The Architecture of Cyberspace
Neurons are to thoughts what technical hardware is to cyberspace. Although biological mechanics within the head are responsible for creating thought, it would be a grave error to suggest that the neurons = thought. People would think you were crazy because thought is clearly intangible, and more to the point, thought is clearly not mushy pinky gray organic matter. In the same way, I would not argue that cyberspace = computers, bits, wire and cable. These are merely the tools for creating a world which is, like thought, entirely intangible. Cyberspace as a place has nothing to do with physical reality.
So why do we strive to emulate physical reality in cyberspace? The Metaverse in Stephenson's Snow Crash comes so close to reality that it almost lies atop of it, just like the life size map of the Empire in the Borges Fable [see Baudrillard, Simulacra & Simulation]. Avatars, designed to mimic the physical bodies of real people walk streets which look like real streets. Inhabitants within the Metaverse, check in at the office, they locate documents in folders in filing cabinets, they find information in libraries. How antiquated can you get?
Whatever, you might find in our physical world down here on earth, you are sure to find in the Metaverse. Except of course it's not quite as good, because there are gaps in the software: no skies, no pavements.The only difference is that since the street does not really exist--it's just a piece of computer-graphics protocol written down on a piece of paper somewhere--none of these things is being physically built. They are rather, pieces of software, made available to the public over the world-wide fiber-optics network [p. 25].Stephenson thus admits himself that the Metaverse is not reality as we know it. It is a simulated reality. And in order to make ourselves feel more at home within our parallel universe we fill it with stuff that we feel comfortable with.
The problem is of course that we are attempting to apply the laws of physics, chemistry and biology (a.k.a. Nature) to a world that is entirely incompatible with such laws. Cyberspace is completely intangible. It doesn't revolve about three (or even four) dimensions, in fact it doesn't seem to have any dimensionality at all. It is incompatible with our systems of classification. It cannot be mapped to our world in any way. Geography as we know it disintegrates to allow one individual to be in hundreds of places simultaneously; and it doesn't matter if you're entering cyberspace from South Africa or Australia: all you need is a name and a terminal. So why bother pretending that cyberspace is something it is clearly not.
I find it fascinating that Stephenson tries so hard to cling onto a rapidly disappearing reality. His very attempts to create a world that we already know devalue the potential of cyberspace making it into a place of history rather than future anticipation. It reveals the human desire to build on what we already know rather than jumping in at the deep end and taking the risky route of invention and creativity. And the result is that nothing in the Metaverse is as good as real life. The world that Stephenson has created is severely lacking.The Black Sun is as big as a couple of football fields laid side by side. The decor consists of black, square tabletops hovering in the air (it would be pointless to draw in legs), evenly spaced across the floor in a grid. Like pixels. . . Everything is matte black, which makes it a lot easier for the computer system to draw things in on top of it--no worries about filling in a complicated background. [p. 54]
But Stephenson isn't the only one. William Mitchell also imagines a cyberspace which mimics our world in every way. The architecture of our world is redesigned with a computerized twist. Bookstores become Bitsores, Banking Chambers are reduced to ATMs, the Home is suddenly @Home, and shame upon shame, Galleries are transformed to Virtual Museums. Why not create a cyberspace which is utterly disjunct from the world in which we live? I'm not asking for something easy, but wouldn't it be preferable to design something new and creative rather than recombining what we already have and thus trying to force a square peg through a circular hole?
[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]