Are Avatars More Real than People?

Matthew Hutson

The virtual environments in Neil Stephenson's Snow Crash differ dramatically from those inWilliam Gibson's Neuromancer. In Gibson's world, readers (and possibly the characters themselves) tumble helplessly through unfamiliar whirlpools of information. Technology, which has built layers upon layers of abstractions that engulf the uninitiated voyager, provides meager bridgework between our world and his world of the far future. Upon entering the computer, one can fly or swim around through grids of data and break through sheets of ice and approach pink boxes, and this all seems somewhat possible to visualize, but this environment is merely a joystick-like device for manipulating more distanced, abstract operations. This visualizationability of the virtual world also does not inherently correspond to any kind of actions that we would ever perform in the real world.

On the other hand, Stephenson describes the Metaverse, the predominate virtual environment in the book, as a street very much like a street in real life. There are buildings, people walking around, etc. In fact, virtuanauts and virtuagoverners (whoever they are . . .) often try quite hard to emulate their everydaylives despite the freedom that this technology offers. Although Stephenson avoids going off the deep end the way Gibson does, I find his restraints quite appalling.

As the characters state repeatedly, there are no laws in the real world. Why? Possibly because there is no institution ubiquitous enough to enforce them. In the Metaverse, however, there are innumerable laws. As the existence and compatibility of every object and every person within that world rests upon software and hardware developers, this imposes many inherent limitations. For instance, one cannot punch someone in the street, because flesh provides no resistance, and one cannot go to the bathroom because no one bothered to write code for that. Besides unavoidable restrictions within this world due to technology, there also exist a great deal of rules that need not be there, but that have been imposed anyway. For instance, one cannot control an avatar that is taller than the virtuanaut's real body. (There are also some larger conceptual problems with the Metaverse. There is no central government to rule Reality: jurisdiction is cut up among independent corporations. So who enforces the Metaverse? Who hires the programmers? Who inspects zoning regulations?)

As Glen Sanford points out, the Street is also limited by the socioeconomic conditions of the players. One cannot escape distinguishing stigma even in a world where nearly anything is possible. Theoretically, one could enter the world as a kangaroo, as a zamboni, as a worm, but people are stuck with bodies that display loudly and clearly conditions that one may be entering a virtual world to avoid. One can spot and prejudge a grainy, black and white avatar from a mile off. Wealth and power is manifest not in extravagant jaunts into fantasy worlds (such as Neverland) but strict reproduction of everyday reality. On page 222, Ng "ostentatious[ly]" presents a glass with condensation on it that reflected light from the surrounding room. Rather than exploring possibilities distant from reality, enhancing our society, stretching our imaginations, we (rather a future "we") sit and try to reproduce what already exists more and more accurately, slowing cultural evolution to a standstill. To be honest, I find this future much more diheartening than anything in Gibson's books.

Dan Parke also elaborates upon the strict limitations of the Metaverse. He provides a couple of possibilities explaining why Stephenson made that choices that he did. First, Dan offers the reason that a Metaverse much different from our own would confuse, intimidate, or frighten many users. He describes this adherence to the laws of Reality as "a security blanket for the uncreative folk who write family sitcoms." It just makes things simpler to stick to the laws of physics and cultural artifacts with which we are familiar. He also offers that perhaps this is one of Stephenson's satirical devices; Stephenson holds constant part of the reality with which we, the reader, are familiar, so that he can then focus upon ridiculing a different part of the world.

Now I have a couple of complaints about this partial applicability of satire, or at least how Stephenson uses it here. If the idea is to hold some things constant while focusing the satire on other things, why did he stretch things that seem to have little satirical value? There is little consistency in his method. Example: why is it that one's avatar can't be taller than one's real body, but one's avatar can be a huge penis? His arbitrarily chosen points of satire obscure his intent, confuse the reader, and in general make the Metaverse really spooky. (What are the pall-bearing daemons meant to signify?)

Without commenting on Stephenson's intentions, Caleb Neelon describes the effect of this strictly-realistic-virtual-reality thing. He realized that the plot and much of the main content was bogus, and thus shifted his attention towards the surrounding satirical commentary. Whether he laughed at Stephenson or with him, Caleb extracted what he wanted.

I cannot, however, ignore the possibility that this SRVR (see preceding paragraph) is not a purely intentional device for satire but rather a failure on the part of Stephenson. Perhaps this is truly how he imagines the future of virtuality. He may have prescribed a more accurate description of future technology, as Glen Sanford claims (and as we have witnessed so far in real life), but he really didn't reach very far. Gibson's ideas are drastic, far-fetched, risky. Stephenson's are mildly imaginative but largely more boring than real life.

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