So, I recently finished seminal cyberpunk/sci-fi satire Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. I read through it and was struck by the foresight displayed in the book—digital avatars, virtual reality, even those dog things totally reek of Internet-Of-Things-iness. Also, it has one of my all-time favourite openings of any book, ever. #Deliverator4life
Snow Crash was released in 1992.
Jeez. Kinda makes you think, yeah?
wasis an absolute visionary—to think about things like virtual reality when the Internet was really just a collection of table cells and text is just amazing.
In the book, Stephenson posits pretty much right on where the Internet and virtual reality have come in the intervening two decades—we have massive online environments, 3D renderings of people and things, even whole digital economies exist.
**I should probably put a spoiler tag here. Is it… Is it still a thing to put spoiler tags on something about a 20-year-old book? **
A big difference would be that for Stephenson, the internet has evolved into the interface, rather than containing it. People interact with the entire digital space through virtual reality—no static web pages or shopping cart icons—and that affects an awful lot, without even really seeming to. There’s very few lines of Matrix-style code spewing from a green-and-black screen in Snow Crash; instead, the digital world feels very much like the one in Tron, where programs, people and objects have physical dimensions and identities, even if it doesn’t really make sense that they would. The same way that it’s a little weird to have the fully autonomous Bit in Tron be just a floating ball, but an accounting program for some reason looks just like the person who programmed it, in Snow Crash, the physical buildings that house the data stores in the digital plane are a little… weird.
Probably the most amazing thing Snow Crash prefigured, though, was Google Earth. One of the most amazing scenes in the book is when Hiro gets access to the service and is able to download a fairly recently render of a photo a satellite took while passing over the big bad’s floating… whatever it is.
In Snow Crash, this service has huge implications. It’s dangerous and scary and very Big Brother Is Always Watching, but, like… maybe it’s not that big a deal. I feel like in the intervening time, we’ve gotten a little bit used to that idea. We know our digital selves exist to be monetized by whoever can access them the most fully, our entire online identities plundered for our search history, interests, whatever, and we can all access a fairly accurate photo of pretty much anywhere on the planet pretty much whenever we want with our phones.
I think the one thing that I’m still left a little puzzled by is the author’s insistence of drawing a parallel between machine language—the most essential, bare language a computer runs—and human language.
In Snow Crash, a person is essentially a computer, running a 20th century OS over top of a very ancient set of components. People are able to be hacked the same way a computer or an R/C car might be.
So, if we follow that, language becomes the same whether you’re a human or a computer. It’s sort of a layered thing, with meaning and truth compiling down to the basic 1’s and 0’s that power the person or PC. It’s programming.
Obviously the human mind is not a computer, and language is not imperative or functional the same way computer code is, but it’s an interesting thought. The idea that the modes of thinking we learn are as prescriptive of actions for us as a computer program might be for my Macbook is definitely not a radical one, that we take in bias, opinions, anything from a zeitgeist that kind of permeates everything, a thing that gets underneath everything.
I don’t have anything really profound to say about it, other than that parallel, when first introduced, felt… really gross to me in the book, but the more I turned it over, the more it spoke to me.
- Snow Crash
- Author: Neal Stephenson
- Published: 1992
- Set: 2000’s
- Read it? Yes, absolutely. The pacing’s a little funny, but Hiro Protagonist & YT are one of the best protagonist teams in fiction, and more than make up for any philosophical rambling that might take you out of the book.