Snowcrash in 2018: A hopelessly optimistic dystopia

Neal Stephenson’s breakout ‘post-cyberpunk’ novel, Snowcrash, injected a heaping dose of realistic hard science fiction to slap down the more fanciful mind-uploading cyberpunk worlds of vague geometric ‘data’. Instead, Stephenson imagined a video-game like ‘Metaverse’ very much like many virtual worlds and massively-online games that exist today.

“Didn’t anybody tell you that I was a hacker?” Hiro tells an opponent after hacking him to pieces in an online sword fight. In 1992, this didn’t mean that he was a cheater, it just meant that he was a skilled computer programmer.

Snowcrash “Gargoyles” are nerds who wear bulky computers on their body, too immersed in an augmented reality to carry on a decent conversation. Today, high powered pocket computers, ‘smartphones,’ make nearly everyone a gargoyle.

Time has revealed this seemingly cynical novel’s boundless optimism, and it’s not just a handful of small ‘jetpack’ moments like these. Stephenson’s antagonist, L. Bob Rife, is the stereotypical bad guy depicted by Silicon Valley monopolists even today. His plot to control the ‘technological priesthood’ through ancient religion is foiled by Hiro’s swashbuckling antics. But the telecoms who handle the internet’s hardware aren’t controlling anybody’s minds or forming vast unaccountable monopolies that have any influence except over the bottom line at YouTube and Netflix. This is, in fact, the same antagonist that Silicon Valley has forced onto the world through so-called “Net Neutrality” campaigns even as their libertarian-individualist-disruptive monopolies usher in a disturbing and terrible age of right wing mind-control that makes the mind-control dystopia of Snowcrash look like the Hundred Acre Wood. The hacker elites are not the target of mind-control. If only. They are the hapless and often red-handed purveyors of ‘fake news’ propaganda, anti-semitism, and other horrors out of last century, rather than ancient Sumeria.

Hiro Protagonist works for the CIC, a privatized CIA, which pays good money to internet users for uploading videos and other content. If only neoliberalization ate the military intelligence institutions and turned them into some entertainment apparatus like YouTube, except with fair pay! The one important thing Snowden’s revelations have shown the public is how privatized military intelligence is only opening up possibility for more and more abuses. In Snowcrash, the relics of the US government are depicted as the bad guys, colluding with the unregulated mind-controlling L. Bob Rife. It is more than a bit curious that one of L. Bob Rife’s central missions is importing vicious criminal refugees to the US, and chief among them is a Native American sexual predator.

While still a bit edgier and more fun than its bland and shitty counterpart, Ready Player One, Snowcrash has aged very poorly over just the last few years. If it predicted anything, it was only the narrow and terrible world that Silicon Valley and their heroic hackers have built for us today.

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