Sunday, December 16, 2012

Snow Crash and the Art of Making a Digital World

It's hard not to be excited by the world presented in Snow Crash – although perhaps that requires a bit more clarification.

It's hard not to be excited by the Metaverse, a digital world (literally) presented via the wonder that is the Internet. Now, although the Metaverse is something of a unique take on the concept of a virtual world/life-simulator (at least until one remembers Second Life, which, while not extant when Snow Crash was written, has the distinct advantage of existing now even as the Metaverse does not), the notion of a digital world that human beings can interact with, virtually, is not unique. From Neuromancer to Ghost in the Shell to the .hack// games, there is a very large body of work dedicated to exploring this concept.

Nevertheless, the way that Snow Crash goes about doing it is memorable because of the equal emphasis placed on the real world. Granted, a number of other works like this consider real-world consequences as well (the conceit of the .hack// series of games/books/tv shows is a virtual MMORPG in which the main characters are trapped; the new anime Sword Art Online discusses a world in which characters are trapped in a different MMORPG, but their death in-game would result in their death out-of-game, too).

But Snow Crash gives character to its world; the Metaverse is unlike anything you've ever seen, but so are the burbclaves and the CosaNostra Pizza, Inc., which couldn't even be called a “front” for the American mob. It is interesting to note the parallels between these two worlds. Both focus on real estate (prime real estate in the Metaverse means being an early adopter and getting in at the ground floor; in the real world, every suburb is its own sovereign state), and both emphasize a certain libertarian ethic: although the corporatization of America has been taken to an absurd extreme, inside the Metaverse money can still be used to establish one's status as someone who takes the Metaverse seriously; and if one is an extremely talented and skilled programmer, like Hiro, one can use those talents to increase one's status as well.

It is an interesting divide; the poor and the idealistic Hiro in the real world works as the lackey for Uncle Enzo, self-made man of influence, head of the mafia, essentially the “king of the world”. But in the Metaverse, he finds not an “escape” from that life; he becomes a king himself, and others are insignificant before his sword fighting skills, his intimate knowledge of the world and his own programs which help him, for instance, dispose of troublesome body parts left over from said sword fights.

As the lines between reality and the Metaverse blur (as a piece of code in-game has direct effects out-of-game) it asks us to think; what makes the Metaverse any less real, just because one can turn it off? Hiro's status symbols exist and have meaning to thousands when he is in the Metaverse; this is not just an identity he puts on and off at will, however. It is a fundamental part of who he is.

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