Virtual Reality: The 1992 Edition
So at the encouragement (er...insistence) of one of my professors, I began reading a book called "Snow Crash"by Neal Stephenson. It was strongly recommended to me because of my interests of self-representation in visual, virtual environments. It is a work of fiction, written in (I believe) 1992, taking place in a future LA. How far into the future is not directly specified (yet), but I get the impression it is supposed to be 20 to 30 years. Stephenson imagines a world where pizza delivery is a major professional career, and the government of the United States has failed, giving way to corporate, private, and industry purchase of communities and highways, allowing for city-states with their own laws. In fact, right above the home-base of the pizza joint where our protagonist, (aptly named Hiro Protagonist [or The Delivernator when he was delivering pies]) the mob has placed a billboard promoting the love of their family. Only three chapters in, Stephenson has painted a world of semi-anarchy where Hiro has to deliver his pizzas in 30 minutes or else face possible death from a mob boss (no, I am not kidding). He drives his beastly car with oversized tires, trying to avoid obstacles such as skateboarders who might hitch rides with giant magnets.
Following a major delivery mishap, Hiro is out of the pizza business, and at home...if you can call it home. He lives in a 20 X 30 storage unit with his roomate (who has yet to be developed yet). Hiro owns few possestions, but one of these is a computer, a small slim black box with a camera built into the case, and a strand of fiber optic cables running to the wall. Hiro wears goggles, goggles that act as a monitor for his computer. Through this he is able to access and participate in the Metaverse. Yes, you guessed it, a virtual reality. Headphones built into the goggles allow Hiro to hear, while 3d technology in the goggles allow for him to see this virtual world as clearly as one might see "reality". The Metaverse is about 10 years old at this time, and Hiro was one of the first inhabitants.
By the time I put my bookmark in its place at 3:30am and decided to turn to bed, I was intrigued. The first two chapters where Hiro is the Delivernator, were painting an obvious backdrop for the "real" world in which he inhabits. It is an extrapolation and parody of 1992, with creeping fears of technological and industrial domination. The author runs us quickly through this world, speaking in a narrative that arrogantly assumes we already know something about this world...perhaps because we do. Yet, when introducing the virtual reality that is the metaverse, Stephenson painstakingly details the technology to such an extent that a reader today almost feels insulted.
I almost feel guilty that I am excited to see where this book goes. So far Hiro has left his delivery job, and has entered the Metaverse to escape the "shit" (yes, Stephenson's word...he swears a LOT in this book) that is his life, for at least a little while. Hiro's new job is less than fulfilling, and we get the impression his true fulfillment comes from this alternate virtual existence. It all feels over the top, but is unavoidably engaging. Stephenson's narrative is vulgar, violent, extreme, and filled with vividly disturbing metaphors. Yet by chapter 3, we see perhaps he has a unique insight into a world of technology, networking, and interconnectedness that blurs the lines between reality and unreality. I am intrigued because within a few pages he has set up a world which sounds scarily like Second Life on crack, where participants can purchase land and build their own electronic homestead. Sure, this was not something unforeseeable in 1992...but it was not exactly obvious! How deep the Metaverse is, and what adventures Hiro faces within and outside of it I am anxious to read about.