Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Snow Crash: Action Thriller/Social Commentary

Snow Crash depicts a society in which the government no longer plays an active role in the provision of public services such as highway maintenance and law enforcement, those roles having been taken over by corporations such as Fairlane, Inc, WorldBeat Security and MetaCops Unlimited. While traditional economic theory suggests that government intervention is necessary to ensure sufficient provision of these public goods, as private producers would not find it profitable to supply such services, corporations are shown to have successfully taken over production of these services in Los Angeles and elsewhere, and no decrease in standards of living which might be caused by private underproduction is apparent. Stephenson’s depiction of this entirely laissez-faire economy thus appears to be denouncing the need for government intervention in markets, which we might have expected given how counter-culture themes are often present in works of cyberpunk (or post-cyberpunk, as the case may be).

Of course, this abolishment of “big government” does not come without its costs, for the corporatization of America’s public space has caused both social and cultural fragmentation. Los Angeles has been divided into residential districts affiliated with different “franchise nations”, each with their own culture: the “technomedia priesthood” that is Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong is always welcoming to immigrants, while America’s middle class has retreated to “identical, computer-designed” Burbclaves, which only serve as a “culture medium for a medium culture”. This fragmentation is also present on the Raft, where people of different ethnicities occupy different ships, but whereas the franchise nations exist in an uneasy peace at worst, resorting only to stickers, guard robots and law enforcement officers to keep non-residents out, neighborhoods on the Raft are openly afraid that neighboring ships will “gang up on them and cut them loose”, showing how social tensions might arise from fragmented cultures being in close proximity with one another. Snow Crash thus suggests that while doing away with government intervention may be beneficial (or at least not detrimental) on the economic front, the resulting cultural fragmentation and loss of centralized law enforcement can cause social problems in their own way.

Another interesting point to consider is how Snow Crash and Neuromancer imagine cyberspace differently. In Neuromancer, only corporations and “console cowboys” can maintain presences in and manipulate cyberspace, implying that cyberspace belongs only to the economic and intellectual elite. While this same problem is also present to some extent in Snow Crash’s Metaverse, as only around 1% of the planet’s population has access to it, it is also much more inclusive than Neuromancer’s cyberspace, as untrained programmers such as businessmen, ordinary citizens and Kouriers can access the Metaverse just as easily as hackers can. Thus where Neuromancer imagines a future in which unrestrained capitalism and the rise of global megacorporations can exacerbate existing social inequalities by creating technological ones alongside them, Snow Crash suggests how free markets and technology can do the opposite, and insofar as the accessibility of our own Internet appears to more closely resemble Snow Crash’s Metaverse than Neuromancer’s cyberspace, I’d like to think that technological advancements can indeed be a force for social equality.


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