Snowcrash's Ethnic Los Angeles
Los Angeles is depicted in Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash as a multi-ethnic hotbed of distorted reality and futuristic Americanism. Urban themes of the past decades are prevalent in Stephenson's Los Angeles of the future: the image of the street and spectacle, urban borderlines/ethnic and social borderlines, and historically-based cultural mistrust. Yet Stephenson takes the urban themes and projects them into his image of the future, namely, an urban L.A. drenched with infotechnology and the cyberspace age.
The primary difference in this world of infotechnology, is the ability of the individual to exist within reality and a simulated reality (i.e. The Black Sun, Metaverse). The ability to mask one's ethnicity and represent oneself in metaverse according to one's own tastes, precludes the dissipation of traditional ethnicity. In fact, it is entirely possible to hide oneself entirely from all society, and simply exist in metaverse as one's chosen avatar. In regards to ethnicity, traditional conflicts based on physicality and cultural mistrust can simply disappear.
However, the characters in Snow Crash do not disappear into isolation. New ethnicities are formed according to social class and according to "who can afford the best avatar." Urban boundaries still exist, but in a different form. As we see in the beginning of Snowcrash, when Hiro moves within the city, urban borderlands do not necessarily consist of the transgression through actual physical spaces so much as the transgression from real space to simulated space. Entering into the simulated metaStreet, Hiro explains the phenomena of transgressing these boundaries:
The moment Hiro steps across the line separating his neighborhood from the Street, colored shapes begin to swoop down on him from all directions, like buzzards on fresh road kill. Animercials are not allowed in Hiro's neighborhood. But almost anything is allowed in the Street. (p.38)
Hiro's designated real urban space does not include the simulated, anarchic "Street" so described in the above passage. In traditional urban tropes of the street, crowds of people swarm about, mixing ethnicities and classes of all sorts within one packed flow of movement. In the street, anarchy reigns as well as danger, in the proximity of strangers and almost carnival-like, surreal atmosphere. Yet in metaverse, the unregulated atmosphere of the streets allows unprecedented urban circulation, one in which there is little or no potential for real conflict:
If these avatars were real people in a real street, Hiro wouldn't be able to reach the entrance. It's way too crowded. But the computer system that operates the street has better things to do than to monitor every single one of the millions of people there, trying to prevent them from running into each other. It doesn't bother trying to solve this incredibly difficult problem. On the Street, avatars just walk straight into each other." (p.40)
Fascinatingly enough, the traditional urban problems of ethnic conflict, overcrowding, traffic and circulation problems, somehow disappear with the creation of the new urban space, metaverse. Almost as if the physical urban spaces and the social/cultural problems and conflicts that were integrally tied to the spaces, once given a separate, symbolic, metaphoric, simulated existence, no longer in reality had to function carrying the burdens of such conflicts. The inner conflict, the metaphysical sense embodied within the physical structure, is injected into metaverse and contained within it, controlled by the programmers of such simulated spaces, a happy prison for the wild inner desires and passions of the subconscious. And along with it, the historical ethnic conflicts of a L.A.'s past, or any historical presence of the city.
The question remains as the the validity of this social reconstruction of traditional urban conflicts. By creating a controlled atmosphere where the private mind is allowed total anarchy, how is reality twisted so that freedom itself becomes separate from the physical self? Are the characters in cyberspace independent of the system? How does the loss of historicity affect an urban environment, how does it affect the collective consciousness of the city dwellers themselves? In Snow Crash, Los Angeles certainly represents an imagined city in the Baudrillardian sense, but how does a city which exists in multiple virtual worlds ever reconcile itself with socio-ethnic realities, and social injustice?
[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]