I stopped reading science fiction when I turned 17. I thought reading history would give me better insights into the future. The trouble with sci-fi is that it always predicts 10 out of the next three technological innovations. The future is never as weird in reality as it is in sci-fi. Yet there was a flaw in my strategy. If the future is actually being made by sci-fi readers, ignorance of the genre may be a fatal blind spot.
A couple of weeks ago I had dinner in San Francisco with a bright young crypto crowd. Crypto is short for crypto-currency, which is the best known use for blockchain, or distributed ledger, technology. The most famous crypto-currency is bitcoin. Crypto is the cool thing these days. The cool people who were at Facebook when it was cool and who before that were at Google when it was cool are now into crypto.
Steering the conversation away from blockchain and towards my uncool comfort zone, I asked if crypto people still read books. Yes, of course, but mostly science fiction. Such as? Well, obviously, Snow Crash, my host replied, in the way that I might once have said: “Well, obviously, The Day of the Triffids” — or Fahrenheit 451 or A Clockwork Orange, which were my favourite works of sci-fi when I was a kid.
I’d never heard of Snow Crash because it was published in 1992, long after I kicked the sci-fi habit. It turns out that the novel — by the American author Neal Stephenson — was once required reading for new Facebook recruits. I’ve now read it. So should you. And so should all those senators and representatives who wasted two days last week asking Mark Zuckerberg questions that were either easy for him to answer or easy for him to duck.
Snow Crash is set in an unspecified but not too distant future, so perhaps around now, more than a quarter-century after its publication. As with all sci-fi, quite a bit of the predicted future hasn’t come about (you guessed it: flying cars — still waiting). But an unusually large proportion has.
There are two worlds: reality and the Metaverse. Reality is a decaying, Balkanised America, a land in which the federal government has ceded much of its power to corporations, foreign interests (“Mr Lee’s Greater Hong Kong”) and organised crime. The rich inhabit fortified “burbclaves”. The poor live in containers. The privatised highways are so clogged with traffic that deliveries are made by cyber-punks on skateboards. Everyone’s armed to the teeth. There’s even a character with a nuclear torpedo in his Harley-Davidson’s sidecar.
The Metaverse, by contrast, is the next iteration of the internet: a multiplayer, virtual-reality mega-game populated by avatars, accessible through special goggles.
The defining characteristic of both worlds is that everybody’s private information is readily available, not only to the CIC (Central Intelligence Corporation), the for-profit organisation formed by the CIA’s merger with the Library of Congress, but also to whoever is willing to pay the CIC.
In other words, even if the highways of 2018 are not quite as Mad Max or Blade Runner as Stephenson imagined, much else about Snow Crash is eerily familiar. Globalisation having hollowed out most of the US economy, there are now “only four things we do better than anyone else: music, movies, microcode (software), high-speed pizza delivery”.
With astounding prescience, Stephenson imagines not only virtual reality — those VR goggles now exist and are on sale from Facebook-owned Oculus — but also Google Earth: “a piece of CIC software called, simply, Earth . . . [used] to keep track of every bit of spatial information that it owns — all the maps, weather data, architectural plans and satellite surveillance stuff”.
Artificial intelligence is here too. “For the most part I write myself,” explains an automated online search engine. “That is, I have the innate ability to learn from experience. But this ability was originally coded into me by my creator.”
The plot of Snow Crash hinges on the utter failure of the government to keep up with technology and the ability of bad actors to infect people’s brains (not just their avatars) with malware.
The character of L Bob Rife personifies Big Tech unbound. “Y’know, watching government regulators trying to keep up with the world is my favourite sport. Remember when they busted up Ma Bell [as the US telephone monopoly used to be known]? . . . They were in the same business as me. The information business. Moving phone conversations around on little tiny copper wires, one at a time. Government busted them up — at the same time when I was starting cable TV franchises in thirty states. Haw! Can you believe that? It’s like if they figured out a way to regulate horses at the same time the [Ford] Model T and the airplane were being introduced.”
L Bob’s dastardly masterplan is to infect the minds of all network users with Snow Crash, which is the mental equivalent of a complete hard-drive failure. (Stephenson got the idea when his early Apple Mac “crashed and wrote gibberish”, producing “something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set”.)
What exactly is Snow Crash, asks the lead male character, Hiro Protagonist. “Is it a virus, a drug or a religion?”
“What’s the difference?” replies his former girlfriend.
I’m not saying that Zuckerberg is L Bob Rife. Nor am I saying Facebook is the CIC. I am saying that the people who questioned Zuckerberg so ineffectually on Capitol Hill last week need to read Snow Crash. And maybe they also need to stop taking campaign contributions from Facebook. Since 2014 Facebook has contributed a total of $641,685 to all but 16 of the 105 members of Congress that Zuckerberg faced last week.
Senator Orrin Hatch (Republican): “How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?”
Zuckerberg: “Senator, we run ads.”
Senator Lindsey Graham (R): “You don’t feel like you have a monopoly?”
Zuckerberg: “It certainly doesn’t feel like that to me.” [Laughter.]
Here are four reasons why much tougher questions were warranted last week. If you ever signed up for Facebook, hundreds of advertisers have your contact information, and Facebook has your entire contacts list, not to mention a complete list of all the times you logged in, which device you used and where you were. If you are an Android user, Facebook also logs your call and text history. If you log off Facebook, it can still track your browsing activity. And even if you never signed up for Facebook, the company may still have a “shadow profile” of you.
“Congress is good at doing two things,” Congressman Billy Long told Zuckerberg last week. “Doing nothing and overreacting.” He forgot about regulating horses.
In my naivety I thought last week that the game was finally up for Facebook. Having effectively turned a blind eye to the antics of both the Russians and Cambridge Analytica, Zuckerberg seemed certain to be roasted alive. Instead we got the political equivalent of Snow Crash.