A Sign of the Times Square

I could have guessed: the entrance to this station was as lit up as the doors to one of the shows on Broadway around it. I’d dodged photo ops with Batman and Captain America before ducking into this shelter. I should have known that this cave would not be just another little hole in the wall. It was a full scale museum. I’d browsed a full catalogue of art works in the subway, but had forgotten to count how many there were in the subway station at Times Square and 42nd Street. Since I did not have a floor plan, I would miss several, but the ones I saw were marvellous.

I came face to face with a wonderful mural by Roy Lichtenstein as soon as I entered. It shows an Art Deco future from a Buck Rogers comic book, so different from the reality of that future around it. Lichtenstein made the Times Square Mural on a commission from the MTA, so the juxtaposition is deliberate. Very often that future is talked of as an utopia never found. But this was the weekend of Charlottesburg, and I could not help thinking how much more vibrant the New York above ground is than the future of these musty old imaginations.

Apart from Roy Lichtenstein, one person who called out that Buck Rogers future is the science fiction writer William Gibson in a great story called The Gernsback Continuum. I had it in mind as I walked along the 16 meter long mural, admiring the bright colours and the last gathering of all of Lichtenstein’s life’s themes. The mural was installed in 2002, a couple of years after my few months in New York. This was the first time I’d seen it. Lichtenstein died in 1997, and this work from 1994 was one of his last major pieces.

There’s no there there

When I’m not travelling, I can spend time travelling in cyberspace. As my grandmother knew, it is a place first described by Gertrude Stein in 1937 as "There’s no there there"

The word cyberspace is said to have been invented by the cyberpunk writer William Gibson in his story Burning Chrome. His science fiction is often called prophetic. Wikipedia writes that before Gibson’s work science fiction was "widely insignificant". So it was fun to put together this table which correlates Gibson’s bibliography with hardware and software advances.

Year Publication Hardware Software
1982 Burning Chrome   Atari Virtual Reality lab founded; 4th anniversary of Minitel; emoticons invented
1984 Neuromancer 10th anniversary of the first PC (Altair 8800); 9th anniversary of the portable computer (IBM 5100); Telebit’s Trailblazer modem uses 18,432 bits/s 15th anniversary of internet; 10th anniversary of Maze war; 9th anniversary of Adventure
1986 Count Zero    
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive    
1990   Virtual reality headsets developed Birth of the web: HTML, CERN web server, CERN browser
1993 Virtual Light   NCSA Mosaic browser
1994   First smartphone (BellSouth’s Simon) IPv6 development starts; QR codes invented
1996 Idoru    
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties    

As you can see, in reality Gibson’s work trailed behind development in many ways. When he began writing, the internet was a decade old already, as was internet chat and usenet. In France people were already buying train tickets and shopping online via Minitel. His most wonderful image, of cyberspace as a consensual illusion which organizes all data, never came to pass. Cyberpunk was always steampunk,a re-imagination of old technology. But Gibson’s language still carries a certain resonance.