William Gibson? Anonymous? Apocryphal?
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There is a quotation credited to the influential and award-winning science fiction author William Gibson that we’ve used on multiple occasions. But we are not certain whether Gibson said it:
The future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
If you’d care to investigate, you’d have at least a couple thankful fans here.
Quote Investigator: Gibson is a brilliant author, and this is a perceptive and piquant quotation. In 1990 he appeared in a documentary called “Cyberpunk”, and he discussed the differential access to technological developments based on wealth and location. He also stated a version of a key part of the maxim [CPWG]:
The future has already happened.
The earliest evidence for the full version of the saying was found by top quotation expert Fred Shapiro, editor of the Yale Book of Quotations, who kindly shared the citation with QI. In 1992 the San Francisco Examiner published an article about the nascent technology of virtual reality, and the journalist Scott Rosenberg credited a version of the adage to Gibson [WGSF]:
Once whole worlds can be simulated for the senses, the only way to assure the integrity of the public imagination will be to get the power to create those worlds out of the hands of an elite and into general circulation. As William Gibson put it: “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
With the help of Kevin Kelly, the co-founder of Wired magazine and a pivotal neoteric thinker, QI was able to obtain a comment from William Gibson about the genesis of this saying and where it might have appeared initially. Kelly relayed that “Gibson does not remember when he first said it, but it was not something he wrote.” Gibson stated [KKGO]:
The problem is that the idea would have preceded its first recorded public utterance by quite some time, in the way of these things. I would assume I thought it, then eventually said it to friends, and that by the time I said it in an interview (the most likely scenario) it had become an idea I took for granted. It wasn’t something generated to give a talk, nor was it in some essay or article.
Gibson can be heard employing a version of the maxim during a 1999 interview on National Public Radio. He was complimented for the accuracy of his predictions by the interviewer and was asked if he read the technical literature. Gibson said that he “read very little technical literature at all” and then he downplayed his predictive skills [NRTN]:
…actually I spend a lot of my time, a lot of my media time trying to disown my prescience…
… as I’ve said many times the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.
Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.
A central part of the quotation under investigation asserts that the future has already arrived. This is only part of Gibson’s trope, but it is a vital piece, and it has been expressed by several other thinkers in the past. In 1967 an article about the famed communication theorist Marshall McLuhan criticized him because the author felt he misjudged the time-sequence of developments [CTFA]:
McLuhan suffers also from a mixed-up time sense. He believes the future has already happened. He often says most people can see thru the rearview mirror, but he seems to have the opposite fault. He appears to think total automation is upon us, that the whole world is linked as “global village” by TV, that even space travel is now a reality.
In 1982 the well-known futurist Alvin Toffler expressed a thematically related idea. He emphasized the immediacy of the future [CSAT]:
In his first major book since the prize-winning “Future Shock,” Alvin Toffler says, the future already has begun. Or, put another way, the present has long since begun to grind to a halt.
In September 1989 the UK newspaper The Independent printed an article that rhetorically conflated the future and the present. The correspondent singled out one particular locality where he claimed that the future was already manifested [JPFH]:
Tokyo: last stop before the planet Mars: In Japan, the world’s most technologically sophisticated society, the future has already happened, says Peter Popham
Japan is the country where the future has already happened. Three weeks ago in Tokyo, computer whizz Ken Sakamura unveiled his ‘Tron Intelligent House’, the first working prototype of the totally computerised home.
Implicit in the above description is the notion of a future that has arrived with an uneven distribution. Japan is one of the foci of present-tense futurity. But the author Popham never eloquently and compactly stated this thesis as Gibson did later.
In October 1989 the famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, published an article in the Economist with the title “The futures that have already happened” [PDFH]:
The trends that I have described above are not forecasts (for which I have little use and scant respect); they are, if you will, conclusions. Everything discussed here has already happened; it is only the full impacts that are still to come. I expect most readers to nod and to say, “Of course”. But few, I suspect, have yet asked themselves: “What do these futures mean for my own work and my own organisation?”
In 1990 a documentary titled “Cyberpunk” was released that featured extensive interview footage with William Gibson. He expressed the two primary themes embodied in the quotation:
(1) The uneven distribution of technological advancements
(2) The presence of the ‘future’ within the present
The documentary has been split into five parts that can be viewed on YouTube. Here is an excerpt of Gibson’s remarks [CPWG]:
I think in some very real sense part of the world’s population is already posthuman. Consider the health options available to a millionaire in Beverly Hills as opposed to a man starving in the streets in Bangladesh.
The man in Beverly Hills can, in effect, buy himself a new set of organs. I mean, when you look at that sort of gap, the man in Bangladesh is still human. He’s a human being from an agricultural planet. The man in Beverly Hills is something else. He may still be human, but he, in some way, I think he is also posthuman. The future has already happened.
In 1992 the journalist Scott Rosenberg writing in the San Francisco Examiner credited William Gibson with the maxim as mentioned previously in this article. This is the earliest citation known to QI [WGSF]:
As William Gibson put it: “The future has arrived — it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
In September 1993 a profile of Gibson was printed in USA Today. He did not employ the quotation, but he made a consonant remark [USWG]:
Just don’t ask Gibson to talk about tomorrow. The modern-day George Orwell says: “I’m not trying to predict the future. I’m trying to let us see the present.”
In April 1994 an article in “The Seattle Times” titled “Job Opportunities along the Information Superhighway” concluded with an invocation of the words attributed to Gibson. This is the second earliest citation for the quotation known to QI [STWG]:
Ultimately, cyberpunk science-fiction author William Gibson may have the best assessment of what’s going on: “The future has arrived – it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”
In September 1995 the “Rocky Mountain News” of Denver, Colorado printed a version of the saying [RMWG]:
“There’s a great (cyberpunk writer) Bill Gibson line: ‘The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed,’ ” said Electronic Frontier Foundation co-founder and Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow.
In July 1996 the Washington Post published a story discussing research on wearable computer systems. In the mid-1990s systems using bulky visors and head-mounted video cameras resulted in a Borg-like appearance. The journalist John Schwartz deployed an entertaining variant of the adage under investigation [WPBT]:
The future is already here, it’s just in beta testing, the high-tech world’s final smoothing-out of kinks before products and services go public.
In conclusion, the evidence is strong that William Gibson used this expression and QI believes that he created it. However, the precise wording varies and the earliest citations do not appear in Gibson’s writings.
(Many thanks to Elizabeth who inquired about this saying at the Freakonomics website, and thanks to Jason Freidenfelds who inspired the formulation of this question.)
[CPWG] 1990, Cyberpunk (Documentary), Directed by Marianne Trench, Produced by Peter von Brandenburg, An Intercon Production. [Excerpt occurs in Part 3 of 5 parts; Timecode 12:20 of 14:59] (Video available in 5 parts on youtube; Viewed on 2012 Janaury 24) link
[WGSF] 1992 April 19, San Francisco Examiner, Section: Style, “Virtual Reality Check Digital Daydreams, Cyberspace Nightmares” by Scott Rosenberg, Page C1, San Francisco, California. (WestLaw Campus)
[KKGO] Private communication via email from Kevin Kelly to Garson O’Toole dated November 14, 2011. The message contained an excerpt of a response from William Gibson.
[NRTN] 1999 November 30, National Public Radio: NPR: Talk of the Nation, The Science in Science FIction, Interview with William Gibson, [Quotation is spoken around 11:50] (Accessed npr.org on 2012 January 19) link
[CTFA] 1967 June 11, Chicago Tribune, The Last (The Very Last) Word On Marshall McLuhan by Ralph Thomas, Start Page I29, Quote Page I51, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
[CSAT] 1982 February 12, Christian Science Monitor, Section: Monthly Book Review, “Pick of the paperbacks; The Third Wave, by Alvin Toffler”, Page B3, Boston, Massachusetts. (LexisNexis)
[PDFH] 1989 October 21, The Economist, The futures that have already happened, Section: World politics and current affairs; Peter Drucker’s 1990s, Page 19 (UK Edition Page 27), The Economist Group, London. (LexisNexis)
[USWG] 1993 September 2, USA Today, “William Gibson’s cy-fi reality – His future is closer than you think” by Elizabeth Snead, Section: LIFE, Page 1D, Gannett Co., Inc. (NewsBank)
[STWG] 1994 April 3, The Seattle Times, Job Opportunities Along the Information Superhighway by Steven Spenser, Section: Business, Page J1, Seattle, Washington. (NewsBank)
[RMWG] 1995 September 1, Rocky Mountain News, Conflict Certain in Cyberspace By Cyrus McCrimmon, Page 78A, Denver, Colorado. (NewsBank)
[WPBT] 1996 July 3, Washington Post, The Site-Seers’ Guide to Some Way-Out Internet Futures by John Schwartz, Page: A1, Washington, D. C. (NewsBank)