Capitalism: The Great Cyber-[Un]Equalizer?

Bill Peña

Stephenson's Snow Crash takes what some cultural theorists call late capitalism to an extreme: cultures retribalize or become inconsequential under the weight of market movements, money loses its value and its importance to the new capital of information/images, and the nation-state becomes largely irrelevent when everyone becomes sovereign.

What most interests me about this societal reshuffle in Snow Crash is the way technology changes how people relate. McLuhan's idea of the global village -- not exactly unique, but made relevent by how he relates "electric technology" and human intimacy -- plays out in the Metaverse, where you get the sense that ethnic affiliations are more or less vestiges of the past, residual elements necessary in the days when geography and barter were relevent. Electric technologies have brought people so close together that they are forced to consider myriad perspectives and opportunities they'd have never known otherwise. Now, in the age of the Metaverse, burbclaves, L. Bob Rife and The Mafia, what is most important is the more basic human values of power, love, mysticism, belonging, and survival. The Mafia is the most prominent example here, obviously. The Mafia, Cosa Nostra, "Our Thing," tantamount to Sicily's best and Rome's worst, is now recruiting black kids in Harlem, Jamaican -- and Mexicans, Asians, whoever -- to become part of "the family." Family is a term of relationships and influence, and not one of genetics. In the end, rather than being "Cosa Nostra," The Mafia is now a multi-national corporation, and though it retains its values of duty and respect and hierarchy, it revolves around the loosest possibledefinition of who is the "nos" (us) in "Nostra."

Hiro[saki] Protagonist, Y.T. (Whitey), Raven ... ethnicity is parody in a hyper-capital, hyper-techno, burbclaved future. It is not merely a return to tribes and clans, the low-level groups that fight for dominance on the social-Darwinian scale, but there is also a fluidity of ethnicity that is unparalleled today. Hiro is so multi-racial it hurts, his roommate is Russian, he delivers pizza for the Mafia, is a citizen of Mr. Lee's Hong Kong, etc.; the startling thing is how different walking through almost any city or town today is, where at least 90% of those you encounter will be of the same racial background. Whereas today, most people will have their preconceptions of other ethnic groups, are wary of interactions with those who are different, are apprehensive and aggressive in conversations about race, people in Snow Crash are just plain cynical about it all. Hiro, L. Bob Rife, Y.T., Enzo, all use ethnicity as a tool, as a relationship, as a component of life, but don't see it as some homogeneous overwhelming goliath, and often couldn't care less where someone's from compared to what they're about and what they do.

Is this the aim of multi-culturalism? Is it necessarily tied to late-capital? Do we have to get everyone *really* close together, get government out of the way, have hyper-inflation, and then let them go at it to prove their mettle? It's a difficult puzzle to discern what consequences Snow Crash really leaves us with, in terms of what we are to do now so that our world is different from Stephenson's 2050. That is, if we even want it to be different.

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