The other day, I found myself in an intense conversation about the potential of shared virtual reality with a senior engineer at one of the largest tech companies in Silicon Valley. I say a “conversation,” but if I were to be more frank, I would have to admit that for long stretches I was on the receiving end of a rant. My interlocutor’s argument was impassioned, utterly contrarian, and possibly correct. One thing he said in passing struck me as hyperbolic but nonetheless apt: “Never trust an engineer who isn’t fond of Snow Crash.”
I quickly agreed with him, taking the quip in the spirit in which it was offered. Reflecting on the comment later, it seemed that this is one of those rare jokes that is worthwhile to explain. Whatever the value of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash as a literary artifact — and surely it has its limitations on that score — it is one of those works that creates tropes rather than merely rehearses them, enlarging the scope of the easily thinkable. Much has been made of Snow Crash’s “predictions,” but the book did not so much predict technology as infuse its readers, many of whom were engineers, with a sense of new possibilities.
And so I thought I would revisit Hiro Protagonist and his world of franchulates, burbclaves, and, above all, the Metaverse. It seems odd to write a “review” of a novel now a quarter-century old. Instead, I’ll simply record some thoughts on why the novel made the impression it did in certain circles.
The first thing to grasp when reading Snow Crash is that it is a satire, a work that deliberately looks at the world through the lens of exaggerated, humorous motifs aimed at providing insight through magnification of salient traits. Snow Crash owes as much to the early Kurt Vonnegut as to William Gibson, with whom it is too easily associated under the label “cyberpunk.” Stephenson all but declares this intent in the well-known opening scene of the novel, a combination of ultra-high-speed car chase and pizza delivery that, we soon learn, has become the specialty of the Mafia in a bizarre future that reads as if Domino’s has come to be serviced by Mad Max.
As the novel progresses, the satire embraces not only the content of the narrative but its form. Stephenson notes in the book’s afterward that Snow Crash was originally conceived as a computer-generated graphic novel, and indeed, with its dual point of view and shifting timeframes, it reads a bit like hypertext, complete with expositional segments reminiscent of Wikipedia articles.
Within this satirical frame, Stephenson depicts an ecosystem of technologies and the social context in which they might be used. His depiction is far from utopian; on the contrary, it puts social decay and disintegration in full view, and yet it is often compelling enough to inspire emulation.
Snow Crash was published in 1992. Quite a few of the technologies that play a prominent role in the novel have real-world analogues that would only appear years later, including Google Earth (2001), Second Life (2003), Google Books (2004), YouTube (2005), Siri (2011), and Oculus Rift (2012). A few others, such as self-driving cars under voice control, are only incipient now.
Looming over all of these examples is, of course, the Metaverse, a social virtual reality in which large portions of the novel are set. Running over a fiber-optic network, the Metaverse is a fully realized shared world complete with private residences and a full range of businesses, from entertainment venues to offices.
For all of its analogues of future technologies, Snow Crash is far from a work of realism, and its satire points to a world that is not ours. For example, Stephenson envisions ubiquitous data collection monetized via search in the form of a Central Intelligence Corporation, a privatized successor to the CIA, still operating through human intelligence collection. In our world, this niche has been filled by Google. However, Google in its essence is not like such a privatized CIA, but rather something much stranger, so strange that Stephenson wasn’t able to imagine it. Like a computational Ouroboros, its data collection is not only fully automated but fed by the eager participation of its users. Google functions like a new species of media company in which integrated ad-placement targets consumers who simultaneously supply the content themselves.
The example of Google points to a broader blind spot of Stephenson’s. For all his prescience concerning technology, he largely misses the rise of tech companies that began in the late 1990’s. Representative of this lacuna is the chief antagonist of the novel, L. Bob Rife, who is modeled on the cable magnates of the 1980’s, a Ted Turner figure reimagined as a Bond villain. Rife seems to spend most of the novel on a converted aircraft carrier plotting world domination, certainly not producing new technology. In the world of Snow Crash, there are no tech companies reminiscent of Google or Facebook; the technology seems to be produced, rather implausibly, by the patchwork of territorial franchises that sprawl over the landscape. Stephenson seems oddly disinterested in the dynamics of commercialization that have actually brought us the technologies he envisioned. He has other, more esoteric, fish to fry.
Samuel R. Delany argued that science fiction works, in part, by literalizing what in realistic fiction would be metaphor. Snow Crash employs just such literalization in a messy tangle that would strain suspension of disbelief, if one were actually intended to suspend it. The governing metaphor of the novel, literalized within the narrative, is that of the virus. Stephenson posits biological viruses with pervasive neurological effects that change their hosts’ cognitive functions. These changes make the viruses like immensely powerful versions of Richard Dawkin’s memes, shaping thought and culture. The viruses give rise to cultural paradigms, sometimes embodied in religions, that come into conflict with one another.
From this conceit, Stephenson spins a backstory of an ancient Near-Eastern temple-based monoculture based on Jaynes’ bicameral psychology with Sumerian as its linguistic substrate. That monoculture was eventually destroyed by a new virus, evincing a kind of culture war as viral war. Taken literally, this backstory might remind one of an arcane thriller written by an over-enthusiastic autodidact. As a metaphor, Stephenson’s conceit corresponds to a real cultural dynamic that requires no viruses, namely, mimesis in the sense of Rene Girard.
Cultural paradigms, embodied in ideologies or religions, often spread through simultaneous imitation and conflict. Napoleon’s propagation of French Revolutionary culture through the rest of Continental Europe is one of many examples. Whether a new paradigm slowly arises as a mutation of existing forms or is the deliberate design of a few, to succeed it must exercise an attraction for a critical mass within a population, often beginning with a minority elite. Its tropes will then elicit mimesis among the broader population, often culminating in herd behavior. If the new paradigm gains sufficient momentum, it will disrupt the incumbent culture, potentially resulting in its creative destruction.
The Metaverse serves as a potent medium for such creative destruction because it brings about a greater time-space compression than any previous technology. Modern travel and communication technologies all reduce humanly effective spatial or temporal distances; the Metaverse, by allowing full social presence in a shared environment, practically eliminates them. In it social affordance, the Metaverse is a fully realized order parallel to the physical world, but with a greater degree of extensibility. More than the physical world, the Metaverse is a platform for development.
In the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist develops not only software but his identity, and here, too, the Metaverse outstrips the physical world. Like the corrugated patchwork of political units that cover the landscape through with Hiro rides, his identity in the physical world is fragmented, drifting in a kind of postmodern indeterminacy: “Hiro didn’t know whether he was black or Asian or just plain Army, whether he was rich or poor, educated or ignorant, talented or lucky.”
In the Metaverse, where one’s identity is manifest in one’s avatar, matters are quite different. The black-and-white avatars one might generate from a public terminal have the lowest status, signaling a lack of resource or care. Purchased off-the-shelf models, superficially attractive and customizable in vulgar ways, have a middling status. The highest avatars are the bespoke creations of hackers who have invested the time and effort to write their own. Hiro’s avatar, crafted with ingenuity, is among the best.
In the Metaverse, Hiro knows exactly who he is. He is a hacker, one who treats the Metaverse not merely as a world in which to act or a medium for social connection, but as a platform to be extended with creativity. It is the work of his hands, imitated by others.
Of course, the Metaverse is one of the novel’s technologies that has not yet come to fruition. Early web-based attempts, such as Second Life, were interesting but less than transformative. Shared virtual reality holds out the possibility of a platform that provides not only individual immersion but social presence from remote locations. If that were achieved, the mimesis of Snow Crash might become viral indeed.
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