etc2007_neal_stephenson_locus-x150.jpg snowcrash3.gif
As a note, the phrase "Real world" means outside the Metaverse. Instead, I use "real world" to mean our world, in which Snow Crash is just a book.

Author biography
Neal Stephenson was born, fittingly, on Halloween of 1959 in Fort Meade, Maryland. His family consisted primarily of scientists and engineers (he called them “propeller heads”), which gave him a deep knowledge of science and technology. He went to college at Boston University, and switched his major from Physics to Geography to get more computer time. Snow Crash was his third book, and he believes that it is a prediction of the technology of the future. In his interview with Chris Nashawaty, he says, “There's any number of would-be Metaverses either coming out now or ... next year, but none as technically sophisticated as the one in Snow Crash. But I think we'll come pretty close to that model of the Internet in five years.” He still, however, has doubts. “A system like that is going to have some negative consequences. Take daytime talk shows, or vulgar sitcoms, or even gambling. A lot of people who can't control their gambling problems will be able to gamble 24 hours a day from their couch in virtual casinos. The Metaverse would give everyone the chance to inflict damage to themselves pretty conveniently” (Nashawaty 60).

Plot Summary
In a world where small franchises (franchulates) rule the world, and the web-based Metaverse forms a second existance for many people, Hirohito Protagonist (aka Hiro) makes his living as a freelance hacker, pizza delivery boy, and self-proclaimed World’s Best Swordsman. He learns of a plot by Lawrence Robert Rife (aka L. Bob Rife) and Dmitri Ravenoff (aka Raven) to take over the world by using a drug called Snow Crash. In the process, he runs into his former girlfriend, Juanita Maurez, and his former co-hacker, Da5id Meier. He also meets a new partner, the skater YT, and is given the Librarian – a daemon designed to come as close to sentient thought as possible. Other prominent figures are Lagos, a "gargoyle" whose technophilia helps Hiro begin his quest; Ng, the weapons designer whose tools aid Hiro throughout the book; and uncle Enzo, the head of the nova Sicilia mafia franchulate, and whose car Hiro starts the book by totaling. Many pages are devoted to ancient Sumerian myth, Hiro’s coding exploits, and the organization of the Metaverse.

Theme Summary / Debates
The theme of Snow Crash is troubling to anyone trying to examine the merits of a Metaverse-based life. The main threat to the world is the Snow Crash virus/religion (nam-shub, as it is called), which is unlikely to exist in Reality. In reference to the concept of viruses, the computers of the Snow Crash world are sufficiently enhanced to be invulnerable to anything short of a nam-shub. From the text,

"Da5id," Hiro says, "I can't believe you took a hypercard from a black-and-white person."
Da5id laughs. "This is not the old days, my friend. I've. got so much antiviral medicine in my system that nothing could get through. I get so much contaminated shit from all the hackers who come through here, it's like working in a plague ward. So I'm not afraid of whatever's in this hypercard" (Stephenson 72).

Because of this,any practical issues are addressed indirectly at best, and unclearly at worst. In the real world, such diseases/infections/data as Snow Crash don't exist. There has been no scientific precedent for, as Hiro summarizes it, an offshoot of herpes that can be passed down through a data stream. Such an occurance would, were it to exist, not even be limited to the Metaverse. This makes the central issue of the book rendered null.

Some people, such as researchers Robert J. Moore, Nicolas Ducheneaut and Eric Nickell; scholar Mark Kingwell; futurist Jerry Paffendorf; and writer/hacker Mark Wallace, view the mention of relationships between Hiro and, for example, YT or Juanita Maurez (others, such as Da5id or Lagos form lesser-explored relationships) as indicative of the future of online society. Kingwell and Moore et al., however, hold diametrically opposed views from Wallace or Paffendorf.

"What particularly fascinates me in this attempt to bring the future down to a human scale is the concept of intimacy, the phenomenon of closeness, one person to another. ... Intimacy will continue to play its joyful, vexing, complex role in our lives, and the subtle dialectic of private and public will continue to dominate our institutions, occupations, entertainments and, most of all, our sense of ourselves" (Kingwell 61).

"Entertainment, education, art, and business are throwing spaghetti at the metaverse to see what sticks. Over the next several years, we'll see this kind of technology mature to the point where it will not be uncommon to follow hyperlinks from the Web into immersive virtual spaces filled with other people" (Paffendorf, qtd Wallace 133).

"There are lots of questions to answer, and many hurdles to overcome, but none are insurmountable. As millions of people experience virtual worlds, technologists, legislators, and developers will face new challenges." (Wallace 144).

"Game developers have made great strides in achieving game worlds that look and feel increasingly realistic. However, despite these achievements in the visual realism of virtual game worlds, they are much less sophisticated when it comes to modeling face-to-face interaction. In face-to-face, ordinary social activities are "accountable," that is, people use a variety of kinds of observational information about what others are doing in order to make sense of others' actions and to tightly coordinate their own actions with others" (Moore et al. 269).

Wallace's point is that, eventually, the Metaverse will become so dominant that social interaction sites will begin to affect Real interactions. He finds, much in the same way as Stephenson, that the only issue is technology. While such advances are both major and neccessary, they are by no means impossible. To that end, Paffendorf's point is clear: technology will continue to advance in whatever ways help, until this system is flawless or someone designes a better concept.

On the other hand, Moore et al. say that technology is inadequate to express social cues, and Real-world interaction is necessary to properly communicate. Stephenson even mentioned this in the book: "[The important thing about the Black Sun] was Juanita's faces. Just ask the businessmen in the Nipponese Quadrant. They come here to talk turkey with suits from around the world, and they consider it just as good as a face-to-face. They more or less ignore what is being said -- a lot gets lost in translation, after all. They pay attention to the facial expressions and body language of the people they are talking to" (Stephenson 64).

Other issues concern the addictiveness of the internet or the complexity of the code. The former issue is dealt with explicitly by Stephenson himself, in his interview. "In the end it all comes down to a question of time budget. You have to sleep about eight hours, you have to work, you have to eat, kids have to go to school. That leaves a certain amount of time left over for goofing off. And a lot of kids in this country spend large portions of their free time on television and Nintendo. So I don't think something like the Metaverse would decrease the amount of time they spend goofing off. Whereas television is totally passive and all it does is rot your brain, I think the Metaverse would offer broader horizons" (Nashawaty 61).

Stephenson's point is more than valid here; in my opinion it is an understatement. Recently, Mr. Rayburn's project "Twitter in Hell" recieved national attention for advancing learning by using a social network site. "The point of [a School Library Journal article titled 'Twittering Dante'] was to show how teaching styles can be changed so that students accustomed to communicating via Web 2.0 social media can engage in activities that seem more relevant to their everyday lives" (Ladd).

Given a social network site with the interface capabilities of the Metaverse, online education could develop to such a point as to replace standard education. This already, to a point, occurs; "games" (not a very accurate descriptor, but there is none better) such as Second Life already have similar institutions. Admittedly, they are currently lacking in development, but technology changes quickly.

Even much of work can be done online. In the Snow Crash passage mentioned four paragraphs ago, Stephenson adresses how buisnessmen use the Metaverse to comunicate internationally. Such a network could be easily expanded to other jobs; anything that doesn't require Real-world experiments (biology, chemistry, a small amount of physics) or production (factories, restaurants) could be simulated in the Metaverse. Therefore, many intelectual media and almost all political/business media would benefit from the creation of a Metaverse.

The latter issue -- the complexity of the code -- is more prominent, and is hinted at twice in the book. When Hiro is on his boat in the middle of the ocean, heading towards the Raft, Stephenson writes, "But his real reason for being in Flatland is that Hiro Protagonist, last of the freelance hackers, is hacking. And when hackers are hacking, they don't mess around with the superficial world of Metaverses and avatars. They descend below this surface layer and into the netherworld of code and tangled nam-shubs that supports it, where everything that you see in the Metaverse, no matter how lifelike and beautiful and three-dimensional, reduces to a simple text file: a series of letters on an electronic page" (Stephenson 350).

Later, while Hiro explains his findings to Ng, Mr. Lee, and Uncle Enzio, Stephenson writes,

"You're saying there's an input side, too?" Ng says.
"Exactly. It works in reverse. Under the right conditions, your ears -- or eyes -- can tie into the deep structures, bypassing the higher language functions. Which is to say, someone who knows the right words can speak words, or show you visual symbols, that go past all your defenses and sink right into your brainstem. Like a cracker who breaks into a computer system, bypasses all the security precautions, and plugs himself into the core, enabling him to exert absolute control over the machine."
"In that situation, the people who own the computer are helpless," Ng says.
"Right. Because they access the machine at a higher level, which has now been overridden. In the same sense, once a neurolinguistic hacker plugs into the deep structures of our brain, we can't get him out -- because we can't even control our own brain at such a basic level" (Stephenson 395).

The implication here is, a good hacker with the right tools can hack anything. Although our brains are realistically safe, our computers may not be. In the real world, companies like Norton or Kaspersky are constantly trying to keep up with new viruses or worms. There are several reasons for this, none of which are likely to change in a decade or two: (1) new methods of bypassing security are always being invented; (2) each security update has some holes that any experienced hacker can exploit; and (3) no amount of security can help the ever-present idiot masses from intentionally opening files that contain viruses, and then personally bypassing the security. Because of these gaps, a single Metaverse containing all the world's most important data could become a neon target for hackers and terrorists alike. Imagine for a moment: what would have happened if the World Trade Center had contained no living people, but the livelihoods of two or so billion? Further imagine if a single group could take control of said data wihtout destroying it. This event would be like the greatest bank heist in history, and every potential thief would be concentrated solely on it.

There are more questions than answers when it comes to security. Not even shieldware magnate Eugene Kaspersky finds anti-malware products to be perfect.
"In the computer security history, there are 2 types of attacks: simple and complicated. That's not news that there are more complicated now. Some of the people, virus writers, were just developing simple code. Some developed simple code, some developed complicated samples. It still seems there are cybercriminals who are happy with primitive constructions, but there are more and more cybercriminals who develop high-end malware. I think that one of the reasons that they develop their better malware is the fact that now, it's not just cybercrime world, it's cybercrime industry. ... They have become more professional" (Kaspersky).
Nobody knows how complex malicious code can become, and any Metaverse must first prove its resistance to both hackers and trolls (those who try to be annoying rather than harmful, for example rickrolling people) first. This is the one point that I have no opinion on the future of, and I do not claim to be experienced enough to understand technical articles. To me, Kaspersky's words ring loud and clear (if in a heavy Russain accent): we need to work on shieldware before making a metaverse.


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