The Origin of Jacking In

My First Time in Cyberspace

“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.”
- William Gibson, Neuromancer (1)

In truth, I can trace it all back to this single line of text. When I was 13 years old, I loved weaving my way through seemingly endless stacks of books at the public library. I would scan their half-forgotten covers— looking for nothing in particular — and allow the title-gods to direct me towards my next read.

On this particular day, my attention was drawn to an unassuming, blue-green spine emblazoned with a single, bright-red word — Neuromancer. It was written by William Gibson, a man known for his pioneering work in cyberpunk and speculative fiction, but I didn’t know at the time that I had found the defining novel of the cyberpunk genre. And in a spark of serendipity, I slid Gibson’s novel off the shelf to preview its classic opening lines.

I had no idea that his words would shape the rest of my life.

Photo by FredArmitage

As I rocketed through the rest of the novel, I became deeply acquainted with one of Neuromancer’s defining motifs: the ubiquitous presence of neural implants. In Gibson’s fictional universe of The Sprawl — a massive urban environment stretching across the entire East Coast — advanced technology is easily accessed by all social classes. Everyone is able to “jack in” to “cyberspace,” which Gibson describes via a children’s TV show as:

“A consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation, by children being taught mathematical concepts… A graphic representation of data abstracted from banks of every computer in the human system. Unthinkable complexity. Lines of light ranged in the nonspace of the mind, clusters and constellations of data. Like city lights, receding…”
- William Gibson, Neuromancer (37)

By describing fully-immersive virtual environments with his captivating language, Gibson suddenly made so many impossible feats — everything from the spatial representation of computer hacking to the transfer of sensory data between bodies — seem plausible once neural implants were a reality. And, like most inductees to Gibson’s fictional universe, I finished Neuromancer wanting more.

From Cyberpunk to Neuroscience: Expanding My Scope

Soon enough, I was an avid fan of cyberpunk fiction. By moving through countless masterpieces — from Stephenson’s Snow Crash to The Wachowski’s The Matrix — I familiarized myself with the genre’s idiosyncratic style. And due to its near-constant representation of neural implants in a plausible, though rarely positive, light, I became further enamored by this concept. Though still restricted to fiction, I have no doubt that this period of my life acted as the catalyst for my mature musings on real instantiations of this technology. For, it seems, you can’t entertain the reality of an idea until you’ve dreamt it.

Due to the influence of Gibson and other writers, my last years of high school shifted from cyberpunk fantasies to the exploration of neuroscience from a Transhumanist perspective. I would read everything from The Singularity is Near to Principles of Neural Science, follow Humanity+ and the 2045 Initiative, and discover the work of Theodore Berger and Dong Song: two collaborating professors at USC who created a memory prosthetic for mice in 2004, then for Parkinson’s patients in 2017.

Additionally, I became fed up with the monotony of my daily deluge of schoolwork, trained myself to parse through dense scientific and philosophical texts, and decided to write a coherent case for the use of neural implants to augment the human condition. And that’s why, in spring 2017, I was accepted into the Resident Honors Program at USC: a program which allowed me to skip my senior year, move out to sunny California, and begin my college experience in proximity to some of my greatest inspirations.

Photo by Paintimpact

College and Computation: My Current State

Now a fully-fledged student at USC, I have decided to major in computational neuroscience with a biomedical focus. In this way, I will develop the technical skills and domain-specific knowledge that will allow me to make aspects of Neuromancer a reality.

However, this is not to say I don’t recognize the absurdity of orienting my life on the basis of a cyberpunk novel; I know all too well how crazy it sounds. But since coming to USC, I have deeply engaged with the harsh truths of engineering neural implants in the real world: size, power, ethics, etc. Additionally, I have begun collaborating with Hires Lab, where we are mapping the somatosensory cortex of mice in order to allow amputees or spinal cord patients to feel their environment via “synthetic perception.”

Every day, I become more disillusioned with my childhood, sci-fi dreams. Yet this does not make me want to stop trying. Still connected with my cyberpunk roots, my mind is now trained on what we can do right now to optimize the use of neural implants for human flourishing — whether this involves starting a conversation on the technology, engaging with it as a thought experiment, or learning how to engineer it for yourself.

This is what I’d like to share with you on Jacking In. Will you join me?

Comments, questions, or suggestions? Feel free to leave them in the comments section below, or personally contact me here.


Originally published at GarrettFlynn.com.