On Snow Crash, Sumer, and a Virtual Rape

Second life, by all accounts, is inspired directly by Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. So I sat down to read it the other day, and indeed, many parts of the novel do read like what I’ve experienced in Second Life. But what really interested me in the book was a part that not many people (to my knowledge) have commented on – that is, the connections Stephenson makes with Sumerian language and culture.

I am by no means an expert on Sumer. My period of interest is roughly 3000 years later. In his book, for the purposes of the narrative, Stephenson argues that the emergence of Sumer as the first civilization was a result of creating new mental pathways; that the beings celebrated as gods in Sumerian literature were actually people who by accidents of evolution, already had the new ways of thinking that made civilization possible hard-wired into their brains; that they invented literacy as a means of ‘infecting’ other humans non-quite-so-advanced-mentally with a ‘virus’ to become civilized (wonder if Stephenson has ever read Dawkins). Anyway, it’s an interesting part of Stephenson’s story, and it reflects some stuff I’ve been reading lately in educational literature.

This would be a much better posting if I could tell you where and what, but leave that aside for the time being (maybe it was Prensky and his ‘digital native’ stuff). In the edu-lit, the argument goes that using computers and immersive worlds constantly (as younger people are often wont to do) is actually re-wiring their brains to handle complex volumes of information in ways that the rest of us, who grew up with mere books, televions, radio and movies, cannot possibly comprehend. The central plot in Stephenson’s book then is a conspiracy to throw all of these digital natives back to pre-sumer days, the easier to control them, by re-wiring their brains with ‘Snow Crash’.

So what’s my point? I had doubted this ‘digital native’ stuff as being any more significant than merely ‘younger people know how to work with electronics’. That is, I didn’t think there was much to the idea that brains were actually being re-wired. I teach media studies at the high school level from time to time, and those students (bless ‘em) are more like ‘digital wood elfs’ – they’re surrounded by technology, they can use it, but they don’t really wonder how it works or what it means. They don’t reflect on their use of digital technologies. I thought of them as I read Julian Dibbell’s piece on a virtual rape that happened in a text-only world. His description of the event and its aftermath is particularly thought provoking…

“I have come to hear in them [his thoughts on the separation of VR from RW] an announcement of the final stages of our decades-long passage into the Information Age, a paradigm shift that the classic liberal firewall between word and deed (itself a product of an earlier paradigm shift commonly known as the Enlightenment) is not likely to survive intact. After all, anyone the least bit familiar with the workings of the new era’s definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a computer are a kind of speech that doesn’t so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words, and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the moment — from the growing dependence of economies on the global flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-letter text of DNA — knows that the logic of the incantation is rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.”

Which makes me wonder. If more and more people become like my digital wood elfs, are we reverting to a world of magical thinking, where to type or say the word is to actually do?