Looking at our future with Stephenson

Sharif Corinaldi

Stephenson's Snow Crash is a fun book. It's written with a whimsical pen and an incisive whit that toasts our view of the modern and gives a gentle jab to the ribs of the traditional power structure. So far as we understand it, Snow Crash, and it's virtual realms are glimpses into the future that might be here today. After all, we can see nearly every element of Stephenson's play around us right now. Between , electronic servants with snazzy costumes, the now super legitamate hardly changed, and every other element of modern society making a cameo appearance, we must now take a very hard look at what we're pulling out of this novel. Certainly Snow Crash makes excellent satire of the present, but what, if anything can it tell us about our future?

More than anything, Stephenson's book, along with so much of the technobabble from which it comes, tells us that we are terrible at predicting the future and will remain so for a long time to come. From the time of the ancient Egyptians civilizations have seen themselves in their own mirrors of predilection, finding infinitely clever variations on the same theme to capture what they thought was to come. Ancients, particularly useful as examples when discussing this type of thing, seem to be almost comic in their inability to judge the trends that absolutely scream to the clear eyed observer a millennium or two later. Those believing that we've evolved substantially since then need only look to the mini cultural or (even moreso of late) environmental sharp turns that have derailed more than a few nations. One can only say a single sure thing about human beings and their capacity to know the future, it being that no one seems to know what the hell it's going to be until it gets here. Naturally, a few million "I told you so's" and genuine soothsayers spring up with each shocking revelation, only to be buried under what the concurrent generation becomes obsessed with as the new "wave of the future." For now, America has managed to drag much of the world into its deranged, information-drenched, dreams of the future, the success of Stephenson's and Gibson's novels being testimony to that. But until we start seeing plans for the Library of Congress to merge with the CIA, this Egyptian can't help but doubt.

[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]