story of film begins around a fire, in darkness. Gathered around this fire are primates of a certain species, our ancestors, an animal distinguished by a peculiar ability to recognize patterns.
There is movement in the fire: embers glow and crawl on charcoal. Fire looks like nothing else. It generates light in darkness. It moves. It is alive.
The surrounding forest is dark. Is it the same forest our ancestors know by day? They can’t be sure. At night it is another place, perhaps no place at all. The abode of the dead, of gods and demons and that which walks without a face. It is the self turned inside out. Without form, it is that on which our ancestors project the patterns their interestingly mutated brains generate.
This patterning-reading mutation is crucial to the survival of a species that must ceaselessly hunt, ceaselessly gather. One plant is good to eat; it grows in summer in these lowlands. But if you eat its seedpods, you sicken and die. The big, slow-moving river-animal can be surprised and killed, here in these shallows, but will escape in deeper water.
This function is already so central, in our ancestors, that they discover the outlines of the water-animal in clouds. They see the faces of wolves and of their own dead in the flames. They are already capable of symbolic thought. Spoken language is long since a fact for them but written language has not yet evolved. They scribe crisscross patterns on approximately rectangular bits of ocher, currently the world’s oldest known human art.
They crouch, watching the fire, watching its constant, unpredictable movements, and someone is telling a story. In the watching of the fire and the telling of the tale lie the beginning of what we still call film.
Later, on some other night, uncounted generations up the timeline, their descendants squat deep in caves, places of eternal night – painting. They paint by the less restless light of reeds and tallow. They paint the wolves and the water-animal, the gods and their dead. They have found ways to take control of certain aspects of the cooking-fire universe. Darkness lives here, in the caves; you needn’t wait for dusk. The reeds and tallow throw a steadier light. Something is being turned inside out, here, for the first time: the pictures in the patterning brain are being projected, rendered. Our more recent ancestors will discover these stone screens, their images still expressing life and movement, and marvel at them, and not so long before the first moving images are projected.
What we call ‘media’ were originally called ‘mass media.’ Technologies allowing the replication of passive experience. As a novelist, I work in the oldest mass medium, the printed word. The book has been largely unchanged for centuries. Working in language expressed as a system of marks on a surface, I can induce extremely complex experiences, but only in an audience elaborately educated to experience this. This platform still possesses certain inherent advantages. I can, for instance, render interiority of character with an ease and specificity denied to a screenwriter. But my audience must be literate, must know what prose fiction is and understand how one accesses it. This requires a complexly cultural education, and a certain socio-economic basis. Not everyone is afforded the luxury of such an education.
But I remember being taken to my first film, either a Disney animation or a Disney nature documentary (I can’t recall which I saw first) and being overwhelmed by the steep yet almost instantaneous learning curve: in that hour, I learned to watch film. Was taught, in effect, by the film itself. I was years away from being able to read my first novel, and would need a lot of pedagogy, to do that. But film itself taught me, in the dark, to view it. I remember it as a sort of violence done to me, as full of terror as it was of delight. But when I emerged from that theater, I knew how to watch film.
What had happened to me was historically the result of an immensely complex technological evolution, encompassing optics, mechanics, photography, audio recording, and much else. Whatever film it was that I first watched, other people around the world were also watching, having approximately the same experience in terms of sensory input. And that film no doubt survives today, in Disney’s back-catalog, as an experience that can still be accessed.
That survival, I think, is part of the key to understanding where the digital may be taking us. In terms of most of our life so far, as a species, it’s not a natural thing to see the dead, or hear their voices. I believe the significance of that is still far from being understood. We can actually see what life, at least in some very basic sense, was like, one hundred years ago. We can watch a silent movie, and not only see people who are long dead, but see people who were in their seventies and eighties in the 1920s, and who therefore bore the affect of their developing years – i.e., from before the Civil War, and earlier. It is as if in 1956 we had been able to watch silent film of, say, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or the various revolutions of 1848. When the ramifications of this are really thought about, it becomes awesome in almost a religious sense.
Our ancestors, when they found their way to that first stone screen, were commencing a project so vast that it only now begins to become apparent: the unthinking construction of a species-wide, time-defying, effectively immortal prosthetic memory. Extensions of the human brain and nervous system, capable of surviving the death of the individual – perhaps even of surviving the death of the species. The start of building what would become civilization, cities, cinema. Vast stone calendars, megalithic machines remembering the need to plant on a given day, to sacrifice on another.
With the advent of the digital, which I would date from, approximately, World War Two, the nature of this project begins to become more apparent, more overt; the texture of these more recent technologies, the grain of them, becomes progressively finer, progressively more divorced from Newtonian mechanics. In terms of scale, they are more akin to the workings of the brain itself.
All us, creators or audience, have participated in the change so far. It’s been something many of us haven’t yet gotten a handle on. We are too much of it to see it. It may be that we never do get a handle on it, as the general rate of technological innovation shows no indication of slowing.
Much of history has been, often to an unrecognized degree, technologically driven. From the extinction of North America’s mega-fauna to the current geopolitical significance of the Middle East, technology has driven change. (That’s spear-hunting technology for the mega-fauna and the internal-combustion engine for the Middle East, by the way.) Very seldom do nations legislate the emergence of new technologies.
The Internet, an unprecedented driver of change, was a complete accident, and that seems more often the way of things. The Internet is the result of the unlikely marriage of a DARPA project and the nascent industry of desktop computing. Had nations better understood the potential of the Internet, I suspect they might well have strangled it in its cradle. Emergent technology is, by its very nature, out of control, and leads to unpredictable outcomes.
As indeed does the emergent realm of the digital. I prefer to view this not as the advent of some new and extraordinary weirdness, but as part of the ongoing manifestation of some very ancient and extraordinary weirdness: our gradual spinning of a sort of extended prosthetic mass nervous-system, out of some urge that was present around the cooking-fires of our earliest human ancestors.
We call film ‘film’ today in much the same way we ‘dial’ phones, the actual dials being long gone. The fact that we do still employ actual film, in the traditional sense, seems an artifact of platform-transition and industrial economics. I tend to take arguments for the innate esthetic superiority of ‘film’, with the same grain of salt I reserve for arguments for the innate esthetic superiority of vinyl. Whatever the current shortcomings of the digital image, I imagine there will be digital ways around them.
But I need to diverge here into another industry, one that’s already and even more fully feeling the historical impact of the digital: music. Prior to the technology of audio recording, there was relatively little one could do to make serious money with music. Musicians could perform for money, and the printing press had given rise to an industry in sheet music, but great fame, and wealth, tended to be a matter of patronage. The medium of the commercial audio recording changed that, and created industry predicated on an inherent technological monopoly of the means of production. Ordinary citizens could neither make nor manufacture audio recordings. That monopoly has now ended. Some futurists, looking at the individual musician’s role in the realm of the digital, have suggested that we are in fact heading for a new version of the previous situation, one in which patronage (likely corporate, and non-profit) will eventually become a musician’s only potential ticket to relative fame and wealth. The window, then, in which one could become the Beatles, occupy that sort of market position, is seen to have been technologically determined. And technologically finite. The means of production, reproduction and distribution of recorded music, are today entirely digital, and thus are in the hands of whoever might desire them. We get them for free, often without asking for them, as inbuilt peripherals. I bring music up, here, and the impact the digital is having on it, mainly as an example of the unpredictable nature of technologically driven change. It may well be that the digital will eventually negate the underlying business-model of popular musical stardom entirely. If this happens, it will be a change which absolutely no one intended, and few anticipated, and not the result of any one emergent technology, but of a complex interaction between several. You can see the difference if you compare the music industry’s initial outcry against ‘home taping’ with the situation today.
Whatever changes will come for film will be as unpredictable and as ongoing, but issues of intellectual property and piracy may ultimately be the least of them. The music industry’s product is, for want of a better way to put it, a relatively simple, relatively traditional product. Audio recordings just aren’t that technology-heavy. Though there’s one aspect of the digital’s impact on music that’s absolutely central to film: sampling. Sampling music is possible because the end-consumer of the product is now in possession of technologies equal or even superior to the technologies involved in producing that product. Human capital (that is, talent) aside, all the end-consumer-slash-creator lacks today, in comparison to a music-marketing conglomerate, is the funds required to promote product. The business of popular music, today, is now, in some peculiarly new way, entirely about promotion.
Film, I imagine, is in for a different sort of ride up the timeline, primarily owing to the technology-intensive nature of today’s product. Terminator III Unplugged is a contradiction in terms. Hollywood is massively and multiply plugged, and is itself a driver of new technologies. The monopoly on the means of production (at least in terms of creation) can be preserved, in this environment, as the industry itself operates on something very near the cutting edge of emergent technology. For a while, at least.
In terms of the future, however, the history of recorded music suggests that any film made today is being launched up the timeline toward end-user technologies ultimately more intelligent, more capable, than the technologies employed in the creation of that film.
Which is to say that, no matter who you are, nor how pure your artistic intentions, nor what your budget was, your product, somewhere up the line, will eventually find itself at the mercy of people whose ordinary civilian computational capacity outstrips anything anyone has access to today.
Remember the debate around the ethics of colorizing films shot in black-and-white? Colorization, up the line, is a preference setting. Probably the default setting, as shipped from the factory.
I imagine that one of the things our great-grandchildren will find quaintest about us is how we had all these different, function-specific devices. Their fridges will remind them of appointments and the trunks of their cars will, if need be, keep the groceries from thawing. The environment itself will be smart, rather than various function-specific nodes scattered through it. Genuinely ubiquitous computing spreads like warm Vaseline. Genuinely evolved interfaces are transparent, so transparent as to be invisible.
This spreading, melting, flowing together of what once were distinct and separate media, that’s where I imagine we’re headed. Any linear narrative film, for instance, can serve as the armature for what we would think of as a virtual reality, but which Johnny X, eight-year-old end-point consumer, up the line, thinks of as how he looks at stuff. If he discovers, say, Steve McQueen in The Great Escape, he might idly pause to allow his avatar a freestyle Hong Kong kick-fest with the German guards in the prison camp. Just because he can. Because he’s always been able to. He doesn’t think about these things. He probably doesn’t fully understand that that hasn’t always been possible. He doesn’t know that you weren’t always able to explore the sets virtually, see them from any angle, or that you couldn’t open doors and enter rooms that never actually appeared in the original film.
Or maybe, if his attention span wavers, he’ll opt to experience the film as if shot from the POV of that baseball that McQueen keeps tossing.
Somewhere in the countless preferences in Johnny’s system there’s one that puts high-rez, highly expressive dog-heads on all of the characters. He doesn’t know that this setting is based on a once-popular Edwardian folk-motif of poker-playing dogs, but that’s okay; he’s not a history professor, and if he needed to know, the system would tell him. You get complete breed-selection, too, with the dog-head setting, but that was all something he enjoyed more when he was still a little kid.
But later in the afternoon he’s run across something called The Hours, and he’s not much into it at all, but then he wonders how these women would look if he put the dog-heads on them. And actually it’s pretty good, then, with the dog-heads on, so then he opts for the freestyle Hong Kong kick-fest…
And what has happened, here, in this scenario, is that our ancient project, that began back at the fire, has come full circle. The patterns in the heads of the ancestors have come out, over many millennia, and have come to inhabit, atemporally, this nameless, single, non-physical meta-artifact we’ve been constructing. So that they form an extension of Johnny’s being, and he accesses them as such, and takes them utterly for granted, and treats them with no more respect than he would the products of his own idle surmise. But he’s still a child, Johnny, and swims unknowing in this, his culture and the culture of his species. He’ll be educated (likely via this same system he plays with now, in a more pedagogical mode – and likely, without his knowing, it’s already doing that, in background as it were). It may be that he’ll have to be taught to watch films, in the way that we watch them (or watched them, as I think DVD’s are already changing that, not to mention changing the way you approach making them). He may need something akin to the sort of education that I needed in order to read novels – to appreciate, as it were, a marginalized but still powerfully viable media-platform.
I can only trust that Johnny’s entertainment system, and the culture that informs it, will be founded on solid curatorial principles. That there will be an ongoing archaeology of media-product in place to insure that someone or something is always there to categorically state, and if necessary to prove, that The Maltese Falcon was shot in black and white and originally starred Humphrey Bogart.
Because I see Johnny falling asleep now in his darkened bedroom, and atop the heirloom Ikea bureau, the one that belonged to his grandmother, which his mother has recently had restored, there is a freshly-extruded resin action-figure, another instantaneous product of Johnny’s entertainment system.
It is a woman, posed balletically, as if in flight on John Wu wires.
It is Meryl Streep, as she appears in The Hours.
She has the head of a chihuahua.