Famous quotes from nowhere

by Eszter Hargittai on February 16, 2004

Sometimes quotes take on a life of their own. They become famous and get attributed to someone without anyone citing a traceable origin. I ran into such a problem about five years ago when I wanted to use a quote by Herbert Simon in an article. The quote was this:

What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients. Hence a wealth of information creates a poverty of attention, and a need to allocate that attention efficiently among the overabundance of information sources that might consume it.

I remember doing all sorts of searches online to figure out the exact source of that quote. But others using those lines either cited no source or pointed to a piece by Hal Varian in Scientific American as the source of the quote. I checked out that article, but there was no citation. What to do? I ended up contacting Hal Varian directly for the source and he very kindly provided a pointer to it (p.40.).

I was reminded of this today when I saw a message on a mailing list wondering about the source of the quote “The future is already here; it’s just unevenly distributed.”. It is often cited and attributed to William Gibson, but without an exact reference anywhere. A blogger cites an issue of The Economist, but I can’t track the quote down in the archives of The Economist. In fact, The Economist didn’t even seem to have an issue published on the date cited. Maybe a blogger intern isn’t such a crazy idea after all.

I looked up the quote using Amazon’s “search inside” feature. The one instance in which there is a source (page 15 of this book) the author cites personal communication in November 1999.

Maybe Brad DeLong can help.:) (see the last paragraph in that piece)



Erik 02.16.04 at 9:41 pm

I once had to find the source of De Gaulle’s famous assertion that it is impossible to govern a country that makes ## cheeses. Googling the crack disclosed innumerable references in French, English, and other languages, which revealed wide variation in the exact form of the quote and, especially, the number of cheeses. The counts ranged from a low of 246 to a high of 700,


Kip 02.16.04 at 10:12 pm

I always liked this site for trying to figure out who said something like this:

bq. If a man is not a socialist by the time he is 20, he has no heart. If he is not a conservative by the time he is 40, he has no brain.

There’s more attempted provenances.


Brad DeLong 02.17.04 at 12:09 am

I got it from Bruce Sterling…

http://cyberdash.com/node/view/154 says:

“In his 2002 Inventing the Future, Tim O’Reilly quotes William Gibson: “The future is here. It’s just not evenly distributed yet.” That’s the first time I read it, and I’ve liked it so much that I used it in the header of this site.

“However, I’ve been wondering for quite a while where–and in what context–it was first used. Try Google, and you’ll find plenty of returns, as well as some variations which give it the feel of something that’s been passed on for quite some time. It’s clear that many people are using it without knowing the citation.

“Searching a large database of print texts with Amazon’s new text search reveals Ukens’ What Smart Trainers Know reference that it is from a Gibson personal communication in November 1999. Meanwhile, a 2001 alt.cyberpunk thread says that it’s from a radio show; unfortunately, linkrot prevents checking the primary source. But even more confusing is a 2000 alt.folklore.computers post attributing variations of the phrase to Bruce Sterling as early as 1993.

“Is it possible that Sterling should get some of the credit, or is it all Gibson? And if so, what is the earliest known usage?”


nnyhav 02.17.04 at 2:14 am

On the Shoulders of Giants

LRB & NYT on André Bernard’s ‘Madame Bovary, c’est moi’:

“Kurt Vonnegut’s reply when asked where he got his characters from: ‘Cincinnati,’ he said.”

The above quote was Harlan Ellison, his ideas, and ‘Schenectedy’. Both reviewers took the same hook (line & sinker) and ran with it; what bemused was that Bernard joins the ranks of those putting others’ words in Vonnegut’s mouth.


Alex Halavais 02.17.04 at 2:15 am

Saw the same question (likely on the same list) and had the same response: Amazon’s inside the book. I wonder how many people now consider this a vital part of their search repertoire? I bet Amazon’s logs show an interesting spike on that particular phrase.

(It makes fairly short work of your earlier question, BTW.)


nnyhav 02.17.04 at 2:31 am

OTSOG: I will also note (for d^2’s amusement) that author Robert K. Merton (tracking the aphorism back to Bernard[!] of Chartres) therein cites son Bob (C.), whose subsequent work has now been extended to valuation of credit derivatives …


PanJack 02.17.04 at 5:00 am

Trival addition:

The most frequently cited bit of Dostoevsky’s writing is, “If God does not exist, everything is permitted.”

Dostoevsky never wrote this. Rather, Jean Paul Sartre attributed these words to Dostoevsky and others have presumed that Sartre was quoting Dostoevsky (when he wasn’t).


Jeffrey Kramer 02.17.04 at 6:46 am

A quick search of the online Brothers Karamazov found this:

‘But what will become of men then?’ I asked him, ‘without God and immortal life? All things are lawful then, they can do what they like?’

At least a close cousin of the quote Sartre attributed to Dostoevsky.


Andrew Brown 02.17.04 at 9:36 am

From an Interview I did with Gibson for the London Sunday Express, my copy dated 29 March 2000. He said: “We’ve lost our sense of the future as something up ahead up past the windscreen. The future is already here and it is very unevenly distributed and it arrives in bits and pieces constantly. Most readers must realise to some extent today that we?re not likely to get to a point where it simply is the future. that’s why it’s impossible to write science fiction in the old sense. There is no arrival point.”


eszter 02.17.04 at 4:18 pm

Thanks, Andrew. On LexisNexis I found an April 2, 2000 article that has the same quote. It’s curious that the dates are different.


Barry Wellman 02.17.04 at 4:57 pm

I was the guy who started the hunt for the William Gibson quote.

“As I’ve said many times, the future is already here. It’s just not very evenly distributed.”

There is a lot of misleading information. It is Not in his Neuromancer, altho a lot of folks think it is. And Google is filled with folks quoting Gibson as saying this, but without attribution.

The hunt for the quote is partially over.

Ren Reynolds and Ellen Pozzi both pointed me to an NPR “Talk of The Town” US radio) broadcast in which William Gibson uttered the magic sentence.

I have downloaded and listened to the show (which also has 2 other SF people on it).

This is hard. This exists. It is citable.

However, note the “As I’ve said many times,…” which means there should be earlier citations.

Although I’ve stopped looking, here’s the coordinates as supplied by Ren Reynolds:

NPR Talk of the Nation
30 November 1999
Timecode: 11min 55sec
Link: discover.npr.org/features/feature.jhtml?wfId=1067220

I found a different URL, from Ellen Pozzi’s info:

Thanks to all those on the AOIR and CITS list who contributed to the treasure hunt, even to those who insisted on the false Economist leads. (Economist was just attributing to Gibson himself, without interviewing WG or having an article by him).

If you like this sort of sleuthing, I urge you to read sociologist Robert Merton’s wonderful book, _On the Shoulders of Giants_ (a Shandian romp).


bryan 02.17.04 at 8:04 pm

‘….At least a close cousin of the quote Sartre attributed to Dostoevsky.’

If I write a story where character A says “God Exists” and character B says “God does not Exist” does this mean that both statements are attributable as statements made by me?


Jeffrey Kramer 02.18.04 at 4:31 am

If I write a story where character A says “God Exists” and character B says “God does not Exist” does this mean that both statements are attributable as statements made by me?

In the case of Dostoevsky, so far as I know, the evidence (internal and external) clearly points to his being on the side of the character who fearfully predicts that the loss of faith in God will result in moral anarchy. So I’d argue that “Dostoevsky says…” is acceptable shorthand.


Andrew Brown 02.22.04 at 9:03 pm

Just to wrap this small question: my copy is dated when I wrote, and filed, the interview. Google presumably has the publicaiton date. Someone must have typed or scanned it in, becasue the Express was not, I think, on the web then.


Christopher 02.23.04 at 2:20 am

I have often seen the quote attributed to Keynes, “the market can stay irrational longer than you can stay solvent.” But I have not found any specific primary citation — to, say, a specific book or article of Keynes, a lecture or letter … whatever. I have begun to suspect it is apocryphal, although it is such a frequently useful quote it deserves an honest sourcing.

Can anybody help?

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