Here’s Johnny!

William Gibson’s short story Johnny Mnemonic first appeared in Omni magazine in 1981, before being published in his Burning Chrome collection in 1986. It takes place in the same world of Gibson’s cyberpunk novels, Neuromancer, Count Zero and Mona Lisa Overdrive and, in the 1995 movie at least, starts on 17 January 2021.

Johnny MnemonicMuseum of Arts and Design
Artist Robert Longo’s directorial debut, Johnny Mnemonic adapts for the big screen William Gibson’s story of the same name. Set in a dystopian 2021, when megacorporations rule the world, the movie features Keanu Reeves as Johnny, a “mnemonic courier” who discreetly transports information too sensitive to carry over the Net via a special device implanted into his brain—a career that’s cost him his childhood memories. Hoping to recover them through an expensive surgery, Johnny agrees to one last job, which requires him to download more information than his implant can handle.

2021 and the conspiracies of Johnny MnemonicWIRED
Johnny is a digital-era delivery guy. If you need some data transported hypersecurely, simply load it into his head and off he goes: your very own walking—more often running, from bad guys—USB air-gapped meatstick. So what if the gig comes with memory lacunae and the risk, in the event of information overload, of brain-burst, to say nothing of the Yakuza at your back, who are more than happy to carry out a file transfer by way of decapitation? It pays well, and you look cyber-cool doing it.

Gibson’s cyberspace was always bound up with the body. Data can be wet-wired; manipulating files requires Power Gloves and an “Eyephone.” When Johnny jacks in, it kind of hurts. Such meat-meets-metal has, in the quarter-century since Johnny Mnemonic came out, been called a failure of prediction. Our internet ended up disembodied, virtualized, socially distanced, our iPhones more of a figurative prosthesis. Yet, this last year, we sat slack at our desks, muscles atrophying, nerves attenuating, as we doomscrolled our way to new aches, new anxieties, new ailments. Some wild-eyes went so far as to claim that 5G triggered the pandemic, which is the most Gibson-sounding conspiracy of all. In Johnny’s world, the black shakes are caused not by a virus but by a signal. Epidemic through technic. There’s something in the air, no matter what you do. You’re already sick, you’re already dying. Connectivity is killing you.

Looking back at Johnny MnemonicDen of Geek
Really, it’s pretty difficult to figure out exactly why this film doesn’t live up to the brilliance of Gibson’s material, and why it didn’t find a wider audience. It may be down to the studio’s interference – allegedly, the film was re-cut shortly before its release, to be more mainstream; Gibson himself attests that the rough cut was funnier and more alternative. It may also be that the general cinema-going audience may not have known what to make of it – it was science-fiction, yes, but without the usual tropes they might expect of the genre. Virtual reality had also been done before, and Johnny Mnemonic’s cyberspace sequences are similar to those seen in 1992’s The Lawnmower Man, and 1995’s Virtuosity also played around with the concept a few months later – really, audiences were promised nothing new. And, of course, nobody knew The Matrix was only four years away, which would redefine the way in which simulated realities had been presented in films forever.

Can technology make you sick, like ‘NAS’ does in Johnny Mnemonic?Syfy Wire
The real risk of exposure to technology might exist not in the technology itself, but in our relationship to it. It’s true that excessive internet usage is linked to depression. What’s unclear is which factor is the instigator. One interpretation of the data suggests that excessive internet usage causes depression. This makes intuitive sense as the information most readily available online is overwhelmingly negative. Another interpretation is that those predisposed to depression exhibit higher internet usage. […]

NAS or the Black Shakes, the physiological disease showcased in Johnny Mnemonic, has yet to rear its head, but the psychological impact of constant information demanding attention can have real consequences. And we all need to be aware of where we devote our attention, what society is demanding from us, and how we navigate an ever-changing and increasingly digital landscape.

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

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