(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?
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)
s07e15: Snow Crashing Part 14, Chapter 12
We’re up to Chapter 12 now, which is all about the doggie.
it appears to use some sort of nuclear radioisotope thermoelectric generator
Eldest kid happens to know a little bit about RTGs because both he and youngest kid are obsessed with the Mars Science Laboratory rover Curiosity, because it has a big butt on its end, which is its RTG power source.
one question I have is: do the dogs have to bark to spread knowledge about the stranger, or does it just help that knowledge be accepted more easily in their doggie brains? Clearly they’re all wired up to their, uh… ears, so there’s nothing from stopping their interface from just dumping it straight in there.
doggie’s upgraded sensors and cognitive ability. Doggie sees two people come in, which makes him excited and he can a) tell their hearts are beating quickly; b) sweating and c) smell scared.
Doggie has access to the millimeter-wave detection system because he can see that “the little one is carrying things that are a little naughty, but not really bad,” but not compared to the big one, but the big one’s okay because he belongs in the yard. So doggie also gets some sort of scoring mechanism and categorization of relative safety of items, as well as access to the IFF/ID system.
“saliva floods his mouth as he smells the hot salty blood pumping through their arteries” and really what I think Stephenson is trying to get across here is that intelligence and consciousness are much better when they’re embodied. Otherwise, why not just use dumb, not-alive robots?
if there were any doubt that there were a real live doggie in there somewhere, we learn that the doggie gets excited, angry and “a little bit scared, but he likes being scared, to him it is the same thing as being excited. Really, he has only two emotions: sleeping and adrenaline overdrive.”
Y.T. is concerned that the jeeks have guns, but Hiro must have seen this before and grins in what I think is a mean, out-of-character manner (a carnivore’s grin), and reminss her that guns are illegal. He knows that the Rat Thing has them now.
Rat Thing, which got her out of the way of the grenade and thrown itself over the grenade to protect her
decides to approach the doggie. Hiro warns her not to, reminding her of the rumor that it’s got animal parts, “so it might be unpredictable”
She tries to pull it along, but it feels like she’s grabbing a dog by the front legs. She can tell, definitely now, that it’s alive in the way it’s reacting to her.
Y.T., it appears, has earned doggie’s loyalty and is a Very Good Human Yes Indeed
Last in this chapter, we see Y.T. transition from Real Y.T. to dutiful suburban daughter Y.T. She’s got a change of outfit stashed in a McDonald’s
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.
s07e19: Snow Crash Ch13, Part 2; Everything Is Political
OK, so we’re at Hiro’s Metaverse workspace running locally off his “computer”
There is something new [here]: A globe about the size of a grapefruit
Turns out that the BABEL / INFOCALYPSE hypercard, beyond containing Earth and Library information and a Librarian (which I could imagine as all running as sandboxed code on Hiro’s computer), also has the ability to modify Hiro’s virtual environment, or that Juanita’s explicitly been granted permissions on Hiro’s computer.
I have a question about the source of this Librarian behavior. Who programmed it? Is it emergent? Why does it matter? Was there a team of CIC character animators and riggers working on NPC-like Librarian behaviors? It is not as if, say, Hiro starts having a conversation with the Librarian and then they get side-tracked into that one time the Librarian took an arrow to his knee.
we start thinking about the story of Babel in terms of an “informational disaster” because the people “couldn’t talk to each other”.
1.1 Snow Crash - Chapter 13, part 2
The easy bit here is to point out that “Earth” was the inspiration for Google Earth which is partly true but as always, not the entire story.
I found a blog post by someone who worked at Keyhole at the time and Earth has at least a few sources of inspiration. There’s the Star Trek tricorder (which I hadn’t heard of before) and there’s Snow Crash. But most persuasively to me is the combination of a hardware innovation from SGI (a clip-map texture unit) and a cultural artifact (the Powers of Ten film by Charles and Ray Eames).
Hiro using the word “disaster” turns out to set the Librarian off on a non-sequitur (which it’s a sucker for due to its internal structure), and that to me feels like Stephenson is also making a reference to the hypercard-like interconnectedness of all things. The Librarian cannot resist jumping from topic to topic and following those associations. It cannot not click on that little blue underlined link.
I’m going to give GPT2 Hiro’s prompt (“Babel’s a city in Babylon, right?”) to Talk to Transformer and paste in what we get:
is quite a bit like the Librarian! Good going, GPT2!
So Stephenson got the subscription part right, but what he didn’t anticipate and what we don’t see in Snow Crash is the gradual encroachment of the ad-funded internet and the ad-funded “information economy”, whatever that turned out to be. For regular people, we pay for Google Earth through some sort of privatized life-logging service where Google gets to store and understand more of our location-based questions and needs.
it turns out that the Librarian was coded by a researcher at the Library of Congress who taught himself how to code.
This set of Things that I have Noticed is loosely organized around Nick Thompson’s Wired piece on Andrew Yang.
What set me off was the fact that it’s 2019 and Thompson — who is the Editor in Chief of Wired — is saying stuff like: Silicon Valley does not have a political ideology right now
Saying Silicon Valley doesn’t have a political ideology — which in America is a bit like saying Silicon Valley hasn’t nailed its flag to either the blue party or the red party — is so demonstrably false
You want more? There was the whole thing the other day about “secret scores” and the surfacing of the mass of information held about users by companies
These secret scores - the 400 pages of all the delivery food you’ve ever ordered - they’re what happens when there’s the idea that we, as technologists, can just save everything instead of throwing away data, or having to choose what data to store because capitalism has helpfully made storage media super cheap
The bit that I caught on to here is the automation problem in the microcosm of healthcare. I love what Beth said there: if we don’t fix the biases we already have in healthcare before we jump to training a computer to do it, we will perpetuate those biases.
demonstrably does have a political ideology and it’s clearly one that’s quite tied to “making lots of money” and things like believing in meritocracies and technocracies
This person, Dr. Emmanuel Lagos, is some sort of uber-hacker, and we’re still talking about hackers, not coders or developers: but someone hacking together something like the Librarian.
s07e22: Cynical, me?; Snow Crashing Ch 13, part 3
Snow Crash’s Earth shows either a realtime merged satellite view that also shows something like a Planet Labs satellite, or a computed view.
The description of the hypercard (not necessarily a hypercard stack though - we just see the one card at the moment) is something that feels like it’s straight out of Douglas Adams’ Hyperland, which I wrote about a good five years ago. Just the idea of motion video on something that looks like a card feels like peak early 90s ZOMG MULTIHYPERMEDIA.
s07e25: Little things; Snow Crashing Ch 14 part 1
At the beginning of chapter 14, Hiro’s looking at the “fingernail sized icons”
Hiro asks whether the Librarian can summarize the contents of the hypercard, which it can’t, but it can “list the contents briefly”. There were computational summarizers of text in the mid 90s
we get a brief history of Rife’s high school and college academics
We learn through reference that the Librarian is also always listening: Hiro is paying attention and thinks he spots the Librarian making a summary, but it isn’t; it’s quoting a summary that Dr. Lagos made to Juanita when the Librarian was around. So, you know. Be careful what you say around Librarian.
In this part, we get to one of the underlying themes of the book: linguistics, computational linguistics, neuro-linguistic programming and hacking the brain
In exposition land, we’ve learned that Rife effectively owns through bankrolling Reverend Wayne, and that more specifically Rife has a majority share in Pearly Gates Associates, which runs the Reverend Wayne’s Pearly Gates chain
would you be surprised if Elon announced he was buying a surplus aircraft carrier for SpaceX?
There’s more overt evil genius allusion, where Rife out-and-out says that a monopolist’s work is never done “seems like you can never get that last one-tenth of one percent”, which I know, right? That last mile is always tricky. And with that, he’s totally doubling down on Trump-era Thiel.
Stephenson’s big point that he wants to get across, as Rife, is this: a joined-up set of local cable TV networks is effectively a global network, just like the phone network. “Except this one carries information ten thousand times faster. It carries images, sound, data, you name it”.
I’m a little surprised that Stephenson doesn’t just go all-in on this exposition and change the order of Rife’s speech. Instead of “images, sound, data, you name it”, it would’ve been an opportunity for Stephenson to emphasize the idea that everything is data. In other words, Rife could’ve said something like: “Except this carries information ten thousand times faster. It’s all data: images, sound, you name it. A telephone network is just data, cable TV is just data.”
s09e15: The Return of Snow Crash - Snow Crashing: Chapter 14, part 2
To catch us up, Hiro is working through a Hypercard stack with the Librarian, researching L. Bob Rife, an evangelist media mogul implicated in the Snow Crash drug.
Rife owns cable TV networks, the underlying infrastructure, but he has to buy a half-hour television commercial
What Rife can’t do, is spin up his own place in the metaverse and have everyone visit it and tell his side of the story. I mean, he could, I guess? But the broadcast network is still the most efficient way he uses to get in front of an audience
the programmers who make and run Rife’s system “got together and formed a union—unheard of, for hackers”
claiming that he had placed audio and video bugs in their homes…
I mean just imagine having a device on you that’s subject to 24 hour surveillance…
consider the late-pandemic-capitalism world we live in right now where more and more people are starting second gigs as sex workers from the safety of their own homes through websites like OnlyFans
people don’t appear to share themselves in the future Stephenson imagines
there’s no… self-publishing.
it’s a network that’s controlled, in a much tighter way than the web or our internet at large. Changes to the metaverse protocol go through the ACM Global Media Protocol Group (the ACM! How cute!)
Remember, Snow Crash was published in 1992. The publishing revolution didn’t really start until blogging in the late 90s.
Rife is pointing out that he owns the pipes, so sure, he’s like an Evil AT&T.
It’s weird that in such a libertarian world as Rife’s, he owns the pipes and doesn’t, say, NSA-style, tap everything
there’s no FCC doctrine of platform neutrality or common carrier anymore
Rife doesn’t feel the need to own the software. The pipes are enough.
So perhaps it’s not a surprise that the network is asymmetrical, favoring content distribution over self-publishing
Really, I do not have the time or space to go into this right now, suffice to say some programmers/developers/hackers are now in some sort of Rife-like employment situation and have realized that trade union-type arrangements might be to their benefit.
s09e17: The Sky Above The Port; Snow Crashing, chapter 14, part 3
Snow Crashing - chapter 14, part 3
in our world it’s more likely that someone like Musk would act more impulsively: the aircraft carrier would be a base of operations for SpaceX, and it wouldn’t be for refugees and keeping in what he’d call our eggs-in-one-basket gravity well, it’d be for offering them a homesteading ticket off our planet and onto Mars as, well, I don’t want to say disposable labour, but…
“The Raft is a media event. But in a much more profound, general sense than you can possible imagine […] it’s created by the media in that _without the media, people wouldn’t know it was here, Refus wouldn’t come out and glom onto it the way they do. And it sustains the media. It creates a lot of information flow—movies, news reports—you know.”
The distinction we’re living with today is that the media—humans, making editorial decisions—can and do create “media events” in a self-reinforcing manner, the event that results in commentary that results on commentary about the commentary, but also draws attention to the event, which feeds the event
I say purportedly, because there are still human decisions involved in what algorithms amplify
In other words, Rife’s talking about creating a focus for attention, and ramping up and sustaining that attention
*“You’ve probably heard the expression that the Industry [Stephenson’s emphasis] feeds off of biomass, like a whale straining krill from the ocean.”
“I’ve heard the expression, yes.”
“That’s my expression. I made it up.*
now we’d say there’s an additional layer, a sort of metadata-recommendation-layer where what’s spit back is things like “what’s trending”. Instead of a human editorial point of view, selecting for “wealth and exotic things beyond their wildest dreams” there’s (sigh) a black mirror that’s just reflecting (sigh) what we want to see.
We end chapter 14 by turning away from Rife/Stephenson’s treatise on the nature of networked media in early-late-capitalism, because
*The sounds spread from him to his neighbors, spreading across the flight deck like a wave.
The journalist calls this the Babble Brigade*
I’m reminded of recent phrases like “Main Character Cinnamon Toast Crunch Guy Was Milkshake Ducked” that are otherwise completely unintelligible to people who are not Very Online
Later on, we find out that Rife figures out a way to spread the babble from person to person quickly by embedding them with radios (whip antennae protruding from peoples’ heads), and I suppose the modern day equivalent is the viral spread of a trending meme by radios we’ve voluntarily decided to carry with us, but this doesn’t feel like a particularly deep observation.
One thought I do have though, is whether the nam shub of Enki — what the babble programming is — would be prohibited speech these days.
we’re still not seeing much evidence of Digital Content Creation: the Meltdowns, for example, don’t have a website, nothing like “a Soundcloud” exists, there’s no Bandcamp, you can’t buy NFTs of their album, there’s no digital distribution of content at all, really.
CD players! How quaint. There’s fiber optic jacks, but there’s no digital music distribution, and perfect digital sound already exists on CD players. And with all the work that goes into creating places like the Black Sun, unlike 2020’s Fortnite, where Epic announced a three week long concert series. Remember how much I’ve been saying that Fortnite is going to turn into the Metaverse? I’m still long, as the kids say, on that bet.
2.0 Snow Crashing, chapter 15, part 1
Chapter 15 opens at the underpass location for Vitaly Chernobyl and the Meltdowns’ gig.
We get a description of this fringe crowd: “hard core Third World unemployables, plus a scattering of schizophrenic first worlders who have long ago burned their brains to ash int he radiant heat of their own imaginings.”
One thing that occurs to me is that the general is managing his team of Enforcers by “doing a lot of jogging back and forth, swiveling his head from side to side, mumbling quick bursts into his headset like a football coach on the sidelines”.
There’s a few theories I have here: one is that democratization of technology isn’t what this book is about
and the other is that Stephenson is making a point that the Enforcers are ‘roided up thugs with muscle and not technologically literate, which hasn’t turned out to be the case in the real world
Let’s talk about how the CIC works
the CIC database (“formerly the Library of Congress”),
in this world, there is only One Library, and it starts with one of the world’s most canonical libraries
Snow Crash is made fun of by people like me as being the wrong kind of business book: people see cool ideas in this text and decide that, well, they’re cool and they should exist in the real world. That’s not entirely fair and rather pejorative: it’s better to say that, perhaps, that Snow Crash is a fairly vivid and inspirational text, but that the people who take that inspiration into execution don’t always think about the externalities or second-order effects.
There’s this inversion of what Stephenson is understanding to be a morass of useless information, when the cost to store it becomes close to negligible (it’s really not negligible, it totally costs money), “on the off chance that some of it will eventually be useful”, and figuring out who’s willing to pay for trawling all that information. 11 years after Snow Crash’s publication in 2023, Clay Shirky would write about the long tail in an essay about weblogs (instantly dating the essay).
The gargoyle Hiro finds is Lagos, a pro gargoyle with expensive equipment.
the laser that’s been attracting Hiro’s attention
a “long-range retinal scanner”, which can be checked against a now-meagre CIC database of “tens of millions of scanned retinas
Clearview scraped over 3 billion photos, is being used by over 1,800 entities9 and is being used by the NYPD
a public citizen published more than 6,000 images of faces from the January 6 Capital Riot
once he gets your identity, he has to have more access privileges to find out personal information about you. This guy, apparently, has a lot of access privileges. A lot more than Hiro.
I mean, Lagos basically has access to the public information on Hiro’s LinkedIn profile. Which Hiro would’ve uploaded/published himself. So that other people could find him
This is just another example of the miss in Snow Crash of user-generated, user-published content and the extrapolation of centralized control of information
In fact, without any access privileges, these days you could find out even more about any random person you were able to identify
*Gargoyles, we’re told, are rude:
They never finish as sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world*
So turns out, people in the 21st century are rude, and so are the companies that provide the ad-funded internet products and services the majority of people use
we don’t need to use technologies like that because with Google Lens all you need to do is just point your phone camera at something
Lagos gives us a classic Stephenson infodump
And Hiro walks off because you shouldn’t listen to people who are Too Online.
Then we meet Raven, a sovereign individual, who has POOR IMPULSE CONTROL tattooed on his forehead because “quick and dirty punishments” like public humiliation have become the norm thanks to most of the small neighbourhood-states lacking jails or anything as sophisticated as a judicial system.
But Lagos was here not to meet Hiro, but to meet Raven