IRL Deviations from Snow Crash and The Diamond Age


I first read Neal Stephenson’s duology of future cyber/* punk novels Snow Crash and The Diamond Age a decade ago. As my personal aspirations increasingly resemble some of the elements in the novel, I’ve given them a re-read. I especially want to look how the future in the novels resembles ours, or doesn’t, which like most applied futurology can lead to emotions of excitement, relief or disappointment.


I shouldn’t have to do this and you should maybe skip this paragraph, but I want to add a disclaimer that the point of futurological fiction (or non-fiction) is not to attempt to accurately predict the future, and we shouldn’t judge fiction for how accurate it is, not because it’s unfair, but because it misses the point. Also, just because an author writes a piece of fiction doesn’t mean that they believe or want it to be real.

Some terms used in the books:
Metaverse – a shared 3D world that anyone can go to. When you are there, you have a virtual representation of yourself called an avatar. This is like if Second Life achieved the widespread popular domination as Facebook.
Phyle/Tribe/Distributed Republic – the continental United States, and seemingly the rest of the world, has been fractured from their formerly-defined geographical nations and instead have become a loosely-defined city states which are more like member’s clubs you apply for. Some of these own neighbourhood or areas, but the jurisdiction is hazy. You can easily emigrate from one to another and trade with one or another through something called the Common Economic Protocol.
Nanomachines and their ubiquity – In The Diamond Age, nanomachines, microscopic robots serving a variety of purposes, are everywhere. They’re as ubiquitous as data packets over cellphone networks. An employer might require that you inject some of their nanomachines in their bloo.d
Thetes – those that aren’t attached formally to a tribe that has its shit together, aka the poor. In the modern world, there are many sociological systems, and if you manage to fall out of them, you’re way out and considered an externality. Some of these people cannot read, yet are surrounded by matter compilers. The ultimate high tech, low life.

– In the Metaverse, most people chose to look like themselves. Why? This is very inconsistent with almost anything else we’ve encountered. In Second Life, looking like yourself is considered an oddity.

– In real life, information is not valuable. People will not pay money for it. In Snow Crash, Hiro makes money selling gossip-ish information that he manages to capture. There does not seem to be much of a mechanism to verify the info he captures. Maybe he has like a 5-star eBay rating.

– In real life, the internet connection is very bad. I’ve collaborated with and bounced between San Francisco, Toronto and London in the past year and its shocking how bad something as old as videoconferencing is. (Ranting) and this is on wifi connections! In Snow Crash, Hiro from his car on a highway is jacked into the Metaverse and getting live audio and motion data from dozens of online users from all over the world without issue. Get your shit together, real life.

– In real life, there is not one social media platform; there are several and they have sort-of-begrudging ways to import data from one to another, with minor growth-hackery gotchas to get you to prefer their network over someone else’s. This door-to-door salesperson nervousness is what you have to keep in the back of your mind when interacting with modern internet megacorps. The Metaverse is represented as the only place, and everyone puts their stuff in that space. We know that one location in the Metaverse is a for-profit company (The Black Sun) but we don’t know if the Metaverse is some megacorp that killed all competition or (sounding too good to be true) civilization managed to get its shit together and made an open standard 3D worlds internet implementation that wasn’t terrible.

– Phyles as the major socioeconomic entities makes sense (being a world traveler myself who has to deal with odd border issues), but them being primarily divided based on very old ethnic/cultural lines seems odd, like Stephenson is really into ethnicity based racial traits in his future D&D RPG and he has these really racist character sheets he isn’t sharing with us. This fetishization of ethnicity also appears in the last third of Seveneves. To me this seems uncreatively anti-future.
On the other hand, I have trouble believing that anarcho-capitalist approaches such as phyles will succeed in a major way that has a visibly geographical effect. If you have property at an address, it seems that that address could be seized my an entrenched power. Why don’t larger phyles simply eat smaller phyles all the time?

– Where are the memes? In real life, internet memes are passed around at high speed as an in-crowd intentional incomprehensibility. They’re used as indicators of being part of a group, as a relaxing joke, and as a method of abuse. They take the form of text and images and more and their absurdity often correlates with the enthusiasm of their transmission. So where are the internet fads and memes? By comparison, Stephenson’s cultural worlds feel very static compared to ours.

– Where are the self-driving cars? In Snow Crash, there’s a paraplegic hacker who still has to drive his car semi-manually. It seems like we’re only 5 years away from them in real life. But, that may turn out to be a disaster.

– In real life, people get sim-sickness in VR easily. Maybe the characters who use VR in Snow Crash and Diamond Age are so genetically bred they don’t experience it? Maybe the headsets are way better? Where’s the people who weren’t able to be useful workers because their bodies just didn’t work with VR? I’d say the thetes, but they seem to use VR for trash entertainment frequently.

– In Diamond Age, its a major multi-year cryptographic hunt to track down a certain character (Miranda, Nell’s surrogate mother). There’s much better social engineering techniques to guess a performer behind a mic than brute-force breaking crypto. Particularly if both parties are willing. While tech will always get better, I think the weakest link in security is going to be people for the next 100 years or so until culture catches up.

– Where is the AI in either Snow Crash or Diamond Age, the latter of which is set about a century in the future? When most people ask this question, they assume there will be god level AIs doing things like managing society, or human-level AI android/gynoids acting as receptionists. I’m not sure if either will happen, and I strongly dislike when people mandate what progress will look like with confidence. And yet, there is no representation of AI in the books. In Snow Crash, there’s one research assistant, but that’s presented as a pretty dumb oddity.

– In The Diamond Age, I’m surprised that nanomachine sickness in humans isn’t a perpetual problem. Particularly because it seems each phyle has its own defense grid and thus humans moving from phyle to phyle should be having serious immune system flare-ups each time.

– How is the Earth’s climate doing in Diamond Age? Is it really messed up? Was global warming less of a concern when the books were written, and thus Neal Stephenson didn’t feel this needed to be addressed? The only widepread intra-phyle agreed upon that we know about is the Common Economic Protocol, which seems to allow for low-effort economic relations between phyles and individuals. However, there doesn’t seem to be any government regulations on top of that. So I assume the environment is real bad.

– Is the only way in to experience the Metaverse to put on a VR headset? Surely power-users (such as Hiro, but maybe not YT) would prefer even higher-throughput access, and would use some sort of overview interface when trying to get things done instead of fulling immersing themselves in a 3D skeumorphic representation. Why isn’t there something more like The Matrix’s ASCII-encoded overview of a 3D scene? In Diamond Age, I assume the visual component of racting happens via some light field method that beams images directly into your eyes, so if you need to get un-immersed in a hurry, you aren’t stuck hauling hardware off of your face. Seems like something a security-conscious hacker would prefer alternates to.

– Horse rides are typically really bumpy and strenuous right? So why are chevalines considered top-of-the-line in The Diamond Age? Oh wait – its probably because they have really great control-theoretic algorithms with a fast update loop to keep the second derivative of the rider motion smooth right? That actually sounds amazing; Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog optimized to maintain smooth changes to its rider.

– Given how networked everything is, how is everyone not stalked/doxxed constantly? Is there actually some of mandated network security system finally? Unlike the current crapness we have with our DDOSing Internet of Things crapware? How is this mandate being enforced given that Stephenson’s world is, again, some sort of anarchic independent city-state system? Perhaps the phyle system leads to a Babelian explosion slash Optimal Fragmentation of network architectures, and that makes it harder? Seeing as people seem to be able to contact each other all over the world easily, this does not seem to be the case.

– It seems absurd that a government could accomplish a large software project such as Snow Crash without having at least one programmer who would be susceptible to its effects. Large unweildy organizations being full of incompetent people rings true at least to me, but in my experience with them there’s at least a couple people at the core who are highly competent. How did they avoid the issues as occurred the Monty Python issue?

– Smart Paper is a little inspirational, but still seems like an excessive skeumophism. Smart paper is most often seen in the hands of neoVictorians, and perhaps its usage is over-described thanks to the nature of science fiction [ref I wanted to make but couldn’t: article about an overly-detailed booking of a modern flight in the style of science fiction]

– Where’s the sharing economy-style thing that takes advantage of the ubiquitous poor (especially the thetes)? Hiro’s dashboard pizza delivery interface is rideshare-like, but is there really no value to be found among the thetes? Is AI and matter compilation so good that they are not needed? Possibly.

– In The Diamond Age, the fact that one and only one person in the world (Hackworth) can possibly develop The Seed (as The Alchemist) is absurd. That’s not how Research & Development works at all.

– Facial expression matters quite a bit (noted in the House of the Black Sun). I find most social VR experiences unsettling.

– Gargoyles are unsettling in real life, and represent a curiosity similar to an experimental fashion designer; interesting performance art, but not the path to mass adoption.

– Late-stage capitalism, particularly in Diamond Age. Instead of the Feed being a free, socialized service, its something that must be paid for. I know that dreaming about Basic Income is particularly in vogue in 2016, so I don’t want to get too optimistic about it, but I’m surprised there isn’t at least one phyle that we heard of that is some sort of digitally-enforced basic-income-y system.

– Despite a proliferation of tech, education in the real world is still hard and must be done carefully – hence the value of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. Technology is not magically democratizing, and I’m sick of hearing people talk about it like it is.

Immersive Theater is increasingly popular and relevant. Obviously. Immersive Theatre will only become more popular. Obviously, I’m biased because I’m staking the next decade on predicting that Rakting will become a real thing.

– Customer service dominates in Western Culture for services. Hiro’s deathly fear of being late on delivery has the same level of stakes as dropping below a 4-star average if you’re a rideshare driver.

– Google Earth (directly inspired by Snow Crash)

– In Snow Crash, Computer security, it seems, is universally not done well enough and the people in charge rarely care and people who are actually good at it can get paid well. Security issues are oddly absent in Diamond Age; except for the notion that de-anonymizing ractors is “very hard”. However, as I said, I have trouble believing that and the book doesn’t try very hard to convince me.

– Opt-in phyles with private memberships & rights & responsibilities makes a lot of sense to me, given that I find myself engaging with these sort of orgs more often as I “grow up”, and orgs that care less about whether I have a physical address and have services that aren’t tied to a geographical location are more likely to get my money, more consistently. Could Github or Netflix expand into a phyle? Unclear. Could a private gym, like Equinox, which despite its douchey vibe I considered joining because its location and service were so convenient? They probably could. Except their “initiation” fee is 1.5x their monthly fee, and I’m not sure if I’ll be in SF a month from now so its just being inconvenient for me. What if there was a sort of legal allowance for a non-for-profit sort of company that had a membership fee but also for its citizens had a sort of notion of rights and responsibilities for them? Interesting. Could I join Google as a non-employee but just because I wanted to get their benefits and live on their property? Would that make me a Google citizen?

People often complain about Neal Stephenson’s books abrupt endings. This complaint is absurd and I find he always ends it just when it’s about to turn into a wrap-up of boring loose ends. That being said, here are some loose ends in terms of worldbuilding.

– The matter compilers apparently give stuff away for free (at least the thetes aren’t paying for them), but one of the reasons Mr. X sought after The Seed & encouraged the Fists to destroy Feed lines is that he felt that foreign powers were using their control of matter compilers over China. In which ways were they, overt or otherwise? Who’s paying? Is it only high-end matter compiler items that are being charged for?

– In Snow Crash, we learn that there is extra-terrestrial life infected with the metavirus. This may be the case in most of the universe. By the time of Diamond Age, does the world know more about this? Is it then known that the type of consciousness exhibited by Earth humans is fairly unique in the universe (a la Peter Watts’ Blindsight)? Shouldn’t the humans be shrinking back in existential horror at the alien cosmos and ideally be hiding underground?

– What’s human activity outside Earth during Diamond Age? Based on the chaotic situation on the ground, it sounds like LEO would be in a state of Kessler Syndrome. Are nanomachines being used to terraform things? Maybe everywhere outside Earth is out of scope by definition because a lightsecond delay would ruin any Metaverse or Racting interactions. Perhaps a round-trip delay of more than a few seconds is the new “they’re in the savage colonies”.

– I’d love to think more about how the post-scarcity depicted in Diamond Age is similar to Banks’ The Culture? In the Culture’s living environments, they’re definitely less dirty with semiotic junk and literal nanomachines than in the Diamond Age. Somehow it seems optimistic that the future we’ll be much cleaner than the present. But maybe we’ll get to that cusp some day.

Okay, the phyles and tribes things totally makes sense. Centralized powers can’t be trusted. I really wanted a one-world government with free movement and cooperation across all cultures but I don’t know if it will arise from our currently governments coalescing. It may instead arise from some other system. For now, I’m vacillating about whether to stay in the US much longer – I was thinking of getting a generalized US VISA and actually scheduled a talk with a lawyer about it later this week. It would be silly to cancel that meeting on a whim such as this, but let’s say that I’m looking forward to that with less enthusiasm than I was 24 hours ago.

On the other hand, in the future to come, which in some ways may be about being part of the right clubs, being in more clubs is certainly better (?) because you can at least take a stand in how those clubs are shaped. So, I don’t know.

As pointed out by my partner in Rakting last night over a lot of whiskey, one of the larger flourishings of creativity, particularly in cabaret, was during the politically turbulent inter-war period in the Weimar Republic. When things go poorly, people will be hungering for novel entertainment, so I suppose I should be thankful for trying to make some.
As I walked around this morning in post-election San Francisco, I found everyone I saw much friendlier and more prone to begin conversations with strangers. It’s a bit of shell-shock and reaching out for cognitive hugs, but I like this effect. I think the lesson is to take care of each other, otherwise the people who feel they aren’t being taken care of will prop up someone who promises will take care of them. Thinking or rhetorizing about any group of people as if they’re an externality is bad.

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