Stephenson's Avatar: Mitchell's email address?

Glen Sanford

Stephenson's description of the Avatar reminded me a great deal of William Mitchel's discussion [Offsite] of email addresses and identity. Although an avatar is certainly much more robust than an email address, they share many similar characteristics, particularly the fact that neither fully substitutes for identity. There is no fundamental proof of identity with either. Instead there are a series of assumptions made from appearances that may or may not hold true. Class assumptions can be made based on the quality of the avatar, whether it is a store-bought model, whether it appears in xerox b/w or brilliant color, whether the domain of the email address seems obscure and/or personalized or a well-recognized mass-provider, whether the username is personalized, or a meaningless series of characters.

Gender assumptions are made in the Metaverse, based on perceived the sex of particular avatars. Similar assumptions are frequently made based on gender stereotypes and appearances of email addresses. (most will assume is a man, and a woman) One might assume that a six-foot penis avatar is a man, but that is not always true.

Stephenson plays with class assumptions in the Black Sun, when Juanita appears from a public terminal. Here is one of the founders of the Metaverse, the inventer of faces, appearing in black and white. He also pokes fun at American culture by choosing the names he does for generic male and female avatars: Clint (Eastwood, I assume), a long-standing hollywood code for masculine, and Brandy, a long-standing porn nickname stereotype.

What I find most interesting, though, is that Stephenson wrote this book several years before email became a mass phenomenon. He predicted a whole set of socio-economic trends for an entirely different manifestation of information technology. Stephenson also makes a solid prediction about mass-culture on the World Wide Web. While the number of Internet users is growing at a high rate, there are an enormous number of people in the world who don't know about, don't care about, or can't afford Internet access and may never. Stephenson, in a moment of prescience gives the following description:

In the real world--planet Earth, Reality--there are somewhere between six and ten million people. At any given time, most of them are making mud bricks or field-stripping there AK-47s. Perhaps a billion of them have enough money to own a computer; these people have more money than all of the others put together. Of these billion potential computer owners, maybe a quarter of these have machines that are powerful enough to handle the Street protocol. That makes for about sixty million people who can be on the Street at any given time. Add in another sixty million or so who can't really afford it, but go there anyway, by using public machines, or machines owned by there school or their employer, and any given time the Street is occupied by twice the population of New York City.

that's why the damn place is so overdeveloped. Put in a sign or a building on the Street and the hundred million richest, hippest, best-connected people on earth will see it every day. (p. 26)

Stephenson's view of the 'Net has so far been considerably more accurate and more telling than Gibson's, and I think it's really interesting just how much he has gotten right.

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