(2014-03-24) Hon SnowCrash Rereading

Dan Hon: Episode Forty Four: Snow Crashing. If you were going to read Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash again... then you might re-read it substituting all the stuff that didn't exist when Neal Stephenson wrote it with all the stuff that does exist now.

Deliverators don't exist and they certainly don't belong to an elite order

Where we might be seeing a weak signal of a new Deliverator is in the Uber and Lyft drivers of the present - mob run companies (just you wait) who emphasise customer service, quantification and big data

who at some point might emphasise personal security and shit-hot rides to get you from A to B before the light stops blinking to ensure top ratings and continued employment.

All that's missing is Uber getting into the personal loan business

Despite having more advertising than ever, it appears that we don't have that persistent background visual noise of loglo.

Burbclaves? Got them, but they got hollowed out by the mortgage crash

Hiro's business card is pretty interesting.

But the address on half a dozen electronic communications nets? Try just one: his email address. And the address in the metaverse? Just the one URL. For all the talk we see later in the novel of hypermedia, one missed observation is that Hiro's business card only needs one pointer, one URL, for anyone to find him.

Hiro's main "job", though, as freelancer stringer for the CIC. Now that's weird. It's almost as if Stephenson needed to retcon some sort of job for the overqualified underutilised information worker who just kind of hangs out and picks up on useful information.

These days, of course, Hiro would be a blogger and maybe have a nice little Adsense business on the side. Or a writer for Buzzfeed.

Episode Forty Five - Station Ident; Snow Crashing 2; Computers, AMIRITE?; A Book on your Face

The Street and The Metaverse are probably the most stupendously (perhaps temporarily) wrong things for Stephenson to have gotten.

I can't work out whether Stephenson is being smart with the Street and the Metaverse or if he missed a fundamental point about networks and computing infrastructure which is that scarcity isn't really a problem

And then there's the bit where Stephenson breaks down the economics of the Street in ways that I think are completely alien to the VC and growth fueled universe that we live in right now. In the universe of Snow Crash, there's a total human population of around six to ten billion people - matching up to what we have now. Of those, perhaps a billion have enough money to have a computer, and of those only a quarter of them bother to own one, and then a quarter of those have hardware powerful enough to render the Street. That's a TAM of sixty million, plus, he says, but you get to add another sixty million who visit from public terminals. Only a hundred and twenty million total users! At any given time, he says, the Street is populated by double the population of New York City, giving a daily active user count of about 16 million which, by today's standards, is a bit shit.

It makes me think that Stephenson and Hiro are trying to point something out about humans actually liking scarcity.

Episode Forty Six - Snow Crashing 3; Video is a Content-Type; Blame Your Tools

So while YT's RadiKS Mark II Smartwheels use sonar, laser rangefinding and millimeter-wave radar to identify mufflers and other debris, the only place where you'll encounter the whole package right now are self driving Google Cars.

This is another opportunity to remind ourselves about the other big thing that Stephenson - and a lot of other people - missed. Ubiquitous wireless data, or even the concept of wireless data at all, just doesn't figure in Snow Crash's toy universe. YT has a visa to White Columns, but it's encoded as a barcode on her chest, and a laser flicks out to scan it as she rides past. No RFIDs here or Bluetooth iBeacons or short-range wireless coms - it's as if she literally has a QR code pasted to her chest, ready to be read by anyone.

Episode Forty Nine: Living In An Immaterial World; Snow Crashing 4; Odds

In Chapter 5, we're back on the Street, and Neal Stephenson has just introduced people to the concept of avatars for the first time

Again, there's something intrinsic about three-dimensional embodied environments that kind of messes with everything we've been used to in general interaction with computer interfaces. Stephenson points out that you can't just materalise anywhere - that's rude

we can take cues from our massively multiplayer 3D FPSes - and we know that those quickly solved those concepts - in combat multiplayer instances, at least - in the form of (re)spawn points, not least of which because even if it's not rude, it's disorientating

In the Metaverse, indeed, in the entire toy universe, the concept of linking and hypermedia appears to only exist inside a discrete object: the hypercard.

It's as if the web was chopped up into bits and then you had to use a piece of semi-sentient software to use it, the Librarian, to browse it. That's just weird.

And that's where the physicality of the Stephenson's Metaverse falls down: it doesn't embrace the link. You can't teleport. The Metaverse is a single globe (so we're told), and you have to physically travel from one place to another

Episode Fifty: Cities; Snow Crashing 5; More Television

"when Hiro learned how to [code], a hacker could sit down and write an entire piece of software himself. Now, that's no longer possible."

even fifteen years ago, wasn't exactly possible - there was definitely a whole bunch of reliance on libraries

Stephenson means Hiro was writing the application code single-handedly. Which, even now, is still possible.

These days, says Stephenson, "software comes out of factories, and hackers are, to a greater or lesser extent, assembly-line workers."

This worry about going back to get a regular job preys on Hiro's mind - he's scared of becoming an assembly line worker, or worse yet, a manager, but it's clear (especially later on in the book) that he is the prototypical ninja developer. He could probably have whatever job he wanted, and Juanita makes that clear later on. Hiro, it seems, has Issues he has to deal with.

Episode Sixty Four: Computer Says No, Snow Crashing

Anyway: photocopy dude who's slightly taller than everyone else in the crowd for a reason that doesn't stack up manages to grab Hiro's attention. Which is another way of saying: look at the attention economics of this place

The card that pusher hands to Hiro is a Hypercard - as Stephenson explains, a hypercard is "an avatar of sorts" - by which we're explained it's an avatar in the way that it exists in the metaverse and it's a representation of information, just the same way that an avatar is a representation of a human. The hypercard is a representation of data, such data being anything that can be digitised.

Stephenson was so close to describing something like the internet because he had what a lot of people consider in some ways to be a grandparent to the web with his hypercard analogue, and also a global telecommunications network with stupendously low latency and high bandwidth. But all that was missing was the humble link anchor.

Episode One Hundred and Forty Three: Email; Snow Crashing (10); 2014 (4)

you're kind of looking at the Metaverse and thinking: what exactly is it? I mean, is it like OpenGL? Because that explains the comment about collision-avoidance algorithms, but doesn't explain something like what "the Street" is and how the street can have (or not have) collision-avoidance algorithms. And is what Stephenson really saying is that there are different avatar display rules for different areas of the Metaverse?

People come to The Black Sun - the businessmen in the Nipponese quadrant, to be clear - because it is "just as good" as real-life, but we don't get any indication that this practical high-def VR conferencing software hasn't been licensed out anywhere else.

I'm really interested to see if, post-public-Oculus and its backing from a multinational, billion-user social network, we actually end up with something like what Stephenson suggests with The Black Sun. I mean, we kind of had it with Habbo Hotel, we didn't really have it with Second Life (because the deal with Second Life wasn't so much social as it was Hey! Build stuff in 3D! and the deal with Habbo Hotel and Virtual Magic Kingdom and all the other stuff was "chat software rocks"). No, I mean the whole thing about movie stars using it to "visit with their friends" and "strut their stuff". I mean, seriously. We're about 12 months out from seeing if this is actually going to happen, and that's pretty phenomenal. Put it this way: you think single-camera amateur YouTube shows are a big thing? Imagine live streaming from an Oculus Rift instance, and allowing people to drop by. This is like some weird virtual talk-show shit.

Episode One Hundred and Eighty Seven: Snow Crashing (10); How The Web Works Now

the frighteningly realistic, non-uncanny-valley effectiveness of "Juanita's faces". See, the Nipponese businessmen do business here in the Black Sun: paying attention to facial expressions and body language and there's that phrase again: condensing fact from the vapour of nuance, synthesist style.

Da5id notices him and "indicates with a flick of his eyes that this is not a good time." We're told that normally such subtle gestures are lost in the noise, but not this time: not only does Da5id have a "very good personal computer", but Juanita also helped design his avatar, so his message is received "like a shot fired into the ceiling". How does this work?

s07e09: Snow Crashing

every day these days feels like it provides another reason to point out the problems with basing your product strategy around a science fiction book.

when Juanita gives Hiro the hypercard, “the world [Hiro’s metaverse experience] freezes and grows dim for a second. The Black Sun loses its smooth animation and begins to move in fuzzy stop-action”.

And this is super interesting because again, Hiro’s in a networked virtual environment, but... it’s not like there’s really a concept of servers?

Snow Crash was published in 1992, 8 years after 1984’s Neuromancer and I’m reasonably sure that Neuromancer does have the concept of Case traveling from network resource to network resource.

I think this reflects something about the nature of 1987’s Hypercard. Networking was still not a thing that really happened outside of labs

Da5id’s messing around with hypercards (card-deck) on his table (“business stats on The Black Sun, film and video clips, hunks of software, scrawled telephone numbers”) and I have to admit it’s time to be a little bit jealous of operating system architectures in Hiro’s world. Stephenson’s describing combinations of packages of structured data (“scrawled telephone numbers”) as well as something that could be a spreadsheet but probably isn’t (“business stats on The Black Sun”) and honestly probably videos he’s downloaded from Youtube. Are the “hunks of software” the code, data, or executables? Who can tell!

we get an insight into Stephenson’s vision of a capitalist future - apparently everyone is still an employee! Because in the late-stage capitalism we’re living in right now, it’s super trendy for corporations to shed FTEs for contractors.

Fortnite is basically The Black Sun at this point. A whole bunch of people are in it together and they go see concerts. I still reckon it's much more likely that Fortnite becomes the Metaverse than Facebook or Oculus trying to intentionally create the Metaverse.

s07e11: Snow Crashing

We open Chapter 10 with a little bit about Kouriers and how they all learn to shiv open a pair of handcuffs, and it occurs to me that the skating, ‘pooning couriers of the Snow Crash universe are pretty much at this point the zero-hours contractor UberEats and “whichever food delivery service hasn’t gone bust” yet evolution of our universe only a few years down the road. They’re using skateboards (smart skateboards, admittedly), we’re still using scooters and electric scooters or, I guess in Hiro’s case, as a Deliverator, a car. Deliverators! Huh! Those... weren’t really a thing when I started writing this!

But really, let’s get on to the calculator, because it is “stuck upside-down to her right thigh, doubling as a taxi-meter and a stopwatch” and stop me if you are already thinking about that meme about all the things in the Tandy catalogue or whatever, and the fact that all those things are now done by your 2010 era smartphone. Yes, because on Y.T.’s other thigh is her “personal phone”.

Turns out Hiro knows a bit about getting out a Clink

Now, I feel that in an Extremely Online world, this knowledge about The Clink wouldn't only come from having a repeated on/off-again relationship with Clink franchises, but also because... it would have been posted somewhere already?

the Kindle was originally codenamed Fiona because it has a lot to do with the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer.

s07e13: No, not a mid-life crisis; Snow Crashing

In Chapter 11, we’re back in The Metaverse and we’re also, I think, something like an hour or so ago in the chronology. Da5id’s computer has crashed and he’s been ejected from The Black Sun, and a bunch of younger hackers are gawking at him which, we’re told, isn’t polite. I feel like this is a pretty optimistic stance to be taking - you’re kind of seeing a takedown of a Blue Check Verified Person and not seeing a rubbernecking mob feels a bit like a surprise.

“It takes a lot of practice to make your avatar move through the Metaverse like a real person. When your avatar has just lost its legs, all that skill goes out the window.” This is really interesting! I don’t think we’ve ever really had yet a good explanation of how avatars are controlled in The Metaverse, but this makes controlling your avatar sound more like playing a game like QWOP!

Even now, there’s a big problem with navigating VR spaces and why you don’t get first person shooters or games like Portal where you run around because... we haven’t figured out how to make that work in VR. Instead you just kind of point, click and teleport. And, like in Fortnite or whatever, or in my mid 2000s playing of World of Warcraft you /emote.

environmental protections aren’t really a thing, noise isn’t really a thing either (at least, not for everyone — I’d be interested in how some of the burbclaves of franchulates deal with issues like vertical sovereignty or rights-to-light)

s07e17: Snow Crash’s Graveyard Daemons and Ethics Testing

Snow Crashing - Chapter 13

Chapter 13 starts with us back in The Black Sun. Hiro’s killed the Nipponese businessman and our attention is brought to the fact that he’s an empty polygonal shell

Stephenson also uses this to remind us that avatars are a metaphor. There is nobody, nothing there; the ghost has left the shell. “It reminds all The Black Sun’s patrons that they are living in a fantasy world. People hate to be reminded of this.”

I don’t think though, that we ever see anywhere else in the book evidence that there are people who have completely retreated from his capital-R Reality

I guess it might be possible to spend quite a lot of time in the Metaverse

The dead not-body is dealt with by Graveyard Daemons.

Turns out the original Metaverse specification described avatars as indivisible and atomic - “the creators of the Metaverse had not been morbid enough to foresee a demand for “[cutting someone up and [killing] them”.

tinymoo, was something very much like the Metaverse in that users could program it themselves, create rooms, and create programs that defined objects and actions and so on. So, this is a bit like that, but I’d find it hard to believe that there wasn’t an existing garbage collection mechanism that couldn’t be extended to deal with discarded Metaverse objects

the Graveyard Daemons take the dismembered avatar to “an eternal, underground bonfire beneath the center of The Black Sun, and burn it”

what, exactly, is burning? Are the zero-thickness polygonal avatars burning like paper? Like aircraft grade friction-stir-welded titanium?

after having their avatar destroyed and being kicked from The Metaverse and to have to wait for a cooldown, “he will be more cautious and polite the next time around”, a) Stephenson betrays his assumption that Metaverse users are male (too smart to be sexist, again?) and b) there are not enough laughing crying emojis for me to respond to this.

there’s a bunch of people watching him out here too. And for some reason, Hiro is still holding a katana. Did he have to hold the katana when he was sword fighting in The Black Sun?

Now, because Hiro’s in a car, he can’t connect to the network (not the internet!) by fiber (fiberoptic cable, no shorthand here), so “all his communication with the outside world has to take place via radio waves which are much slower and less reliable.”

It doesn’t make sense for Hiro to go into The Black Sun because his ping and bandwidth are too low (apparently even if The Metaverse were rendered server-side and streamed to his computer a la Google Stadia, GeForce Now or... Netflix), but he can go into his office(!) because that’s generated client-side.

Hiro is all in with his Oculus or Vive or whatever, and can’t even open an Excel spreadsheet without goggling in to an immersive 3D environment.

social media or text communications pretty much doesn’t exist at all in this world. There’s no Twitter. No IRC, no Facebook, not even any text messaging. Hiro and Y.T. spend the rest of each other, I swear to god, making voice calls with each other.


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