Dystopia Week

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash: ’92’s Eerie Cyber-Prophet

There are numerous types of dystopia, from socially-flawed super-advanced space faring civilizations to medieval re-imaginations. But, I think, one of the most frightening of dystopias is the one that is in the near future, and seems to be getting closer and closer. Snow Crash kind of fits that bill. Despite being written in 1992, there is still a lot in that book that resonates with today and makes it feel like the society Stephenson imagined could still be just around the corner.

Before I get too far in about the actual book, let me set the mood for when this was written. 1992: Bush Sr. was still the President of the United States. The economy was not doing too well, the Cold War was still pretty fresh in people’s minds, Russia was a crazy mess (crazier than it is today), and technology was advancing at a startling rate. Computers were running Windows 3.1, virtual reality was still mostly science fiction, and cell phones were carried around in suit cases, or for the bleeding edge technology, the size of large military two-way radios. Now, with all that in mind, hold onto your pants.

The United States has more or less collapsed. No, that isn’t quite right. It has eaten itself. The Federal Government is still there (heck, the President even has a cameo, although nobody recognizes him until he introduces himself). Businesses have become autonomous nation-states, and everything is privatized, from defense to police to the suburb you live in. The American economy has trundled out of control to the point of trillion dollar bills being worth about as much as a dime today, and Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong distributes the preferred money, Kongbucks, although the Japanese Yen is doing pretty well, too. In this dark and sinister age, America only has four things going for it: Movies, Music, Microcode (hacking), and High Speed Pizza Delivery.

Yeah, the last one is thrown in there to let us know to not take things too seriously, but for as tongue in cheek as this novel can be, it has some strong overtones of things there weren’t really around back then and are pretty big issues now. Let us examine:

The Internet

The internet as we really know it did not get off the ground until late 1992, when the Mosaic web browser was developed at the University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign (the same place that, in the novel 2001, brought HAL online, and where it so happens that I went to college). In Snow Crash, users link into a global network of computers via VR goggles and interact, trade data, go to what amount to 3-D websites, and play games. In fact, a good majority of the story takes place in the Metaverse, as it Stephenson calls it. Oh, and by the by, this network is run over large fiber-optic lines all over the world, but you can jack into it wirelessly, too. Sound familiar?

Cell Phones

Which brings us to cell phones. I remember 1992. As I said above, cell phones were amazing pieces of technology that were kept in small bags (at least the one my dad had in his car was). And here, everyone has a cell phone that is eerily similar to phones of today. Small and powerful. Granted, they don’t have GPS and Metaverse access…unless you consider the new technology the main character gets.

Mobile Computing

Laptop technology in ’92 was not exactly impressive. Color screens were becoming a “common upgrade” in ’91, and don’t forget that laptops have always lagged a bit behind their desktop brethren, and desktops were still nothing to write home about. Yet, Snow Crash has people called Gargoyles: people who have mobile computers on them that can jack into the network on the fly. Not to mention the main character, Hiro Protagonist (get it?), more or less has a fancy laptop in the beginning of the story and gets an even fancier mobile computer that straps to his chest and is more or less invisible later on. Almost sounds like my smartphone. Now, I’m starting to wonder exactly what Stephenson thought you could access from this Metaverse.

Digital Libraries

How about everything? While DVDs were somewhat out of his crosshairs, the digitization of information in general was spot on. From digital video to digital books. At one point, early in the story, we find out the fate of the Library of Congress, which merged with the leftovers of the CIA to become a giant information broker. In the process of this, it is mused over how people rarely think of libraries as places for books.

Small anecdote time. My first job was working in my high school’s library. This was back in ’97. The library barely had a searchable database for books, and most people still used the card catalog. Remember those? Card catalogs? I actually work with people who don’t. But, if we barely had a searchable database in ’97, I bet only the biggest and best funded libraries were even playing with the idea in ’92. Now we have eBooks and the Google Books project, not to mention Project Gutenberg. Then, there is another eerie prediction.

Google Earth

Yes, Stephenson predicted Google Earth, almost down to the interface and with street view. Hiro gets a copy of a program called “Earth” that at high levels has constantly updated satellite imagery, and at the lowest levels you can get images and data from people on the ground. Oh, and if you are in a decently fixed area, such as Manhattan, you can navigate it in three dimensions.

Okay, so this guy predicted technology pretty well, and perhaps a few of the ramifications of it. So what, you say. Even Jules Verne got several things right, including some of the stuff Stephenson is predicting here. What of it? Well, Stephenson’s dystopia had a few other things of interest.

DRM

Digital Rights Management, for those not in the know. Think the huge Napster kerfluffle, or the annoyance of trying to get your iTunes songs to play on a new computer, or how super new DVDs won’t play in older DVD players because the encryption has been changed. The skinny of it is that with data being so easy to reproduce, how does one actually protect and profit off of data they have made? I am sure plenty of people will chime in to be more elaborate.

In Snow Crash, the villain, a telecommunications tycoon, is concerned over this very thing. He has thousands of programmers working for him, and the product they are making for him, the microcode, goes home with them every night. As he sees it, if he was running a car factory, he would not let the workers drive the cars home, or borrow tools. So why do the programmers get to retain the knowledge? It is a bit of a jump forward in DRM extremism, but that, I think, is definitely an intellectual property argument if I ever heard one. You know, in a frightening, broken society where corporations can do whatever the heck they want. Of course, not everyone agrees with our villain.

Rogue Hackers

In the here and now, there is a group called Anonymous that have been in the news lately. Mainstream news doesn’t overly understand what they are. In a romantic sense, you could consider them a kind of digital Robin Hood. When Wikileaks’ funding sources were frozen, they crashed PayPal and the databases of Mastercard and Visa in response. Some members assist the protesting citizens in the Middle East, helping them communicate with each other and keeping the avenues to the internet open in spite of their governments. And they occasionally give a backhanded smack to people who nip at them for attention, such as a certain radical Baptist “church.” (It was pretty funny, though. They did it live during an interview.)

In the world of Snow Crash, there are plenty of random hackers, and Hiro, being one of the best, sure has an Anonymous-style attitude of going after The Man. What started as him just trying to squeeze out a buck turned into him becoming a rogue agent that eventually helped to save the day (with the help of a few other hackers).

The Conglomeration of Business

In Snow Crash, all of the world’s telecommunication lines are owned by one man, who ends up being the villain. Franchises and Corporations are the only way to get decent programs of any size out, and if you aren’t part of them, you might as well be the dirt on their boots. Inside the corporations, programmers aren’t even really sure of what they are programming, and are instead being given small, encapsulated bits.

Now, to any modern programmer, that is a “Yeah? So?” This kind of programming is extremely common in big businesses nowadays. I mean, just look at the number of people on the credits list for an Adobe Project, or a large video game. It is rather massive. Except, back in ’92, it was still very common for people to do all their programming themselves. Perhaps a small group could get together for larger projects, like making an operating system, but on the whole, a single person could do the most anything he might want to do. For comparison, look at the game credits on an NES cartridge. So, the “fear” of having to join a programming company is actually pretty understandable to the time. It is a loss of independence.

Memes

Okay, taking a topic jump here. (And I was doing so good at segueing…) Anyway, memes, you know, like lolcats, or “It’s a Trap,” or any of those little bits of information that get stuck in your head and just seem to scream out for you to share them. Sometimes call earworms.

Memes were hardly a new concept when Stephenson used them, although he did manage to avoid using the proper name. The concept of information being able to exhibit virus-like behavior (that is, to infect a host and then disseminate itself to new hosts) was posited back in the early 1900s. The word itself was coined by Richard Dawkins back in ’76, although, let’s be honest, memes didn’t really hit even semi-mainstream until “internet memes” became big.

In truth, the whole conflict of Snow Crash hinges on the concept of the meme, and that there is a basic language in all humans, a sort of assembly or machine language, that if they hear it, will override their consciousness and force them to do things. And all of this is caused by a virus that travels both biologically and informationally. Creepy stuff.

The Dystopia

So, aside from the wild technologies and trends Stephenson saw, there is another reason this book resonates very strongly, at least for me. It sounds awfully familiar, and I don’t mean I’ve read this somewhere before. In the book, the United States has pulled itself apart, re-segregated and decided to more or less ignore the government. Organized crime syndicates actually just start dealing the same as a regular business and can actually offer better security than the cops. The economy is a mess, and the public is only interested in distractions: movies, music, and microcode. (Yes, and pizza.) I’ll admit, I am not quite old enough to exactly remember the global political climate of the early 90s, but as I listed what I do remember above, it sounds a bit like now. Add on mass immigration concerns, religious intolerance concerns, and a distrust of government, and you get a recipe ripe to see the world of Snow Crash as not being all that beyond the realm of the possible. Stephenson’s timing might have been off—he has characters that fought in Vietnam, and the parents of the 30 year old hero and dragon tropes both were in World War II—but perhaps this possible future isn’t that far off after all.

If you haven’t read it, give it a whirl. It might just blow your socks off. Just a word of warning, it does get expositional in places, but the freaky part is, all the places he is talking about ancient Sumer and is dropping names of researchers, yeah, those are actual people he looked up and more or less was regurgitating. So you’ll get some history lessons, too. Not a bad deal.


Richard Fife is a writer, blogger, and carrier of more memes than he’d like to think about. He is currently writing a free-to-read illustrated, serialized steampunk novel, The Tijervyn Chronicles, and you can also follow him on Facebook and Twitter.

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