Just one word ... Information

Wayne Huang

In the future envisioned by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash, money does not make the world go round. In fact, it's too inflated to have any real meaning. The future belongs to those who have information, or at least who have access to information. As Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate would have liked, this future is different.

The two dominant intelligence gathering institutions, the Library of Congress and its more clandestine counterpart, the Central Intelligence Agency, naturally combined in the novel into a powerful database of information, the Central Intelligence Corporation's Library. Hiro, when he's not delivering pizza, gathers intel.

The business is a simple one. Hiro gets information. It may be gossip, videotape, audiotape, a fragment of a computer disk, a xerox of a document. It can even be a joke based on the latest highly publicized disaster. ... Millions of other CIC stringers are uploading millions of other fragments at the same time. CIC's clients, mostly large corporations and Sovereigns, rifle through the Library looking for useful information, and if they find a use for something that Hiro put into it, Hiro gets paid. ... [But] he has been learning the hard way that 99 percent of the information in the Library never gets used at all.

However, L. Bob Rife, the information monopolist, controls the flow of information in a more sinister vein. Today, there are federal laws that prevent one person from controlling a majority of the media outlets in an area. You could not, for example, own all the T.V. stations, or all the radio stations, or all the newspapers, or a majority of any of these combined because then you can control the access to information. Another law forbids foreign ownership of these media, although the laws seem to have been bent or streched very thin for Rupert Murdoch, the owner of News Corporation, which owns FOX television and other media outlets. In his informercial, L. Bob Rife explains his business,

"I deal in information," he says to the smarmy, toadying pseudojournalist who "interviews" him. ... "All television going out to consumers throughout the world goes through me. Most of the information transmitted to and from the CIC database passes through my networks. The Metaverse -- the entire Street -- exists by virtue of a network that I own and control."

The danger of one person controlling information is so great that the latest Bond villain, in Tomorrow Never Dies, is a media mogul who's so inebriated with the monopoly power of his newspaper that he sets out to invent the news -- writing the news article and then creating the news. Without independent verification, people such as the shadowy spin doctors in Wag the Dog could create a simulation that would have made Baudrillard proud. You could not tell if something is true or not except if it happened right before your eyes -- and who's to say it's not a live simulation played out by actors, as the spin doctors tried to do with their war hero to be played by a felon. This situation could give a new sinister meaning to the New York Times motto: "All the news that's fit to print." Deemed fit by whom?

Of course, information can also be helpful. Take the Librarian, for instance. He makes information useful not because he has access to millions of volumes of intel (as stated earlier, 99 percent is not used), but because he can search those volumes.

Even though he's just a piece of software, he has reason to be cheerful; he can move through the nearly infinite stacks of information in the Library with the agility of a spider dancing across a vast web of cross-references ... the only thing he can't do is think.

The Librarian's creator "devoted himself to the common problem of sifting through vast amounts of irrelevant detail in order to find significant gems of information." Information is useless if you can't or don't know where to find it.

What implications and complications does an information-dominated world present to us? Will a new class struggle exist between the informed and the uninformed? Will information be exposed to counterfeiting, as money is now? (Of course, disinformation already exists.) Or will information make us free and better human beings (as long as you can afford it)?

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