Snow Crash - Metaverses and Viral Culture
Snow Crash - A book by Neal Stephenson, published in 1992.
In 2021, the book came back into vogue following Facebook’s announcement that they were changing their name to Meta and aiming to develop a metaverse. The concept of a metaverse first appears in Snow Crash.
After actually reading the book, I find the link between Facebook and Snow Crash even more ironic than most journalists point out. Usually, it’s the case that Zukerberg’s vision of a metaverse is contrasted strongly with Stephenson’s.
However, the most relevant part of the book with regard to Facebook, for me, is its theme of ‘viral language’.
The theme/theory is elaborated quite a bit in the book, so I won’t try to cover it too much (actually, much of the theory it is a tad facile. I have to say I enjoyed Cryptonomicon a lot more than this book).
To try summarise:
Humans have a ‘base’ part of their brain, some kind of lizard-brain, linguistic sub-structure. On top of this, they have the language centers that process their mother-tongue.
At one point, all that humans had, by way of a linguistic environment, was the sub-structure(no mother-tongue), and it could be easily manipulated/controlled by certain laws/scripts. Primitive humans were a bit like computers in this sense. Law/programs were like viruses, in that the strongest survived through natural selection. For example, there was a set of steps for making bread. Humans who were exposed to this ‘virus’ fared better than those that didn’t, evolutionary-speaking.
Anyway, at a certain point a guy came along who could understand this sub-structure and wrote new programs which could exploit it (the proto-hacker, Neo-like figure, although this book was before the Matrix). His ‘gift’ to humanity was the same gift outlined in the Tower of Babel myth - humans were given their own individual languages and, since these languages could not be understood by those outside the group, the ‘spread’ of these viruses that targeted the sub-structure was stopped. Now, humans had to learn to think for themselves. Different cultures (demarcated by languages) develop different methods for making bread, and so on.
Babel led to an explosion in the number of languages. That was part of Enki’s plan. Monoculture, like a field of corn, are susceptible to infections, but genetically diverse cultures, like a prairie, are extremely robust.
This is all great for a while, even though the sub-structure of the human brain is tapped into in different ways throughout history,
We are all susceptible to the pull of viral ideas. Like mass hysteria. Or a tune that gets into your head that you keep on humming all day until you spread it to someone else. Jokes. Urban legends. Crackpot Religions. Marxism. No matter how smart we get, there is always this deep, irrational part that makes us potential hosts for self-replicating information.
But, eventually a guy comes along who can tap into peoples brains (another super-hacker) and he uses this power to build a giant raft in the Pacific Ocean, full of his brainwashed followers. Appropriately, the raft resembles a ‘web’ - there are lots of smaller boats tied together with multiple ropes - and becomes a little city filled with lots of diverse groups and societies, all united by their common ‘infection’ caused by the creator of the raft (the villain).
So, if there was ever a parallel between Facebook and this novel, its not in the common use of the term ‘Metaverse’ but in the parallels between Zuckerberg and the villain of the story. If we need a metaphor to understand Facebook it has to be a virus, an infection that threatens to erase the productive difference of language, and not a metaverse - a cool sci-fi concept of a place filled with hackers.