Monday, November 05, 2007

The Interweb as Seen in Snow Crash: Welcome to the Social



This book is pretty damn awesome. I had gotten through Gibson's Neuromancer/Count Zero/Mona Lisa Overdrive trilogy, and all was well. I had read Spook Country and was unimpressed. A few years before that, I had read Idoru, that was fine, but not revolutionary.

In reading the Neuromancer trilogy again in 2007, I could not help but compare Gibson's cyberpunk view of the future with where we are today. It always astounds me how we can imagine fantastical technologies and worlds in science fiction, yet when it comes to the real world, it is often what we least expect that becomes the most impressive or surprising. The net as seen in Neuromancer is represented by geometric shapes and grids, and we most often see scenes of a program executing, a code wall being 'broken', and 'ghosts in the machine' appearing as entities strangely free roaming the net.

Stephenson, writing some years later, creates a 'Metaverse' that performs in a similar way. The web is still presented to the user as an artificial, 3 dimensional world. It is also accessible to a select few (the hackers). Yet the geometric shapes and grids become something wholly different. The user interface metaphor gets extrapolated into a far wider range of objects and symbols. There is a street, there are neighborhoods connected to it, there are social lounges, there is transportation, there is money and there are information cards. Each of these pieces performs a function. The neighborhoods are akin to local machines, though still able to connect to the larger web. In the social lounges, persons do interact with others, through digital representations of selves known as 'avatars.' Information and programs can be carried on 'hypercards', and the physical act of passing a hypercard from one avatar to another effects a download of that information onto the recipient's computer.

The comparisons to contemporary uses of the web are obvious, with candidates such as Second Life and World of Warcraft. Second Life is the best choice, as, from what I understand, events like interviews, financial transactions, and performances occur in second life in a manner as true to the real life event as possible. The metaphor may as well be the real thing in some cases.

Whether or not such extensive user interface metaphors have a life beyond Second Life, or a game like World of Warcraft, is actually questionable. When 'Geocities' first came on the scene, they attempted to pull a metaphor from the real world-- neighborhoods, blocks and addresses, and apply that to publicly available, free websites. You would find a neighborhood that would appeal to you, such as "South Beach," for those interested in low key, social and personal types of sites, and then pick out a number for your address, like '3027,' if available. The problem with this system was that the metaphor was impractical and unnecessary, a result of our still trying to grapple with how this web should function. Certainly, attempting to create a sense that you had neighbors was a noble effort, but there is no practicality anchoring the practice. In the web, the link between the coincidence that two websites are of similar addresses, is now not nearly as strong as the link between two websites that hold similar content, or enough 'google juice' to put them on the same page of hits. In a web where you can use the shovel of Google to dig wherever, and how deeply you wish, there is no need for a neighborhood. Why create a boundary and a sense of distance or closeness when such notions are wholly irrelevant.

Such, too, is the flaw in the idea of Stephenson's 'Metaverse.' The idea of a linear street connecting neighborhood to neighborhood (including a monorail for high speed travel) does not accomodate the power of the link, the connection that takes you from the blog page of a disgruntled employee to the corporate webpage of the employer whom he despises. In a Metaverse realm of neighborhoods and distance, the leap from one to the other would be unlikely, yet the web as it exists today exists and encourages such practice.

What Stephenson's Metaverse does effectively offer is the notion of projecting one's presence. The avatar, the club, the meeting place create presence in the computer generated realm. However, unlike chatting in a chat room with someone from China, the presence of that person in the same physical space as yourself is incorporated into the metaphor.

Likely more to come...getting sleepy...