3 Days Living Snow Crash

August 26, 2007

Have you read Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson?  Required reading for anyone interested in the current state of the networked world.  I’ve said that before, but in this case we’re really talking about the bible of all things high-tech.  Stephenson wrote the book in 1992 (and has written many since), and predicted so many things that it’s kinda bizarre.  In fact, what is more likely is that people who have been creating new things for the Internet over the last fifteen years have been heavily influenced by Snow Crash and are simply creating what Stephenson talked about.  The most obvious example lately is Second Life.  While a much talked about and often ridiculed technology now, it existed one heck of a long time ago in this author’s mind.  Stephenson’s characters take on “avatars” and spend a great deal of time in the metaverse, a virtual world where they work and play with other avatars.  (“avatar”, by the way, is a word referring to a physical manifestation of a god … the ten avatars of Vishnu being the most commonly referred to … kind of the reverse of the current use of “avatar” as a virtual representation of a non-god).  There are no islands in Snow Crash (as there are in Second Life), but rather a very large virtual city with many streets, where people build virtual homes etc.  Stephenson even discusses avatar etiquette, long before such a thing was technically possible.

Snow Crash also involved some rather disturbing predictions of life in the future which have also become very real.  I recently spent three days in a suburb north of the 401 in Toronto (I’m not telling which one, but it’s either Richmind Hill, Markham, or Newmarket), and was stunned to realize that I might as well be living in the novel of which I speak. In Snow Crash, everyone lives in burbclaves, small gated communities of tightly packed nondescript homes …. in order to do anything outside of the home they must drive to strip malls, all of which are pretty much exactly the same which franchises owned by rather massive, humanity-free corporations. Well, there I was, in the middle of Snow Crash.  Little islands of community (that I never entered of course, because they aren’t meant to be entered unless you live there), and huge jammed four lane streets lined with endless strip malls. Everyone must drive in order to get to anything.  We walked occasionally, being outsiders, and found ourselves in the middle of these massive inhuman environments, walking half a mile across a parking lot to a large box-like building (every commercial building is a steel-frame box), and realizing that we are probably the only people who even considered walking there.   I may be cranky, but this seemed like a completely soul-less existence.  I found myself walking down the street in a very Kurt Vonnegut kind of moment yelling at the endless traffic things like:

“Go home, there’s nothing out here”

“This is not a life … get out of your car”


“How can you people do this?”

They looked at me, but I suspect that reflection on one’s quality of life is a remarkably unattractive thing to do when completely surrounded by concrete, other vehicles, and large box-like structures with names like “Vendco” and “so and so Industries” being the only thing distinguishing one from the other.  Better to just go to a big mall and buy some stuff.

The really frightening thing about all of this, is that it has all been planned with the idea that people will continue to drive everywhere all of the time, and the road system will just continue to absorb more volume.  Anyone who has been to these communities (or anywhere in the GTA) knows that grid-lock is already common.  Public transportation is clearly ignored for the most, because it looks like it’s relatively hard to use.  There is no light rapid transit except for buses, which spew diesel and, hey, drive on the roads!  A light rail system in Toronto would be incredibly useful but, apparently, for some reason, is out of the question (Vancouver does this, and it’s a beautiful thing).  Anyway, there I was … reminded very much of Snow Crash and thinking once again what a genius Neal Stephenson is.


One comment

  1. Snow crash – good book. Second Life, I’m afraid, doesn’t even come close to the hyper-reality Stephenson created in his novel. I’m no techno-idiot, but my brief experience with SL showed it to be unintuitive and ugly. I think I’ll wait for version 2.0.
    [While I’m here, I’ll recommend Tad William’s Otherland series for another take on “Virtual Reality”. One of my faves].

    I too dislike the suburbs (having spent some time living in one), and the part that bugs me the most is the inability to walk to anything. I doubt that the bus system is hard to use (how hard could it be, really?), it’s just that driving is easier.

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