Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Afraid of extending reality

I’m still reading the last quarter of Snow Crash, but I’m finding myself curious about a minor aspect of the novel: what’s wrong with being a gargoyle? Hiro defines gargoyles (p123-4) with slight disgust: “Gargoyles represent the embarrassing side of the Central Intelligence Corporation. Instead of using laptops, they wear their computers on their bodies… They serve as human surveillance devices… Nothing looks stupider these getups are the modern-day equivalent of the slide-rule scabbard or the calculator pouch on the belt, marking the user as belonging to a class that is at once above and far below human society…. The payoff for this self-imposed ostracism is that you can be in the Metaverse all the time, and gather intelligence all the time.” So, aside from the obvious alignment to a “class” of “geeks” who in the past may have accessorized with fanny packs and pocket protectors and toted around graphing calculators, etc., I want to know what’s so “embarrassing” about a gargoyle. It seems that gargoyles are more than embarrassing; they’re ostracized and othered. For example, Y.T. notices very quickly that Hiro has turned into a gargoyle, and Hiro becomes very defensive, claiming that his device is the smallest belt pack machine ever made, which I guess makes him less obviously marked as a gargoyle (p.265).

And I wondered why this even caught my attention - I think it’s because this struck me as an inevitable part of Snow Crash’s future: if there’s a “Real World” and a “Metaverse,” and people are starting to collapse those two worlds by becoming gargoyles, it’s only a matter of time before that becomes the norm. Perhaps gargoyles are stigmatized in Snow Crash because, as Hiro mentions early in the novel, it’s possible to be very wealthy in one world and inconsequential in the other (although, of course, he also explains that only about 1% of people have enough funds to access the Metaverse regularly, so that’s already skewing the dichotomy of “superstar in the Metaverse/ pizza delivery boy in the Real Word”). If everyone became gargoyles, I bet this disparity between the Real World identity and the Metaverse would collapse (or at least become much more narrow), and the potentiality of creating a “new” virtual identity of “higher value” would also be less promising. So gargoyles are ostracized not because they’re nerdy, but they’re a threat to the higher ups in both the Real World and the Metaverse. (I could definitely be wrong here; I’m just speculating.)

The gargoyles, as well as Stephenson’s description of the Metaverse in general, both strongly remind me of Existenz and “A Rape in Cyberspace.” With gargoyles come the difficulties of discerning virtual reality from reality; virtual reality really just becomes an expansion pack of real life (for those who can afford it and feel pressured to buy into it). The virtual reality of Existenz is ultimately so convincing that it’s difficult to know where the game ends and where “real life” and “true agency” begin - and I’m not convinced that it even matters at that point. (And at one point in the movie, Jude Law agrees with me; he doesn’t want to kill people because it’s impossible to tell whether they’re in real time or the game.) I’m also afraid to ever play The Sims again. Similarly, “A Rape in Cyberspace” collapses “virtual reality” and “reality,” expanding the scope of where/how rape can occur. And becoming a gargoyle resists the separation of these terms.

On a related note - I just saw this on a blog today.
I’m not going to weigh in on the issue here, but it’s definitely an example of how “the real world” is expanding in ways that make Stephenson’s 1991 Metaverse seem almost prophetic: let’s think of online dating sites like as places where people are creating avatars that may or may not accurately reflect who they are in “real life.” If a person is a registered sex offender in real life, should that record follow them into the Metaverse? How about in Carole Markin’s case, where I’d argue that the avatar extended into reality, and she (like many other people on dating sites) decided to collapse the worlds, and was sexually assaulted?


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