Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson

Recently Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke to Casey Newton of The Platformer, for both his newsletter and The Vergecast podcast. It was a wide ranging interview covering many of the hot-button topics of the day – not least Covid misinformation on Facebook’s platforms and what they were doing about it.

But the interview kicked off with Zuckerberg explaining his plans for “the metaverse”, the hot “new” buzzword that is being kicked around today, as being somehow the next evolution of the internet. It’s one of those words that can mean just about anything to anyone, because there’s not really a standard definition for what “metaverse” actually means.

Zuckerberg says that it’s, “A vision that spans many companies,” that it is, “A successor to the mobile internet… You can think about the metaverse as an embodied internet, where instead of just viewing content — you are in it. And you feel present with other people as if you were in other places, having different experiences that you couldn’t necessarily do on a 2D app or webpage, like dancing, for example, or different types of fitness.”

He says that it’s more than virtual reality, crossing all our internet connected devices. He also thinks it’s about more than just gaming. You do need to consider all this through the prism of a company who bought and is continuing to actively develop Oculus virtual reality headsets.

But I’ll leave you to go away and read or listen to the full interview.

Since that interview, a whole raft of commentators has pointed out that the metaverse was a creation of the writer Neal Stephenson in his 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash, as they try to explain what the metaverse actually means today, and what companies who talk about it actually mean.

And it’s not really clear.

At the start of last year, the US media analyst published a very good essay series on what he saw as the metaverse, and in particular examined it through the lens of gaming, where even over this last weekend, Ariande Grande began a series of live concerts within the game Fortnite, that have been hailed as the best in-game concerts yet.

One thing I am now certain of is that, in the same way every company over the last few years has managed to slide in references to AI (machine learning) in every pitch or deck they make, the next buzzword that will become over-hyped and over-used will be “metaverse.”

I was a big fan of those early cyberpunk novels – with Snow Crash sitting alongside other classics from the era like William Gibson’s Neuromancer. They created polyglottal universes with technologies that felt like natural evolutions of where we were at the time, the internet beginning to become mainstream.

From there, you can follow an evolution of the metaverse through things that were actually built like Second Life as well as films and books that took the idea and ran with it like Ready Player One.

With so much discussion right now about the metaverse, I thought it was time that I revisited a novel that I’ve not read in more than 25 years.

Snow Crash tells the story of Hiro Protagonist (You’ve got to think that Christopher Nolan has also read Snow Crash, given the lead character’s name in Tenet), a hacker who we are first introduced to as he delivers pizzas on behalf of the mafia, and J.T., a skateboarding “kourier” who races around an almost unrecognisable Los Angeles.

The book is set in some kind of only-slightly futuristic, yet very different world from our own. Governments have largely disintegrated, and the world is essentially run by free-market franchises, each with their own rules and laws. Instead of passing down homogenous streets with the same brands everywhere, you pass down those homogenous streets, each franchise being a mini-state of its own making.

To escape from this nightmare, people hook into the “metaverse” – an online only world that is delivered directly to their synapses by virtual reality-style goggles that are connected to a version of the internet. Inside this world, is The Street, an imaginary thoroughfare that is thousands of miles long and loops back on itself as if around the world. Real estate around that street exists as bits in the computer, and people appear as “avatars” within that world (Stephenson also popularised the word “avatar” as we think of it today playing games like Fortnite).

The world-building in Snow Crash is extraordinary – with the reader constantly assailed by details of somewhere incredibly well thought out. Everything from how J.T.’s hi-tech skateboard works through to the practical challenges of fibreoptic connections to get into the metaverse.

The novel explores a strange melange of subjects too, getting very deep into aspects of the languages of ancient civilisations, and linguistics. This is a multi-racial world, although it’s a hellish one too. South Africa is back to being apartheid (this novel was published before Nelson Mandela was freed), and the threat of viruses – both computer and otherwise – is real.

While the technology is abstract enough that a contemporary reader today won’t notice too many things that don’t hang together, there are some things that stick out a little more – landlines being one of them. But the book doesn’t really seem all that dated.

This is a dynamic novel, with big set-piece action scenes, as well as some long, often quite abstract discussions. At one stage late in the novel, Hiro holds forth for several pages of what is probably quite useful exposition for the reader who may have got a little lost going down some archaeological rabbit holes.

If you’ve never read Snow Crash, or like me, it’s a long time since you’ve last read it, then it’s very much worth doing so. It’s undoubtedly a classic.

Quite why Mark Zuckerberg finds the metaverse as depicted here to be so exciting is unclear. And if it’s not this metaverse, then I’d probably avoid using the word. The metaverse of Snow Crash is a world of corporate overlords having insane levels of power, and a largely sedated society split, still broken up into social strata. Even access to the metaverse is limited in large part by wealth. This is not a nice place. But it’s well worth exploring as a fiction.

As for our iteration of the metaverse? That remains unclear to me outside of the gaming sphere, but will be worth watching out for, even I’m slightly cynical about it as a concept.