Snow Crash

July 7, 2011

Everything is a virus.

Neal Stephenson is a superb writer of what gets called “speculative fiction”–think sci-fi that at least tries to be realistic. Snow Crash in 1992 was his first novel, and while it lacks the sophistication (and page-weight1) of later works like Anathem and the Baroque Cycle trilogy, it’s got Stephenson’s signature all over it. A typical Stephenson book is a novel-of-ideas in the form of a detective story with apocalyptic significance. But unlike his other works I’ve encountered, Snow Crash doesn’t try to take itself too seriously (the main character’s name is Hiro Protagonist), which is refreshing.

First Impressions

Snow Crash is the first of Stephenson’s books I’ve read that takes place in the future, and I’m impressed. Chapter 3 has a dead-on imagining of Second Life–which is amazing, considering the book was written a mere year after the first black-and-white web page flickered into existence. I think this puts Stephenson in the same class of techno-visionary as William Gibson with Neuromancer.

Another fantastic bit of imagining (which happily has yet to come true) is The Library. In the world of Snow Crash, the United States has fractured into clusters of privatized corporate nation-states, of which the federal government is just one competing among many. Likewise, the Library of Congress and the CIA have broken off from the U.S., merged, and turned into the Central Intelligence Corporation. It makes sense: they’re both information-gathering arms of the (ex-)government, and both increasingly dependent on sophisticated technology to collect, archive, and analyze unimaginable quantities of data. The Library is the Central Intelligence Corporation’s main database, and a bizarre alternative solution to the problems facing the publishing industry today. “Reporters” get, create, or steal information and post it to the Library–everything from music reviews to overheard conversations to sex tapes. If people (or, more lucratively, nations and corporations) find that information useful, they buy it, and the freelancers get paid. It’s hardly publishing since the information is never made public; it’s more like “privishing,” but it works. Lest we take it for granted, there is nothing necessary about public, democratic media.

The Big Idea

There are more or less sensational ways of saying it: either viruses are organizational structures, or all organizational structures–corporations, technologies, even whole civilizations–are viral in nature. Take one example, the business franchise:

The franchise and the virus work on the same principle: what thrives in one place will thrive in another. You just to find a sufficiently virulent business plan, condense it into a three-ring binder–its DNA–xerox it, and embed it in the fertile lining of a well-traveled highway, preferably one with a left-turn lane. Then the growth will expand until it runs up against its property lines. (190)

And later on, extended to entire civilizations:

“Excuse me,” Mr. Lee says. “You are saying civilization started out as an infection?”

“Civilization in its primitive form, yes…take the example of the bread-baking (technology)2. Once that (technology) got into society, it was a self-sustaining piece of information. It’s a simple question of natural selection: people who know how to bake bread will live better and be more apt to reproduce than people who don’t know how. Naturally, they will spread the (technology), acting as hosts for this self-replicating piece of information. That makes it a virus. Sumerian culture–with its temples full of (technologies)–was just a collection of successful viruses that had accumulated over the millennia.” (397)

If it seems weird to think of civilization as a virus, consider the word “culture” with its twin sociological and epidemiological meanings–a culture is something that multiplies on its own. By chance I happened to be reading at the same time What Technology Wants, a book that invites us to think of technologies as having a life of their own. Yes, humans have used technology to spread across the Earth, but if you drop the notion of intentionality for a moment, iPods have used humans to do the same. Sometimes we’re the virus, sometimes we’re the vector.

  1. While Snow Crash clocks in at over 450 pages, Stephenson’s other books I’ve picked up easily surpass 1,000. 

  2. The word in the text here is me, a Sumerian word for the ritualistic prescription for how to do something. Sumer’s bizarre mythology plays a big role in the book, but I don’t want to get into it here. “Technology” suffices as an approximation.