Wednesday, August 25, 2010
Cyberpunkish Musing: Utopia? Or Dys?
Location: RL Desk, Fixing Class Web Site
Over at New World Notes, I have followed the discussion of Neal Stephenson’s response to the erroneous claim in an NPR story. The reporter misused a quotation by the author about Google Earth to claim that Second Life is what Stephenson imagined in Snow Crash. Can we map the template for a cautionary tale over this novel and (to my mind) the better crafted The Diamond Age? That has been my reading of both books.
I’ve been troubled by years about the craving others manifest for that future and, indeed, any future with a transhumanist immersion in consensual hallucinations. It worried William Gibson a lot, too, because, like Stephenson, he set out in part to warn about the power of media. I've lost the citation where he acknowledges the irony of what happened after the book appeared. But as he noted in the now quaintly dated documentary Cyberpunk, his fanboys and girls viewed the Neuromancer trilogy as a sort of utopian roadmap for the digerati in their leathers, high-end computers, and industrial-space housing (at least until they can join the exodus of mind to cyberspace). For Snow Crash, though Hiro Protagonist is just what Stephenson names him to be, my sympathies lie with Raven, Mr. “Poor Impulse Control.” I suspect that Stephenson made him an admirable villain to remind us of who gets left behind, and may fight back, in the sort of libertarian nightmare depicted in the novel. Raven’s glass knives are the ultimate reminder that Meat is greater than Mind, if I may mix my cyberpunk tropes a bit. So, here's a different future from Neo-Luddite, Peak-Oiler me. Not as darkly sexy as Snow Crash or Neuromancer...but reality is always drearier and scarier than SF. As Gibson noted in a recent post, "The Future, capital-F, be it crystalline city on the hill or radioactive post-nuclear wasteland, is gone. Ahead of us, there is merely…more stuff. Events. Some tending to the crystalline, some to the wasteland-y. Stuff: the mixed bag of the quotidian." Read the rest of this post at Gibson's blog to see why he's not simply, to use his words, one of those "aging futurists, who of all people should know better. This newfound state of No Future is, in my opinion, a very good thing." I'm not sure that my vision of the future will be so good for many who use virtual worlds and crave better ones. It will be both quotidian, in Gibson's terms, and very difficult.
We'll run out of cheap resources before we build consumer-grade immersive fantasy-lands online. Our efforts will be more mundane, to marshal our technical powers for survival in a time when not only highways but power grids enter a period of permanently cascading failure. There will be no fusion reactors, Mars missions, everyday nanotech, or Singularity. We'll be spinning windmills, stripping mountains (unless we Greens can stop it) for coal, and going to war for the last oil fields. We'll be growing our own food and patching our own roads to maintain local commerce as we rip apart vacant big-box stores for building materials or repurpose them as village markets as suburbia unravels. "Good enough" technology like Protosphere will be used to avoid travel for those left-standing in business, as a permanent energy crisis sets in. The masses, in a dilapidated society, will play games and not create anything. That's not too different from what many social SLers do now. The games these futurians, looking for a bit of escapist fun, will be good enough. Virtual worlds will remain a niche for a few creators and academics. Utopians and technophiles hate my saying this, but the future is going to look more like a more advanced version of James Howard Kunstler's dystopia in World Made By Hand, not the high-tech dystopias of Cyberpunk. If I'm wrong, the smart-drinks are on me in The Black Sun, when we build some immersive and compelling virtual world far better than SL. If I'm right, I'll give lessons in splitting and stacking wood and fixing old-timey tractors on my farm. We'll make a run to get some bio-diesel from the local co-op and drink some Shine on my porch. We’ll know the direction of futurity in a decade or so. It will be quite a ride.