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Behold, a Vision of Cyberspace from the Future!

January 24, 2011 Leave a comment

Well, maybe not from the actual future, but from the future as imagined in the film, Johnny Mnemonic, an adaptation of the William Gibson short story of the same title. I was struck by the oddness of the screen pictured here, which suggests that the “Internet” is a place. Often movies begin with titles announcing the setting, but JM confidently announces that this film is set in a virtual space. We tend not to think of “the Internet” in such spatial terms these days, so it took me by surprise to see the film convention of announcing the physical setting being used to designate a non-space.

Perhaps the oddity is increased given that this initial scene in the internet of 2021 has nothing to do with where the movie’s truly begins. We float through cyberspace’s geometric shapes and bits of city-like lights, only to arrive at the titular Johnny’s eyeball, with a image of his hotel TV’s wake-up call reflected in the iris:

Presumably the implication is that the internet exists in Johnny’s brain (and soon after the film will revolve around data stored in his brain, given that Johnny is a data courier tasked with delivering sensitive information from Tokyo to Newark). But Johnny is not in cyberspace, he’s in bed with a high-class prostitute, nursing a hangover. That is, the opening images of “Internet – 2021” belie the prosaic world of the flesh where Johnny actually starts his narrative journey.

For a film that supposedly takes place in “The Internet,” meatspace is where things really happen. In 2021, apparently the only safe way to transport information is a decidedly old-fashion one: by moving a physical body through meatspace! Yes, that physical body has data uploaded into a “wet-ware” brain, but the matter has to move nonetheless. Johnny is just a hard drive with legs. Yes, Johnny does some fancy footwork in cyberspace, such as in this extended sequence:

But this future world, with such sophisticated means of representing virtual spaces, and of accessing information through them, still relies primarily on the manipulation of people and objects in meatspace. Witness the other indelible image from this admittedly woeful film:

We see Johnny in this configuration multiple times. The data exceeds his disk space and leads to a constipation of sorts. There is simply too much information, and Johnny doesn’t know how to get it out (a gross metaphor, I know, but I think an appropriate one). The minds of the future cyberspace inhabitants may be overtasked, but that information overload registers its effects on their bodies. The future that takes place in the virtual space/time that is “Internet – 2021,” surprisingly privileges the flesh as the ground of all the action that matters.

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