Off the Shelf: October 2021 (Snow Crash and the metaverse)

Snow Crash book cover, pen and sticky note
Snow Crash cover

I first read Stephenson’s Snow Crash in after hearing it described while attending an ICCM event in the late 1990s. It was one of those “read it now because this future is coming” books and I devoured it at the time. Sadly, that copy went missing after being loaned out some years ago1 and so I recently purchased an equally-old one to re-read.

Widely accepted as the book that coined the term “metaverse”, Snow Crash is about a hacker (Hiro Protagonist) who teams up with a skateboarder (Y.T.) who is also an impressive intelligence gatherer. Hiro and his colleague Da5id are some of the original programmers of the Metaverse (along with Hiro’s sometime-girlfriend Juanita) and are portrayed as being intensely technical hackers (and able to process data in binary form), such that when Da5id (in the Metaverse) is given a suspicious video/image, the binary bitmap is able to reprogram his brain and he suffers brain damage (in real life). As Hiro starts to investigate what happened to his friend, he and Y.T. begin to realize that they may be dealing with a neuro-linguistic virus dating back to the Sumerian culture and even the Tower of Babel.

That’s the plot, which takes place partly in Reality and partly in the Metaverse.

Stephenson’s Metaverse

The Metaverse (from “meta”, beyond and “universe”, location) is described by Stephenson as a “computer-generated universe”, an “imaginary place” (p. 24). The hardware Hiro uses to connect to (Hiro uses the verb “to goggle into”) the Metaverse tracks his motions, movements and “what direction he’s looking in” as well as painting images on the lenses of his goggles.

“By drawing a slightly different image in front of each eye, the image can be made three-dimensional. By changing the image seventy-two times a second, it can be made to move . . . and by pumping stereo digital sound through the little earphones, the moving 3-D pictures can have a perfectly realistic soundtrack.”

(Stephenson, pp. 23-24)

Before we’re even told what he’s seeing in those goggles we learn that Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse and that it’s much nicer than the shared 20-by-30 U-Stor-It unit he uses as an apartment “in Reality”. This theme is consistent with Ready Player One, another book that expands on the idea of the Metaverse (the OASIS) as an escape from a dystopian world.

Stephenson’s Metaverse is centered around “the Street”, a 65,536 kilometer2 “grand boulevard” equator around a black sphere where developers who (just like in Reality) “buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, [and] bribe inspectors.” But unlike in Reality, developers don’t have to obey the laws of physics, aren’t subject to weather or climate and can build just about whatever they want, with their own rules. Since there aren’t any fire codes, there’s no need for emergency exits. Or sprinkler systems. You get the idea.

About ten years earlier, “Hiro and some of his buddies pooled their money and bought one of the first development licenses . . . [and] by getting in on it early . . . got a head start on the whole business.” What started as a string of streetlights down an empty street has become Downtown: “garish and brilliant, like Las Vegas freed from constraints of physics and finance.” But in Hiro’s Metaverse neighborhood, “it’s tasteful. The houses look like real houses. There are a couple of Frank Lloyd Wright reproductions and some fancy Victoriana.” And when it’s your own property, you get to set your own rules: who can come in, what they can do there.

When Hiro and his buddies first arrived, there was no way to get up and down the Street (now there’s a public monorail) so they “wrote car and motorcycle software in order to get around.” And, in one of the more poetic lines of the entire book, we hear that “they would take their software out and race it in the black desert of the electronic night.”

When a person comes into the Metaverse, it’s into a Port, one of 256 Express ports (every 256 kilometers) or into a Local Port, (every one kilometer) unless you own a House in the Metaverse, in which case you would “materialize”3 there. Users are prohibited from simply materializing into (or out of) just anywhere in the Metaverse, Stephenson says, because “it would break the metaphor. Materializing out of nowhere (or vanishing back into Reality) is considered a private function” for some reason.

Getting Personal in the Metaverse

A person in the Metaverse is represented by an “avatar,” a piece of software that generates the audiovisual bodies that other avatars can see and interact with. People new to the Metaverse frequently purchase off-the-shelf avatars (“Clint” and “Brandy” are popular baseline models) or, if you have a bit more cash, you might buy a kit and customize an avatar from the available choices. And you had better purchase some clothes to go along with it since “most avatars . . . are anatomically correct, and naked as a babe.”

Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment.4 If you’re ugly, you can make your avatar beautiful. If you’ve just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.

(Stephenson, p. 36)

Hiro acknowledges that most people don’t go the garish route because making a realistic human face takes much more sophistication “than a talking penis.” Other features available when purchasing an avatar include body sizes and facial expressions—the more you’re willing to pay, the more versatile and nuanced you’ll be in the Metaverse.5 At the other end of the spectrum are users goggling in from public terminals—they’re grainy black and white avatars with poor refresh rates and virtually no facial expressions or emotions.

What we don’t observe much of in this version of the Metaverse is the tactile. We can’t feel the other person’s touch, we only see and hear them.6

Objects in the Metaverse

There are objects in the Metaverse, all dependent on how the owner/designer/programmer wants them to behave. Some walls will allow you to walk through them, others not. Hiro carries a pair of samurai swords (a long katana and a one-handed wakizashi) in the Metaverse that, in certain locations, act exactly like real samurai swords would in Reality, including taking off legs or arms. In other locations (where violence isn’t permitted), they’re strictly ornamental. To pass along information, avatars exchange hypercards, representing chunks of data, almost the hyperlink of today. The data it references could be a single byte or the entire Library of Congress. When your avatar receives it, all the data is transferred to your computer, including any viruses that may be onboard.

And when a safe drops on your head from a distance, you die are logged out of the Metaverse (p. 88). Unless the programmer wanted something else.

Implications and Observations

I want to bring out three points from Stephenson’s vision of the Metaverse.

A Haven from Reality

The Metaverse is (at least for Hiro), a haven from Reality. In Reality, some years following a global economic crash, he lives in a 20-by-30 storage unit somewhere in LA, rooming with another guy. In the Metaverse, he “has a nice big house” and has access to an exclusive club, the Black Sun. In Reality, he’s an underemployed programmer, pizza-delivery guy, intelligence stringer. But “there’s always the Metaverse, and in the Metaverse, Hiro Protagonist is a warrior prince.”

We’ve already seen that in the Metaverse, “your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment” and, we later learn, your pocket book or your programming ability. This is another way of escaping from reality.

We don’t get the same desperate desire for escape in Snow Crash as we see in Ready Player One, but it’s still there, and because the Metaverse is a smaller character in the book than the OASIS was in Ready Player One, we don’t have as much detail.

Observation: If the gap between our reality and our upcoming metaverses continues to spread, this desire for total immersion as a haven from reality will become a significant point of concern.

Mimesis and Poiesis7

Stephenson appears to regard his Reality through a mimetic lens—there’s a given order and meaning in the world and his characters generally conform to it. All the characters depicted as thinking about it work hard to understand more about Reality, how it works and how they fit within its context. One example of this is when the neuro-linguistic virus is rediscovered: one group works to understand how to exploit it while another works to counteract it. Another is the political and economical world they navigate. It’s a strange (dystopian) world to the reader, but the characters generally have found their place in it.

Stephenson’s Metaverse, while it does have a baseline order to it8, is largely seen through a poietic lens as raw material to be shaped into whatever purpose and meaning the individual or corporation desires. Some times this is whimsical (safes falling down on unwanted visitors) while other times it’s commercial. It’s true that certain Reality metaphors still exist (“street”, “downtown”, “monorail” and “port”), but one gets the sense that these are constructs imposed onto the Metaverse rather than being discovered or understood from it.

Observation: Because world-generation, by it’s very nature, is poietic, we won’t see only one metaverse in our future, but several fractured and splintered metaverses. Either that, or a monolithic one, of someone else’s design, enforced from above. (Hmm… sounds like reality?)

Faces

Hiro and Juanita began working on avatars together in the early days at Black Sun Systems. Hiro was working on bodies and Juanita on faces.9 At the time, it doesn’t appear that anyone else thought avatar faces were important, but Juanita did (p. 57). And it’s during the time that Hiro and Juanita were a couple that she worked out faces. “She was the one who figured out a way to make avatars show something close to real emotion . . . and whenever an avatar looks surprised or angry or passionate in the Metaverse, he sees an echo of himself or Juanita.” (p. 63). Juanita made extensive use of her observations and interactions with Hiro in her work: “[A]s she was talking to him, she was watching his face, analyzing the way the little muscles in his forehead pulled his brows up and made his eyes change shape.”(p. 60)

She then relates a story in which her grandmother is able to understand a fact without a word being passed—simply by watching the nuances of Juanita’s face. It’s here (p. 60) that Juanita says the perhaps most profound sentence of the entire book: To condense fact from the vapor of nuance.

You might need to let that roll around inside your head a bit. She’s stating plainly that given the right “vapors of nuance”, some facts (not hunches or gut feelings) can be “condensed”. She goes on to say that “the human mind can absorb and process an incredible amount of information—if it comes in the right format. The right interface. If you put the right face on it.” She and Edward Tufte would have a field day.10

This leads us to one of the practical implications of our own future metaverses: “What made this place a success was not the collision-avoidance algorithms or the bouncer daemons or any of that other stuff. It was Juanita’s faces.”(p. 64) This observation is important enough to quote at length:

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. And that’s how they know what’s going on inside a person’s head—by condensing fact from the vapor of nuance.

(Stephenson, p. 64, emphasis added)

Observation: In our current work-remotely world, we rely on video calls (with our actual faces) to pass along all this nuance. What’s the added effort (and the incremental value) to virtualize our faces and yet retain (in high fidelity) the vapor of nuance: the expressions and emotions and information already present in our corporeal, flesh-and-blood faces?

Conclusion

Something like Stephenson’s Metaverse is already and not yet. And with the financial might of the companies peddling it, at some point it will be.


Books read in October:

Austen, J. (2021). Emma. Mint Editions.
Meigs, C. (2008). Windy Hill. Project Gutenberg.
Rose, F. (2021). The sea we swim in how stories work in a data-driven world. W.W. Norton & Company.
Stephenson, N. (1993). Snow Crash. Bantam Dell.
Sutton, M. (2015). The Haunted Fountain (A Judy Bolton Mystery). Project Gutenberg.

Show 10 footnotes
  1. Amnesty offered. Return it and I don’t ask any questions!
  2. A nice binary number: 216k.
  3. I find it interesting that he would use this term for a very non-physical action.
  4. And money and/or programming ability, it turns out.
  5. For some reason however, your avatar is only allowed to be as tall as you are in real life (p. 41). This makes little sense if you’re allowed to be a gorilla or a dragon.
  6. 5 But that isn’t too surprising, given that Stephenson’s Metaverse is only a supporting actor in the book, unlike the OASIS in Ready Player One. He only gave us enough detail to make it plausible, focusing instead on his plot.
  7. Trueman, C. R. (2020). The rise and triumph of the modern self. Crossway.
  8. Initially provided by the ACM’s Global Multimedia Protocol Group.
  9. Because this is fiction, we’re going to pass over the “uncanny valley” problem for the moment, but Juanita seems to have solved it in this Reality.
  10. See any of Edward Tufte’s books: Envisioning Information or Visual Explanations or Beautiful Evidence.
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