Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Horatio Alger and Cyberspace

This week's reading really got me thinking about social mobility within imagined networks. Like a lot of recent science fiction, Snow Crash posits the alternate, second reality of the MetaVerse as a utopian realm that liberates its participants from the social and economic constraints of the "real" world. Within the MetaVers, users are freed from their corporeal social status to a new status determined by access to information and places, the ability to hack/code, and a hierarchy of avatar aesthetics. As Snow Crash puts it, Hidden beneath avatars, adept at programming, and armed with access, even U-Stor-It residents like Hiro Protagonist can escape the ghetto of their bodies to a paradise of the mind.

In example:
"[Hiro] steps over the property line, and he's in the doorway. And in that instant, he becomes visible and solid to all the avatars milling outside. As one, they all begin screaming. Not that they have any idea who the hell he is- Hiro is just a starving CIC stringer who lives in a U-Stor-It near the airport. But in the entire world there are only a few thousand people who can step over the line at the Black Sun" (37).

Like the concerns of access, there is also hierarchy of Avatar aesthetics, to be black and white is taboo, "like Xeroxing your face over and over again" and to be a Brandy or a Clint is cheap and generic, "off the shelf". At the top of the hierarchy are those avatars that look the most "real"- human and unadorned- capable of transmitting seemingly authentic human emotions through facial reflexes.

And then there is hacking. Hiro Protagonist's literal card of character. This facet of MetaVerse social status suggests that the utopian realm of digital other is governed by a meritocracy, wherein the most capable people are those afforded the most control.

Is this intentional? Has Neal Stephenson updated Horatio Alger and the filtered rags to riches story through the age of the World Wide Web? Do we really believe that imagined networks and the imagined societies they beget allow for social mobility? If so, what are the limits of mobility? If you succeed in the MetaVerse do you succeed in the "real" world?

This is an interesting baseball card for our dear protagonist that I found on Google Image Search. Just for fun really.

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