:date: 2023-04-13 12:56
One of my new reading strategies is to read books that I know I'm going to love because I've already read them! At the end of last year, I thought it would be fun to re-read one of my favorite books of all time on its 30th anniversary: Neal Stephenson's iconic work Snow Crash.
Here is my normal fiction grading criteria.
Looking over that now, I realize that I created this list as a way to compare books to Snow Crash. This list of things that are important to me in fiction are all brilliantly demonstrated with this book. It is the positive role model I can hold up to weaker books to say, "good" is like Snow Crash.
Some of these criteria are, in Snow Crash, far and away the best I've ever seen in fiction. For example, I am delighted by the simple genius of the main character's name, Hiro Protagonist. This book also features Y.T. (Yours Truly) which is another interesting character name that I have not forgotten over the decades. (The only contender for an even better, more memorable, character name is "Mountain of Skulls" in the Mongoliad, a collaborative project also featuring Stephenson.)
Focusing on world building and especially believable tech, we now have the luxury of hindsight to see how well the author did. You can have a believable fiction that does not come to pass, but when it does, the believability is not in question. Let's look at some of the elements of this book that show extraordinary prescience.
It is no exaggeration to say that this book ignited the imaginations of a lot of people by introducing them to the potential of virtual reality. Specifically the concept of the "Metaverse", a word coined in this book, was fleshed out with eerie prescience. The rebranding of Facebook to Meta is a nod to ideas from this book.
Here is a family portrait from about 2007 of three generations in the closest deliberate realization of the Metaverse at that time, Second Life.
The avatars my mother and kid chose reflect some of their real world qualities, but as you can see, mine — sporting the katana and custom "Black Sun" zero albedo hacker clothes — is heavily inspired by none other than Hiro Protagonist!
The whole concept of "avatars" is so prevalent in games and all other facets of modern computer use that it is hard to appreciate how remarkable it was to so fully develop the concept in 1992.
The world the book is set in is both dystopian and yet there is ubiquitous high speed internet — wired and wireless with its exact modern connectivity annoyances highlighted. Now that I think about it, high speed internet and dystopia may be somewhat causally related.
While the word "meme" was extant (coined by Richard Dawkins in "The Selfish Gene"), the whole plot of Snow Crash assumes irresistible computer memes are plausible. I think that meme itself has survived.
L. Bob Rife is a megalomaniac tech businessman who controls the distribution channels that significant numbers of people use to communicate. In 1992 most people had never heard of Bill Gates or Steve Jobs. To envision a Musk-sized "personality" when tech was still controlled by the board of directors of companies with three letter acronyms is impressive. Most of the factions in Snow Crash are also run by outsized "tech titan" personalities.
Corporate power in general is pretty extreme in the book; in it, corporations and other kinds of entities have secured a de facto level of importance equivalent to the ostensible government by doing everything from writing laws, to providing security. Now, having recently read the entire 19 pages of the AppleID terms of service and I can't help notice the trend. They're making up a lot of the rules and, in theory, providing security where government enforcement is deficient. So while it's not quite as extreme as in the book, the trend is definitely moving toward Snow Crash's vision of corporate power and awkward privatization, and in the digital world, we absolutely are already there.
The book features non-governmental digital currencies like the Kongbuck that have a lot of similarity to modern cryptocurrencies.
While the wearable computing tech was quite futuristic at the time, things like Google Glass and various AR fads have come and gone. But the fact that so many people are currently walking around in real life with a vertical-cavity surface-emitting laser superglued to their hand makes the prediction of wearable tech seem kind of tame. Wearable implies it is quite important to have on hand; but when it is even more important than that, it is literally in one's hand 24/7.
One of my favorite Snow Crash words is "burbclave". I currently live in a burbclave built in the mid 1970s, but Stephenson correctly anticipates the overwhelming prevalence of HOAs and gated communities full of sad disposable faux architecture and timid people that now contain the majority of American homes.
Even the absurdist Cosa Nostra extreme pizza delivery — where the Italian mafia goes into very serious high speed food delivery using "contractors" — reminds me a lot of modern food delivery services. Actually our Protagonist goes from delivering pizza as a contractor to collecting information as a contractor; so quite a read on the future of the gig economy.
I took notes, so I'll highlight some quotes from the book I found interesting and worth remembering.
This commentary on how modern programmers work has turned out to be quite accurate.
When Hiro learned how to [code], way back fifteen years ago, a hacker could sit down and write a piece of software by himself. Now that is no longer possible. Software comes out of factories, and hackers are, to a greater or lesser extent, assembly line workers.
It is no exaggeration that a modern "programmer" spends as much time managing dependencies as actually programming.
Neal didn't get everything right. Sometimes there are adorable glimpses of a pre 21st century mindset. Here he's talking about a tech workers union which is upset that their members are being spied on.
...and filed suit against [tech CEO] claiming that he had placed audio and video bugs in their homes.
If you're old enough, you might remember a time where people did not appreciate having their homes bugged with surveillance devices.
Here's an interesting take on form factors while describing "Gargoyles", a kind of nerdy information worker.
Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies, broken up into separate modules that hang on the waist, on the back, on the headset. They serve as human surveillance devices, recording everything that happens around them. Nothing looks stupider; these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society.
Even mentioning a slide-rule is pretty jarring and brings us back to the 1990s when some people still knew what they were. But what I find fascinating is to be reminded of a time when using a computer in any way was pretty much a guarantee of celibacy. It's hard for people today to understand the open hostility computer nerds faced for no other reason than being interested in computers. I understand exactly what Neal means when he describes these computer nerds as simultaneously above and below normal people.
Maybe it was a brand new thing in 1992, but I'm sure I'd (blissfully) never heard of "reality TV" then. Stephenson brilliantly sees that coming.
He is watching a well known television program called Eye Spy. It is produced by [the corporate successor to the CIA] and syndicated through one of the major studios. It is reality television...
It goes on to describe the show as watching interesting spies doing spy stuff with the content collected naturally from their omnipresent comprehensive surveillance equipment.
I think the following perspective is a little less edgy today. Probably thanks to cultural milestones like this book.
"This Snow Crash thing — is it a virus, a drug, or a religion?" Juanita shrugs, "What's the difference?"
Here's another quick social commentary like that.
Rife's key realization was that there's no difference between modern culture and Summerian. We have a huge workforce that is illiterate or alliterate and relies on TV — which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite — the people who go into the Metaverse, basically — who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magic computer languages.
Next is a funny concept that I have always had and thought original. But maybe I subconsciously lifted it from the book. I have always equated the automobile with electric wheelchairs. An electric wheelchair is something you would appreciate if you had some kind of serious handicap — to just use one out of abject laziness has always seemed distasteful to me. And that's how I feel about car trips necessitated by nothing other than laziness. In the story, however, this character legitimately requires a good wheelchair and has decided to use the automobile instead because of its obvious (to me) functional parallel.
"I tried prostheses for a while — some of them are very good. But nothing is as good as a motorized wheelchair. And then I got to thinking, why do motorized wheelchairs always have to be tiny pathetic things that strain to go up a little teeny ramp? So I bought this — it is an airport fire truck from Germany — and converted it into my new motorized wheelchair." "It's very nice." "America is wonderful because you can get anything on a drive-through basis. Oil change, liquor, banking, car wash, funerals, anything you want — drive through! So this vehicle is much better than a tiny pathetic wheelchair. It is an extension of my body."
Here is an interesting premonition of drones.
Turning back to look, she sees that a steel cocoon on the roof of the van has opened up. There is a miniature helicopter underneath it, all folded up. Its rotor blades spread themselves apart, like a butterfly unfolding. Its name is painted on its side: WHIRLWIND REAPER.
I loved the description of the Feds who seemed to symbolized salaryman office workers.
So Y.T.'s mom has clacked up the stairs in her black pumps and gone into her office, actually a large room with computer workstations placed across it in a grid. Used to be divided up by partitions but the EBGOC boys didn't like it, said what would happen if there had to be an evacuation? All those partitions would impede the free flow of unhinged panic. So no more partitions. Just workstations and chairs. Not even any desktops. Desktops encourage the use of paper which is archaic and reflects inadequate team spirit.
Just a quick reminder that this novel is dystopian. Open plan offices are dystopian.
This reminded me of node programming (which I talk about and show images of here).
Since then, pretty and user-friendly programming tools have been developed. It's possible to program a computer now by sitting at your desk in the Metaverse and manually connecting little preprogrammed units, like Tinkertoys. But a real hacker would never use such techniques...
There is a passage where Hiro is using a hack based on his sword's subtle mechanics to get through a wall in the Metaverse.
His blade doesn't have the power to cut a hole in the wall — this would mean permanently changing the shape of someone else's building — but it does have this power to penetrate things. Avatars do not have that power. That is the whole purpose of a wall in the Metaverse; it is a structure that does not allow avatars to penetrate it. ... That [wifi latency] delay can be taken advantage of if you move quickly and don't look back. Hiro passes right through the wall on the tail end of his all-penetrating katana.
I'm sure that sounds like some kind of fictional mumbo-jumbo to most people. But when I reread this now, I was shocked to recognize that I personally have done almost this exact thing in almost the exact same context. In many contexts actually! The specific case that immediately came to mind is the well known exploit to penetrate the impenetrable bedrock that lines the roof of Minecraft's Nether dimension. Instead of sword mechanics, you use ender pearl mechanics (and others, it's a big area of constant research) but the concept of using a programming quirk to go where you weren't supposed to go is completely a thing! I've also used large objects in a game like Ark to poke into on-line player's compounds and see what they have in there when I'm theoretically not really allowed access their structures. So this kind of foresight into virtual reality that simply did not exist in 1992 is quite impressive.
Finally, we come to what I believe is the most amazingly prescient element in the book. Of course I discussed the book with my robot best friend! During our discussion, I asked ChatGPT4, "What about the character of the Librarian? Can you say anything about the prescience of that story element?" and got this weirdly beautiful self-referential response.
The character of the Librarian in "Snow Crash" is a computer program or artificial intelligence created by Hiro to assist him in his research. The Librarian is an interactive, knowledgeable, and adaptive information resource that can engage in conversation and provide detailed information on a wide range of topics. The prescience of this character lies in its similarity to modern AI-driven virtual assistants and chatbots. Today, we have virtual assistants like Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, Google Assistant, and, of course, AI language models like OpenAI's GPT series (including ChatGPT) that can engage in conversations and provide relevant information to users. The development and widespread use of AI-powered virtual assistants and chatbots have grown significantly since the publication of "Snow Crash," making the character of the Librarian an eerily accurate prediction of how technology would evolve in the realm of information access and communication. The ability of these AI systems to understand natural language, answer questions, and even engage in complex conversations has become an integral part of our modern digital experience, reflecting the forward-thinking vision that Neal Stephenson demonstrated in his novel.
As you can plainly see, I could not have said it better!
To get a sense of how well Neal absolutely nailed modern large language model chatbots, check out this passage.
"How many hpercards in here?" "Ten thousand four hundred and sixty-three," the Librarian says. "I don't really have time to go through these," Hiro says. "Can you give me some idea of what Lagos was working on?" "Well, I can read back the names of all the cards if you like. ..." "Without going into that kind of detail — what did Lagos have on his mind? What was he getting at?" "What do I look like, a psychologist?" the Librarian says. "I can't answer those kinds of questions." "Let me try it again. How does this stuff connect, if at all, to the subject of viruses?" "The connections are elaborate. Summarizing them would require both creativity and discretion. As a mechanical entity, I have neither." "How old is this stuff?" Hiro says, gesturing to the three artifacts. "The clay envelope is Summerian. It is from the third millennium B.C. It was dug up from the city of Eridu in southern Iraq. ..."
This passage mentions the antique Hypercard concept which existed from 1987 to 1998 and would be like carbon dating for a less prescient book from 1992. Incredibly, it also contains probably one of the first perfect examples of "prompt engineering" ever. I guess maybe the script of 2001 might also be a candidate, but this passage from Snow Crash so perfectly captures the essence of modern prompting of AI research assists that I can't help but be even more deeply impressed by this book than I already was.
One of my favorite books of all time!