Life on the Street

Daniel Parke

Whenever I read fiction that lands more in science than in fantasy a part of me inevitably contrasts it to my own preconceptions of the future and those posited by others. My reaction to Stephenson's description of the metaverse was to contrast it to the myriad different ideas already floating around in my skull; in particular, I looked at Mitchell. In particular I looked at his description of the Street, but Glen Sanford has much to say about Stephenson's Avatars.

Hiro is approaching the Street. It is the Broadway, the Champs Elysees of the Metaverse... It does not really exist. But right now, millions of people are walking up and down it.

Stephenson's GUI for the net seems to be both Gibson and Mitchell rolled into one. It is (nearly) as immersive as Cyberspace with trodes replaced by stereoscopic wide-angle glasses and 3D sound, but it stops short of being potentially lethal (at least, in theory). On the flip side, however, it is far more conventional in its representation of information. It is a street; it has buildings. Mitchell would be pleased.

Yet this stretch for immersive realism limits the metaverse's possiblities and at the same time brings up many issues that Baudrillardwould no doubt have pointed out with glee. First, the limitations:

The dimensions of the Street are fixed by a protocol, hammered out by the computer-graphics ninja overlords of the Association for Computing Machinery's Global Multimedia Protocol Group in order to place these things [referring to software corporate edifices and advertisements] on the Street, [major corporations] have had to get approval from the Global Multimedia Protocol Group, have had to buy frontage on the Street, get zoning approval, obtain permits, bribe inspectors, the whole bit.

Metaverse zoning laws, it would seem. Yet, on the net today there exist places where content, images, etc are regulated, but those communities @ (cities @, domains-- what have you) are joined voluntarily, presumably because one is willing or happy to work within the rules laid down. But Stephenson's Street has an overarching protocol of size, dimension, and (as I will show) physical laws. Still it is not too different from our own world wide web, that our browsers work on a common protocol of communication (TCP/IP @) and information presentation (HTML @).

Still, Stephenson's Street tries very hard to be real, and for that reason can't allow such silly things as people just appearing out of the air. This makes sense if the next wave of web surfers virtually strolling down a pretty block of Stephenson's information avenue don't want the illusion shattered by seeing a five-foot phallus materialize in their path; but as far as information navigation goes, it seems very limiting.

Like any place in Reality, the Street is subject to development. Developers can build their own small streets feeding off of the main one. They can build buildings, parks, signs, as well as things that do not exist in Reality, such as vast hovering overhead light shows, special neighborhoods where the rules of three-dimensional spacetime are ignored, and free-combat zones where people can go to hunt and kill each other.

In Stephenson's metaverse of information seems to be rooted in space just as rigidly as is the physical realm. It seems, then, to be a step backwards to require the seeker to physically travel that distance. Yes, there are Express and Local Ports, monorails and train stations, but they are still rooted in the created space of the metaverse. To me, this seems too high a price to pay for preserving the illusion of the real. My thought would be to make areas where instant relocation to was not allowed, just as there are places that can not be reached directly on the web today, making the laws of physics a special exception and not the rule.

The issues that Baudrillard (and others) would no doubt bring up have been bleeding into my above arguments, but now I'll look at them a bit more directly.

Stephenson presents an imaginary realm that tries its darndest to be real. That is constructed fully conscious of the real world, and in striving to be real, its simulation ends up being hyper/super/meta-real. The metaverse is a sphere (orb @), but its bigger, because they know the real world is a little pressed for space. The buildings look real, the streets work the way they ought to, and public transportation abounds. But is there litter? Does the smell of exhaust or cities waft out to the virtual suburbs just off the Street? Is there a smell on the Street at all? Are people born ugly? Do people die? No. The metaverse, in trying so hard to emulate has surpassed in simulation the nasty bits of the real world. But it can't be real, then, can it?

And why should it be real? Why must it even resemble anything in the real world? Sure, there's that bit about everything coming from something else that's always nice to hear. Kind of like a security blanket for the uncreative folk who write family sitcoms. Yet why bind a completely world to standards that were built around rules that apply on Earth when those rules need not apply in the virtual space of the metaverse? The simple response to all this is "Snow Crash is satire"; but then the questions I'm asking may be precisely the ones that Stephenson wants us to think about.

Commentary and Responses to others...

  on Wayne Huang's Just one word ... Information

Yeah! I couldn't help but think of the new Bond flic with all this talk about "Wag the Dog" and information power. Another thing that struck me as I was reading was the investment in information. Hiro plants information about Vitaly's music movement hoping it will take off and pay him. But at the same time, Hiro has nothing personally invested in the movement except the time spent finding and sending in information. Kind of makes it like a finder's fee for Hiro, but also seems to make him a banker/gambler, too.

  on Jacob George's Stephenson's Mafia

The movement of the Mafia into "legitamacy" makes me think about legalization and prohibition. One of the reasons the Mafia is so location independent and adaptable is because it can not be sedentary, settled, in short... because it is not legal. The Mafia became truly powerful in America during the Prohibition, providing a service much desired yet not legal. And what is the goal of legalizing drugs? To stop their abuse, perhaps, but also to reduce the profit they offer. It would that prohibiting something promotes it, and legalizing pulls in the reigns. So what about a liberated Mafia delivering very legal (and timely) pizzas. Will it be the end of the Mafia's power? Only if the go entirely legitmate, and black copters and laser sights don't make me think the did.

  on Laura Lee's Snowcrash's Ethnic Los Angeles

Your mention of "New ethnicities" is fascintating. Like that often pointed out oversight or blindspot of Mitchell's, what comes after the @ matters, and there are new standards with which to judge people. Also the metaverse seems at once to present the possibility for expansion and reduce the need for interaction, hostile or otherwise, while also presenting a definite non-displaceable agora that is Down Town. And since it is a located place in space, virtual though it may be, it is very possible for many different groups to gather in the same place.

  on Keith Feldman's And Now A Note From Our Sponsors [no link because essay removed at author's request]

Why not? Why not take citizenship to the same realm of commercialism as everything else? It also seems that there is no actual territory that is GHK. Just a nation of the mind. So what does that make the word country mean? It doesn't seem to be about where you are born or where you live. It seems only loosely based around what you believe in. A nationality of convenience... and profit.

  on Joshua Conterio's Snow Crash: Second-Generation Cyberpunk

"We are even told that events sustain the media, and the media sustains events" (p.118). Interesting idea, making a self-perpetuating machine. Don't... want... to say... it... FEEDBACK LOOP. damn.

  on Steve Cook's Authorial Digression in Snow Crash

How to reconcile Sterling. We're not reading him, but he's got that dual role critic/author thing going on. That he's conscious of the sci-fi exposition problem, what does he do about it? I'm really curious if he or anyone has and can consistantly pull of a smooth exposition (and avoid the other faux pas as well). Does anyone have exempla?

the @ indicates an OFF-SITE link.

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