Monday April 19, 2021. I started writing this outside on the deck, again, on a beautiful sunny day in Portland, OR until i realized I was getting super stressed out on how hard it was putting the shorter links together on the iPad. Slate’s annoying front-end preventing me from selecting/copying text from an article broke me, so I came back inside to hide in the guest bedroom, where I’ve been camped out ever since The Never Ending Pandemic or How We Will Live Now.
I say How We Will Live Now after the reaction to the potential news that the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine might require “another shot” which… makes sense if there are continuing variants, like the common cold? It’s not like a booster, more of hey, here’s this year’s immune system update.
Oh my god, yearly immune system releases marketed as OS releases: “It’s called Blackwell… and you’re gonna love it. We’ve made a short film that we’d love to show you about what Blackwell will bring you this fall.”
Today’s episode is a long one: a couple things that caught my attention, and then the latest installment in my Snow Crash commentary, where I finish out chapter 14.
On with the show:
Just in case you haven’t seen it, here’s the now somewhat infamous still from publisher’s BiliBili’s one-year anniversary drone show celebration for Priness Connect! Re:Dive at the Bund in Shanghai, where 1,500 drones form a QR-code-in-the-sky, leading to the game and a one year DLC package.
Caught my attention because: Okay, where to begin.
First, there’s my riff on William Gibson’s opening to Neuromancer (“The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel”):
For the pedants (of which it turns out there are many on the internet!), yes, the code does resolve, it’s not dead, some people managed to figure it out. Yes, it’s not Chiba City, the port city in which Neuromancer set, and yes, it’s not 2035, which is when Gibson says Neuromancer might be set.
But! Television isn’t really a thing anymore, the idea of drones as a medium that amongst other things like remote sensing, dealing death, producing one take bowling alley ads, act as pixels: anything is a pixel if you try hard and stand back enough.
It felt perfect, really: the background of the neon loglo of New Cyberpunk Shanghai; the matrix of a QR code that looks like unintelligible noise to a human but is eminently readable to machines, and that we need machines to translate for us.
Side thought: if you didn’t know anything about humanity/human culture and a QR code dropped down in front of you as if it were a first contact message, could you figure out what it meant?
There’s so many language layers here: first the QR code, then the QR resolving to a URL, the URL resolving to a numerical IP address, and on and on and on and then back up the stack to “Oh, it’s the game” in an app store or whatever. Happening in what, half a second if you’re on sufficiently wide bandwidth?
But no, the QR code wasn’t dead. But it could’ve been. And you can make fun of QR codes for being a dead technology, one that those of us have been on the internet for a while have had, um, issues with, but one thing you could definitely say about this is that, well, I guess it works? Everyone’s taking pictures of the thing anyway.
So this prompts thoughts like viral marketing evolving to the point where mRNA vaccines (I don’t know, whether for actual viruses or just for fun) backport chromatophores into your skin so you can a) have awesome cephalopod style moving tattoos and, I don’t know, signal your emotional state more clearly, and more dystopianly, b) unintentionally display advertisers’ QR codes [tweet]. This sort of biohacking (sigh) isn’t even a new idea, but I suppose mRNA vaccines are on more peoples’ minds and more in the general consciousness than they were before. The fact that we’re getting mRNA vaccines being copied and then pasted onto github (the filename implies the mRNA string was in a Word document of all things (of course it was), and then rendered into a PDF (of course it was) is only more gestures at whatever era we’d call this.
If there’s anyone thinking of “github but for mRNA strings”, I think the ship might have sailed: there’s enough crossover between biology and computational biology it looks like that github is good enough, in which case yay, Microsoft has accidentally extended into another industry? A computer on every desk in every home, attached to a sequencer and… mRNA printer or whatever?
Caught my attention because:
Previously on Snow Crashing, we were midway through chapter 14, Hiro was learning about L. Bob Rife’s obsession with information control, and more reinforcement of a networked world with a shared virtual reality, but without significant user-created content.
Hiro’s still got more news footage to go through that the Librarian has selected for him, so let’s get to it:
Rife’s bought an aircraft carrier, the Enterprise (after having won a bidding war against General Jim’s Defense System and Admiral Bob’s Global Security private military companies in that extrapolation of privatization).
Back in our world, the USS Enterprise was decommissioned in 2012, which kind of fits with Snow Crash’s potential timeline of 2019-2016, but it wasn’t sold off, nor was it turned into a museum.
Rife’s Enterprise is part of a proto-Raft, where the Enterprise serves as some sort of hub for a floating refugee camp, and at the time of this particular interview, the top deck (a flight deck of 4.47 acres/18,089 square meters)
is swarming with Bangladeshis that L. Bob Rife plucked out of the Bay of Bengal after their country washed into the ocean in a series of massive floods, caused by deforestation farther upstream in India—hydrological warfare.
We’re still talking about water wars in 2021, but perhaps deforestation has been subsumed into the larger and more urgent worry of climate change — instead of Bangladesh being washed into the ocean, now we’re worried about the ocean being washed into Bangladesh due to rising sea levels.
As an aside, the paper that Wikipedia references (New elevation data triple estimates of global vulnerability to sea-level rise and coastal flooding) for the claim that Bangladesh is one of the countries vulnerable to the effects of climate change uses
Of which, a few notes for this increasingly lengthy aside: a) there’s no mention of neural networks as a computing or artificial intelligence technique in Snow Crash; b) there’s only one mention of the space shuttle (as office decoration); c) don’t tell me the space program isn’t for nothing, and d) we’ll save arguments as to whether the radar topography data could’ve been provided by an uncrewed mission.
Short version: current models reckon that 0.9 million people in Bangladesh will be displaced by sea level rise by 2050.
I’ve written before about how Elon Musk is frequently compared to fictional billionaire playboy philanthropist Tony Stark from DisneyMarvel’s comic/film franchise, but I think it’s fair to assume that Musk has read Snow Crash at least once. The implication in Snow Crash is that Rife is very purposefully collecting and distributing people as vectors for the snow crash virus, whereas I think in our world it’s more likely that someone like Musk would act more impulsively: the aircraft carrier would be a base of operations for SpaceX, and it wouldn’t be for refugees and keeping in what he’d call our eggs-in-one-basket gravity well, it’d be for offering them a homesteading ticket off our planet and onto Mars as, well, I don’t want to say disposable labour, but…
Anyway, back to Snow Crash. Rife is shown to be acting like a big-hearted missionary, saving people, throwing out Bible comics to the grateful refugees of a hydrological war.
When he’s accused of the whole Raft thing and saving refugees as being a publicity stunt asked what his opinion is, he says:
“Shit, if I took the time out to have an opinion about everything, I wouldn’t get any work done.”
which, you know, Twitter is a thing that exists these days and feels like another example of a networked world that’s not built around the human desire to just spout off about anything to anyone who will listen.
Then we learn that the Library is full of outtakes. It’s not just broadcast or finished material that’s included: “just because a piece of videotape never got edited into a broadcast program doesn’t mean it’s devoid of intel value.”
There’s not much to take from the reference to tape - this is archival/tape, so even though Hiro is watching digitized video, there’s nothing that says video isn’t being produced and recorded digitally in Snow Crash’s present. At any rate, there’s warehouses full (“millions of hours of footage”) of video tape libraries that the CIC (the merged CIA/Library of Congress) acquired from networks (again! Only “professional” organizations or stringers are recording video), but just like a regular library, if you ask for it, the library will grab it for you.
So then we’re into the outtake footage and we get some insight from Rife: that he’s intentionally creating a “media event” in that it’s self-feeding:
“The Raft is a media event. But in a much more profound, general sense than you can possible imagine […] it’s created by the media in that _without the media, people wouldn’t know it was here, Refus wouldn’t come out and glom onto it the way they do. And it sustains the media. It creates a lot of information flow—movies, news reports—you know.”
There’s a halfway-house here. We still have media amplification, but one of the things that I didn’t touch on last time was the distinction between media and platform. Last time, we just talked about the pipes that Rife owns, and the fact that he doesn’t appear to own any media organizations. Some observations:
Rife talks about “information flow—movies, news reports—you know” and these days we’d call that content and there’s so many more types of content these days than movies and news reports. Again, the whole miss of user-generated content coming from the bottom-up.
Then, the point about “without the media, people wouldn’t know it was here” and, oh my gosh, did we not just learn about the past four years of Trump and Twitter?
The distinction we’re living with today is that the media—humans, making editorial decisions—can and do create “media events” in a self-reinforcing manner, the event that results in commentary that results on commentary about the commentary, but also draws attention to the event, which feeds the event. There’s that, the regular media, and then there’s purportedly non-human media event creation, which for those following along at home we like to call these days as “algorithmic amplification” and things like “trending”.
I say purportedly, because there are still human decisions involved in what algorithms amplify: those algorithms don’t spring forth from nowhere to create bountiful value, in some sort of SV genesis story (“let there be disruption and return on investment”), they’re created by humans and managed by humans. There isn’t “nothing to be done about this”. And then there’s the media-as-platform, the organization that doesn’t create content itself (only, really, meta-content and information about the content, like the “fact” that it’s trending) more as facilitate the flow.
In other words, Rife’s talking about creating a focus for attention, and ramping up and sustaining that attention.
Then we’re into one of Stephenson’s neologisms (at least, I think it’s one), speaking through a character. The journalist interviewing Rife, “desperately trying to follow” says “So you’re creating your own news event to make money off the information flow that it creates?”… and we’re so close to part of what’s happening in our media landscape right now.
Stephenson is kind of using the journalist as an audience/reader proxy here, I think, because we’re told the journalist is bored of this and that Rife’s opinion about this is a bit of a “bizarre tangent”, which means people aren’t really thinking about media in this world as we might be now.
Here’s the phrase Stephenson/Rife comes up with, in the exchange between Rife and the bored/tired journalist:
“You’ve probably heard the expression that the Industry [Stephenson’s emphasis] feeds off of biomass, like a whale straining krill from the ocean.”
“I’ve heard the expression, yes.”
“That’s my expression. I made it up. An expression like that is just like a virus, you know–it’s a piece of information–data–that spreads from one person to the next. Well, the function of the Raft is to bring more biomass. To renew America. Most countries are static, all they need to do is keep having babies. But America’s like this big old clanking, smoking machine that just lumbers across the landscape scooping up and eating everything in sight. Leaves behind a trail of garbage a mile wide. Always needs more fuel.”
I was going to say that we’d ignore the part about biomass, because my first reading of this “Industry feeds off of biomass, like a whale straining krill from the ocean”, is that it’s clearly a metaphor for “the media feeds on people”, or that Content (Information, in Rife’s world) comes from People.
But that’s not entirely what Stephenson/Rife is going for here, I don’t think. Later on, Rife says, after digressing about Crete, minotaurs and virginal sacrifices, and “what must be so scary that [Cretans] would just meekly give up their children to be eaten, every year”, and:
“Those people down there [the refugees on the Raft] give up their children willingly. Send them into the labyrinth [America] by the millions to be eaten up. The Industry feeds on them and spits back images, sends out movies and TV programs, over my networks, images of wealth and exotic things beyond their wildest dreams, back to those people, and it gives them something to dream about, something to aspire to. And that is the function of the rift. It’s just a big old krill carrier.”
The journalist is disgusted. “I can’t believe you can think about people that way” and, you know, it’s nice to know that not much has changed in how many journalists I know would react to this sort of attitude.
There are a few interesting points here!
First, Stephenson/Rife talks about the Industry, implying there’s only one Industry (which is set out at the beginning of the book: movies, microcode and pizza), but nowadays we talk about The Media, or if you want to be more pointed or political about it, the Mainstream Media. Apart from all the opposing point of view franchulates (e.g. the explicitly racist ones, like New South Africa), there’s not much here (and I don’t think we see many examples of it in the text) of opposing media viewpoints. Certainly I don’t feel there’s anything like our current Red/Blue media divide.
Rife is also equating the refus as bits of krill that are consumed and then turned into advertising content to entice more people to America (which is a very 1980s/early 1990s American Exceptionalism Export Coca-Cola and Nikes! point of view), which gets that “disgusting” reaction from the journalist, whereas nowadays instead of people are krill we make jokes about you’re the product or we are all soylent now. I feel like in our mass consciousness there’s certainly more understanding that “the media feeds on people”, both on the celebrity part, and also more recently in the Who’s The Main Character Of The Day On Twitter part. The end result might not be the same: Shrimp Cinnamon Crunch Toast Guy both trending and then Milkshake Ducking in the same day isn’t exactly an advertisement for America (then again… what are the advertisements for America in 2021? In some respects it feels much more relative in that America is less worse than the countries people are fleeing from. But I digress).
There’s this part about “the Industry feeds on [people] and spits back images, sends out movies and TV programs, over my networks, images of wealth and exotic things beyond their wildest dreams” and I suppose there’s an argument to be made that these days you’d say the Platforms feed on people, and spits back a self-reinforcing loop of algorithmically boosted and recommended content. The spitting-back is the distribution mechanism, not just the creation mechanism.
I think a difference here is that Rife/Stephenson is saying that the Industry — a Creative Industry — takes raw people and creates content out of them, and that now we’d say there’s an additional layer, a sort of metadata-recommendation-layer where what’s spit back is things like “what’s trending”. Instead of a human editorial point of view, selecting for “wealth and exotic things beyond their wildest dreams” there’s (sigh) a black mirror that’s just reflecting (sigh) what we want to see.
We end chapter 14 by turning away from Rife/Stephenson’s treatise on the nature of networked media in early-late-capitalism, because
Rife is pissed. He’s yelling. Behind him, the Bangladeshis are picking up on his emotional vibes and becoming upset themselves. Suddenly, one of them, an incredibly gaunt man with a long dropping mustache, runs in front of the camera and begins to shout: “a ma la ge zen ba dam gal nun ka aria su su na an da…” The sounds spread from him to his neighbors, spreading across the flight deck like a wave.
The journalist calls this the Babble Brigade, and in short order there are
a thousand people speaking in tongues under the high-pitched, shit-eating chuckles of L. Bob Rife. “This is the miracle of tongues,” Rife shouts above the tumult. “I can understand every word these people are saying. Can you, brother?”
The first we heard about the babble was back in chapter 2 (“Taxilinga is a mellifluous babble with a few harsh foreign sounds”, and then again in chapter 9, when Hiro meets Da5id at the Black Sun and a cheap avatar whispers “Some language I didn’t recognize. Just a bunch of babble” in Da5id’s ear in the club.
This is entirely not what Stephenson is going for (what’s being babbled are sounds designed to reach into deep linguistic structures into the brain, essentially hacking and programming human behavior), but I’m reminded of recent phrases like “Main Character Cinnamon Toast Crunch Guy Was Milkshake Ducked” that are otherwise completely unintelligible to people who are not Very Online, or to anyone from more than a couple years ago.
Later on, we find out that Rife figures out a way to spread the babble from person to person quickly by embedding them with radios (whip antennae protruding from peoples’ heads), and I suppose the modern day equivalent is the viral spread of a trending meme by radios we’ve voluntarily decided to carry with us, but this doesn’t feel like a particularly deep observation.
One thought I do have though, is whether the nam shub of Enki — what the babble programming is — would be prohibited speech these days. If there were strings of phrases that we’d all be susceptible to, like the funniest joke in the world, or images like Langford basilisks, we’d suddenly have a very strong reason for content moderation and aggressive content filtering. Wouldn’t want to let a brain virus get through, hm? (Of course, this feels pretty impossible: if Enki’s programming language is a full on language, could you completely filter for it? For the sounds? Feels like you wouldn’t be able to).
Anyway. This whole time, Hiro’s in Vitaly’s van on the way to the gig; Y.T. knocks on the window to distract Hiro from his goggles (nowadays: staring down at his phone), and it’s cute that Y.T. has a derogatory name for people like Hiro, preoccupied with their networked computing device (“gogglehead”), where now we’d just say… person who has a phone? Y.T., of all people, tells Hiro that he spends “too much time goggled in” and that he should try a little Reality, and I say “of all people” because I’m totally judging Y.T. as someone who would be Extremely Online these days.
The gig Vitaly’s playing at is at a freeway overpass in L.A., and we get another Stephenson turn of phrase:
the solid ferrous quality of the Vanagon attracts MagnaPoons like a Twinkie draws cockroaches.
and I’m wondering again how Stephenson compares in the league table of neologisms. We learned that the solid, ferrous van is a VW Vanagon (in our world, sold from 1979 to 2002), and I’m not entirely sure if this is one of those (I mean, maybe?) or if it’s a new old Vanagon, in which case it might not be made out of such solid, heavy metal.
Regardless, it’s a super packed concert. There’s a whole bunch of skateboarders there, we learn about the animosity between truckers and thrasher skateboarders (“sworn enemies in the food chain of the highways”).
I’d forgotten this, but Vitaly has goggles too, so it’s not that Hiro’s the only person who has an interface like this, and it’s not like it’s completely rare. But Vitaly has to “hook himself into a computer on the sound truck”, and there’s a reminder that the goggles don’t have compute on their own — despite a future in which computers have gotten faster and faster, they haven’t gotten smaller and cheaper and much more dispersed. They’re still in places.
We end chapter 14 with Vitaly goggled in, then, getting the speaker setup ready for the particular sound the Meltdowns need, and here’s a nice bit: “There’s a 3-D model of the overpass already in memory”, and it feels like we’re just about getting there. Phones and devices like iPad Pros have LIDAR now, and low-resolution depth-sensing devices are all over the place, never mind photogrammetry that can compute geometry based on you just waving a sufficiently high-resolution camera around and having enough compute on the back-end or in the cloud. (There’s no cloud in this booK!)
What’s not clear is if the 3-D model of the overpass already in the computer’s memory is from the Library, or if it’s something that was user-created. I suspect the former, in which case someone had to buy it (or steal it), because we’re still not seeing much evidence of Digital Content Creation: the Meltdowns, for example, don’t have a website, nothing like “a Soundcloud” exists, there’s no Bandcamp, you can’t buy NFTs of their album, there’s no digital distribution of content at all, really. (Later on, in chapter 16, we hear about peoples’ attitude to music: “they’ve never heard any music before that wasn’t perfect. It’s either studio-perfect digital sound from their CD players or performance-perfect fuzz-grunge from the best people in the business”.
CD players! How quaint. There’s fiber optic jacks, but there’s no digital music distribution, and perfect digital sound already exists on CD players. And with all the work that goes into creating places like the Black Sun, unlike 2020’s Fortnite, where Epic announced a three week long concert series. Remember how much I’ve been saying that Fortnite is going to turn into the Metaverse? I’m still long, as the kids say, on that bet.
And that’s it. Next, chapter 15, and Kindle says we’ll be on page 121 of 474, “26%” of the way through the book.
I just want to note one thing: when I started this commentary on Snow Crash, it was 2014. Doordash was founded in 2013, Grubhub in 2004 (and IPO’d in 2014), but it wasn’t until 2014 that Grubhub began offering delivery for restaurants that didn’t do delivery themselves [Wikipedia]. So in the intervening 7 years, it turns out that Snow Crash’s Deliverators — Hiro’s job of delivering Pizza with extreme prejudice, with ratings and consequences if he doesn’t deliver on time, of… questionable business practices… appears to have come about, only there are many, many, many more deliverators than I might have anticipated. Anyone can be a deliverator, now.
OK, that’s it! ~4,400 words this time.
I’m still thinking about how I’m going to do the Snow Crash commentary, because it’s just getting longer and longer. One option is to split it out and have it as its own project (for which I’d probably set up a Patreon?) and then link to it from here.
What do you think? Do you care? And how are you, anyway? Getting your vaccines? Weather good?