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 that 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 cryptocurrency, which is the best-known use for blockchain or distributed-ledger technology. The most famous cryptocurrency is bitcoin. Crypto is the cool thing these days. The cool people who were at Facebook when it was cool are now into crypto.
Steering the conversation away from blockchain and toward 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.
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 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 last week wasted two days 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 for those). But an unusually large proportion has.
There are two worlds: Reality and the Metaverse. Reality is a decaying, Balkanized America, a land in which the federal government has ceded much of its power to corporations, foreign interests, and organized crime. The rich inhabit fortified “burbclaves.” The poor live in containers. The privatized highways are so clogged with traffic that deliveries are made by cyberpunks on skateboards. Everyone’s armed to the teeth. There’s even a character with a nuclear torpedo in the sidecar of his Harley Davidson.
The Metaverse, by contrast, is the next iteration of the Internet: a multiplayer, virtual reality mega-game populated by avatars and accessible only through special goggles.
The defining characteristic of both worlds is that everybody’s private information is readily accessible, not only to the CIC, the for-profit organization formed by the CIA’s merger with the Library of Congress, but also to whoever is willing to pay the CIC for data.
With astounding prescience, Stephenson imagines not only virtual reality — those VR goggles now exist, courtesy of Facebook-owned Oculus — but also Google Earth. Artificial intelligence is here too.
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 favorite sport.” L. Bob’s dastardly master plan 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 Mac “crashed and wrote gibberish on the bitmap,” producing “something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set.”)
I’m not saying that Mark Zuckerberg is L. Bob Rife. Nor am I saying that 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, too. (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.)
Republican Senator Orrin Hatch: How do you sustain a business model in which users don’t pay for your service?
Zuckerberg: Senator, we run ads.
Here are four reasons why much tougher questions were warranted last week. If you ever signed up for Facebook, hundreds of advertisers now have your contact information, and Facebook has your entire contacts list, not to mention a complete record 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 using web cookies and invisible pixels. And even if you never signed up for Facebook, the company may still have a “shadow profile” of you.
In my naivete, 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. Instead, we got the political equivalent of “Snow Crash.”Niall Ferguson’s new book is “The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power from the Freemasons to Facebook.”