Agents: The keys to the Information Age?

Michael Pellauer

If writers like Stephenson and Gibson are really describing a vision of the future that comments on the present, then it follows that by comparing and analysing their two worlds we can begin to draw out some of the common themes, and worries, that our contemporary Cyberpunk writers are dealing with.

One area, for example, where the writers worlds are very similar is in the high value they place on information. As Wayne Huang points out, Stephenson's world is truly driven by information, and the greatest power stems from the ability to control it. In Gibson this manifests itself through corporations so huge as to be world powers. It is as if the nation-state, faced with the realization that the threat of arms and violence was no longer the ultimate power, simply faded away.

What is striking, however, is the way in which both writers portray this information as being organized and managed. Human beings in both worlds have adapted to sifting through the monstrously large amounts of information with the help of artificial intelligence aides. These aides, which I will refer to as Agents, assist their owners by retreiving pertinent information and summaries of any topic desired, elaborating when the user has focused in on a subject, and sometimes even suggesting links and supplying related topics when called for.

In Snow Crash the agent is the Librarian. An amazing piece of software, the Librarian 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 it can not do is think" (Stephenson, 107). This ability to instantly access and present information on any subject one could ever possibly want to think about makes the Librarian the most expensive piece of software on Stephenson's entire world, even more expensive than the massive surveilance system "Earth." The reason for this is obvious: Earth only presents the user with huge amounts of information, it in no way sifts through it, or present any information about the more abstract things that cannot be seen. Besides, anything significant ends up in the Library anyway.

In Gibson's world the equivalent agent is the artificial intelligence "ghost" Colin. Sent to aide the girl Kumiko in Mona Lisa Overdrive, Colin has a great deal more personality than the Librarian. A chipper attitude and an occassional private joke makes him seem much more human, while an increased cognitive ability allows him to take initiative and draw conclusions on his own. Throughout the novel he calls up information on people and places, serving as an interpreter and even a friend when needed. And, unlike the Librarian, he has a retentive memory. When Kumiko first turns him on he says "Hullo." (Gibson, 3) When she turns him on again a few minutes later he says "'Lo again." (Contrast this to the contruct of the dead hacker in Neuromancer.) When the Librarian's creator is murdered, Hiro refrains from commenting on the matter.

The Librarian knows it, but he doesn't. If he wanted to check the Library he could find out in a few moments. But he wouldn't really retain the information. He doesn't have an independent memory. The Library is his memory, and he only uses small parts of it at once.

The ability to retain information allows Colin the freedom to evolve, to develop himself as a unique personality separate from any other copies of his software that might be out there. This is a freedom denied the Librarian, who, though helpful, never quite saves the day in the way Colin does.

All in all, though it would seem that the similarities between the two outweigh the differences. Both writers, I believe, are tapping into something fundamental, a basic truth that we all must face in the Information Age: human beings suffer from information overload quite easily. Originally we aided ourselves by the use of books as a prosthetic enhancement to our memories. As more and more generations combine knowledge into a vast repository we must once again use a technological prosthesis, that of the Agent, to extend our ability and increase our productivity. Two out of two science fiction writers agree: Agents are the wave of the future. I say they're already here. (Or here. Or here.)

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

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