Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Speed is God

In a book that starts with the most epic pizza delivery ever, speed is critical. The energy of the opening scene is finger-bitingly frenetic, as the time ticks down and Hiro’s car zooms to its final resting place in a Burbclave swimming pool. Everything rockets along, and some things move too quickly for their motion to even register. This reminded me of the limited flicker-fusion rate (the speed with which our eyes perceive) of the human eye, which makes what happens very quickly either very vague or totally invisible. To us, hummingbirds’ wings are just an indistinct blur and fluorescent lights do not drive us all insane because we cannot see them flickering. With a higher flicker-fusion threshold, we would actually see each distinct beat of the hummingbird’s wings.

For all the technology zooming around in Snow Crash, we are still limited by the range of our senses. For example, besides Hiro and Y.T., no one has ever seen a Rat Thing because they move too fast (94). A few pages later, Y.T. is perplexed by the appearance of a Mafia Town Car: “How do they do it? You see these Town Cars everywhere, but you never see them move, never see them get anyplace. She’s not even sure they have engines in them” (100). The omnipresent yet insidious Mafia manages to elude perception with ease. Even with all of Lagos’ technological enhancements—he can see visual light, infrared, radar, and ultrasound simultaneously—he still ends up getting “slit open like a salmon” (138).

In addition to the ability of the senses to gather information, speed is also crucial in transferring information digitally and connecting to the Metaverse. Many of us can remember the infuriatingly slow dial-up internet connections of days of yore and even today, e-mailing large attachments can be a time-consuming process. In Snow Crash, a fiberoptic cable enables a transfer of information swift enough to create a detailed, high-resolution experience of the Metaverse. The richness and complexity of the digital world in Snow Crash offers a striking contrast to the minimalism and comparatively low-fi vibe of LamdaMOO in “A Rape in Cyberspace.” The speed with which events unfold in LamdaMOO are on par with our flicker-fusion rates, while Snow Crash flies by at an almost supersonic speed, like a hummingbird on steroids.

The virtual reality of LamdaMOO is, as far as I can tell from the article, solely text-based—no flashy graphics or life-like avatars yet. This simplicity permits a great deal of freedom among the users. In the colorful Metaverse of Snow Crash, where the most carefully crafted avatars look just like real people, it is far more difficult to envision the living human being behind the overwhelmingly realistic avatar. But in LamdaMOO, nothing is “real” in the sense that it could be mistaken for real life. It’s just words on a screen. For example, the fact that evangeline describes her room as “infinite in expanse and fluid in form” does not stop the writer of the article from feeling that her room is “claustrophobic” instead, “dank and overheated by virtual bodies, pressing against your skin” (8). Given a text, we are all free to envision it however we wish. But as technology advances, the transfer of information becomes ever swifter and we gain greater and greater control over how our digital selves are presented, leaving less to the imagination. I know nothing about what virtual reality or avatars look like today, but based on animation in movies and commercials for video games, the digital can be incredibly real. Our senses are all too fallible, and can easily be seduced by technology into, if not mistaking the virtual for the real, than into preferring digital perfection to real imperfection.


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