The Novel as a Software Development Platform
Media in Transition
Comparative Media Studies Program,
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
“This Snow Crash, what is it? A drug, virus, or religion?”
“What’s the difference?”
- Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash
If Margaret Mead broke the anthropological canon when she went to live among the Samoans, it must also be said that she learned more about their culture than any researcher had before. Objectivity, which confers a special joisannce upon sociological and anthropological research, exists essentially as a left-over nineteenth century fraud of scientism, a myth that bolstered the believability of facts which can not easily be verified.
This paper, which covers a twenty-year span of the culture of “hackers” – in the original meaning of the word, those in love with code and the culture which nurtures this love – involves an act of internal observation. The author, who grew up in the confines of this culture, finds himself forced to report from within the culture this paper attempts to describe, and is therefore necessarily subjective, situated within the land as it draws the arc of its landscape.
In 1978, the author acquired a first-generation personal computer (a Tandy TRS-80) and began to learn how to program it, inadvertently entering a subculture still nascent, mostly confined to the university computing centers around major technical institutions such as MIT and the University of California (Levy, 1984). As this culture grew from a marginalized clique of “geeks” into the white-hot focal point of American culture and commerce (TIME 27 September 1999), it has become increasingly important to understand that this sub-culture has its roots in the entirely imaginary realm, that of “hard” science fiction.
Unlike the fantasy worlds of “soft” science fiction, “hard” science fiction builds upon physically realistic premises to construct worlds where the “what if” element very nearly touches the bounds of the technically possible. The fringed edge between the actual and the possible – constantly evolving in a series of non-linear inflations (McKenna, 1975) – marks the boundary of innovation, the border between ideas and their realizations. In the case of computer software, which is itself the logical structuring of codes to produce a platform for the expression of ideas, the boundary between idea and realization becomes entirely permeable, an osmotic flow of memes (Dawkins, 1990), which, insofar as they can infect the hacker mind, engender the design of new software systems.
It is the thesis of this paper that, for the last twenty years at least, “hard” science fiction has functioned as a “high level architecture” (HLA), an evolving design document for a generation of software designers brought up in hacker culture, a culture which prizes these works as foundational elements in their own worldviews. Hackers, energized by texts which foresaw their own emerging role in planetary culture, have come to see their “mission” as the realization of the visions brought forth from authors like Vernor Vinge, Orson Scott Card, William Gibson, Neal Stephenson and Greg Egan.
A historical analysis of the last twenty years of “important” science fiction – texts which have had a pivotal impact on the hacking community – clearly shows the relationship between these texts and the grand projects of hackers. The author considers his own career in software development – heavily influenced by Gibson and Stephenson – as typical within hacker culture, so this paper will discuss some of the autobiographical aspects of the author’s career as a case-in-point, bringing particular focus to the generalities under discussion.
Part One: Before Gibson (1950 – 1981)
During a 1980 lecture at MIT’s Kresge Auditorium, renowned science fiction author Isaac Azimov announced that he had invented the electronic calculator – back in 1950. He pointed to the opening chapters of his epochal (and influential) Foundation trilogy, in which Hari Seldon, puppet master of the epic, demonstrates a mathematical theorem on a device which displayed its results in “red digits, floating in space” (Azimov, 1950), an eerily accurate reference to the then-popular LED displays used in pocket calculators. While said in jest, Azimov clearly felt some sense of ownership in the age of growing high-tech gadgetry, an age he had described countless times in his books.
A generation raised on Azimov’s tales created the technological world of the late 20th century, translating his ideas – in particular, the artificial intelligences explored in his Robot series of novels – into real-world artifacts. Speaking to Stewart Brand in 1986, Artificial Intelligence pioneer and avid science fiction reader Marvin Minsky pronounced that his own guiding light came from the pages Azimov’s works:
“Well, I think of them as thinkers. They try to figure out the consequences and implications of things in as thoughtful a way as possible. A couple of hundred years from now, maybe Isaac Azimov and Fred Pohl will be considered the most important philosophers of the twentieth century, and the professional philosophers will almost all be forgotten, because they’re just shallow and wrong, and they’re ideas aren’t very powerful.
“When Pohl or Azimov writes something, I regard it as extremely urgent to read it right away. They might have a new idea. Azimov has been working for forty years on this problem: if you can make an intelligent machine, what kind of relations will it have with people? How do you negotiate when their thinking is so different? The science fiction writers think about what it means to think.”
Minsky, as the prototypical hacker, expresses the essence of the hacker’s relationship to the science fiction text, seeing it as the theoretical ground for a kind of natural philosophy that he then tests and actualizes in his own research. Science fiction provides him – and by extension, all hackerdom – a field of ideas to play within, and select from.
The roots of the modern movement of “cyberpunk” fiction can be traced back to the enormously influential writer John Brunner. In a series of dazzling novels written throughout the 1970’s, Brunner redefined the field of science fiction, and clearing the way for authors like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling, established the dystopian world view as the weltanschauung of choice in hard science fiction.
One of Brunner’s novels has had an impact far beyond science fiction; in Shockwave Rider (Brunner, 1975), computer and network sabotage are described in terms that would be familiar today, with worms and viruses snaking their way across the physical and cultural structures of the world, unleashed by a protagonist interested in setting society to rights. As a text, Shockwave Rider represents the introduction of the hacker hero, and this myth likely produced an auto-catalytic recognition and formation of community among the still widely scattered hacker cliques of the late 1970s. Recognizing their own impending empowerment in the pages of Shockwave Rider, hackers began to identify with the goals and methodologies expressed by Brunner, and communities of common interest naturally formed.
The next text of major significance to hacker culture presented a unique, integrated vision of a future both trans-human (in the sense that a transcendence out of human form is expressed in the narrative) and remarkably realistic, bridging the two in a classical story of suspense. Vernor Vinge’s novella True Names (1980) brought apotheosis to the heart of hacker culture:
He looked around, feeling suddenly like a small boy let loose in a candy shop: he sensed enormous data bases and the power that would let him use them…In seconds, they were the biggest users in North America. The drain would be clear to anyone monitoring the System, though a casual user might notice only increased delays in turnaround.
--but they were experiencing what no human had ever known before, a sensory bandwidth thousands of times normal. For seconds that seemed without end, their minds were filled with a jumble verging on pain, data that was not information and information that was not knowledge. To hear ten million simultaneous phone conversations, to see the continent's entire video output, should have been a white noise. Instead it was a tidal wave of detail rammed through the tiny aperture of their minds.
He controlled more than raw data now; if he could master them, the continent's computers could process this avalanche, much the way parts of the human brain preprocess their input. More seconds passed, but now with a sense of time, as he struggled to distribute his very consciousness through the System.
Then it was over, and he had control once more. But things would never be the same: the human that had been Mr. Slippery was an insect wandering in the cathedral his mind had become. There simply was more there than before. No sparrow could fall without his knowledge, via air traffic control; no check could be cashed without his noticing over the bank communication net. More than three hundred million lives swept before what his senses had become.
As Roger Pollack, the protagonist in True Names, extends his consciousness through the planet-spanning networks of the early 21st century, he finds himself transformed into an Übermensch, as far removed from the pedestrian concerns of humanity as we are above the fruit fly. Vinge brought the still-nascent networks of the 1970s inside the skin, and in so doing, delivered a radical new vision to hacker culture. Confusing the boundaries between the machinic and the biological without resorting to the simplicities of the cyborg, offering a new mythology of evolution and transcendence, Vinge infected the hacker community with a new religion, both personal and realizable. Setting the stage for the grand architecture of both virtual reality and the World Wide Web, inspiring those charged with creating these artifacts with a teleology, an expression of the human destiny within them. In Stuart Brand’s The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1987), he recognized True Names – with an afterward by Marvin Minsky - as among the most popular books for sale at MIT’s bookstore, a text reaching hacker culture at its mainspring, and during its most formative years.
The third text which significantly radicalized hackers before the emergence of the cyberpunk movement must undoubtedly be Orson Scott Card’s novel Enders’ Game (1982). At one level, Ender’s Game is the coming-of-age story of Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, the biological end-product of a fascist government program to produce a super-warrior, capable of leading a human fleet into battle against a race of insect-like “buggers”, who are challenging humanity for the supremacy of space, even threatening humanity’s continued existence.
alternative reading of Card’s text draws from the generational power-shift
around the new technologies of computing and simulation. Ender Wiggin represents the child raised
within the electronic age, fully able to harness its capabilities to his own
ends. However, without the age and
wisdom to use his power wisely, he is deceived into fighting a war that he believes
is entirely synthetic, constructed as part of his training in “Battle
School”. When, after a climactic battle
scene, Ender realizes that he has in reality committed xenocide – the
intentional destruction of an entire species – that the Battle School is, in
fact, an elaborate real-time control system for Earths’ fleets of warships, he
understands that he has committed the ultimate sin, an absolute loss of
innocence which is among the most moving moments in the entire canon of science
Written in the first great flush of the video game era – a time when Atari was growing to billion-dollar status – Card neatly reverses the power flows of culture, placing a seven year-old child into the pivotal role as human protector, but pairs this with the absolute destructive capabilities forced on him by his protectors. In the wake of the Persian Gulf War – the “videogame” war, the distinctions between Card’s fable and reality have collapsed remarkably; children playing in elaborate simulation environments have become the marshal arm of the state, using the screen as a mechanism with which they can dehumanize the enemy, making them more effective soldiers.
Above and beyond the ethical dimensions of Card’s work – which has extended into five sequel volumes – Ender’s Game had a significant effect in the world of software development. The vision of the “Battle Desk”, the educational and training environment provided to Ender in the Battle School, reached Silicon Valley’s newest generation of personal computer software designers and hackers, including the renowned John Walker, who, with 8 other partners, founded Autodesk Corporation. Drawing from the possibilities expressed in Ender’s Game, the Autodesk founders created several “environments”, software products modeled after concepts found in the Battle Desk. One of these, AutoCAD, has become the de facto standard for computer-aided design.
All of the Autodesk founders, great fans of Card’s work, saw in it the possibilities of the electronic future, and, using their own particular talents, concretized Card’s visions in a series of products. As the 1980s progressed, Autodesk would become a leader in the virtual reality industry, and Ender’s Game was continually cited as an inspiration by Autodesk employees, even over William Gibson’s Neuromancer.
Brunner, Vinge and Card set the stage for the cyberpunk movement – brewing in the short stories of writers like William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – as they identified the hacker community as central to the emerging electronic culture; in giving these hackers a vision, they also engendered the concretization of the ideas they expressed in their works.
Part Two: Burning Chrome to Snow Crash (1982 – 1992)
Readers of the March 1992 OMNI – a favored magazine in hacker culture – found in its pages a short story by a then-unknown writer named William Gibson. The story, titled “Burning Chrome”, changed the world. In its opening lines, it introduced a throwaway product name, “Ono-Sendai Cyberspace Seven”, which would – because if its particular meaning in the minds it encountered – become the central obsession of Millennial electronic culture.
Taking a page from Brunner, “Burning Chrome” relates the story of two “cowboy” hackers who break into the financial databases of a barely legitimate procuress. However, the theft takes place entirely within a synthetic, imaginal realm that Gibson termed “the matrix”:
The matrix is an abstract representation of the relationships between data systems. Legitimate programmers jack themselves into their employer’s sector of the matrix and find themselves surrounded by bright geometries representing the corporate data.
Towers and fields of it ranged in the colorless non-space of the simulation matrix, the electronic consensus-hallucination that facilitates the handling and exchange of massive quantities of data.
In the context of the emerging sciences of computer graphics and human computer interactions (HCI), these few words decompressed into a galaxy of specific meanings, interfaces, approaches to software design which would influence the field for many years. Most specifically, the word “cyberspace”, now in hyper-common usage as the descriptor for the inclusive field of electronic communication, shows how a single idea in Gibson’s work, has, first in hacker culture, and then in the broader culture (as hackers came to dominate it) become synonymous with a concrete system of products.
Specific examples, such as Hani Rashid’s work for the New York Stock Exchange (Asymptote Architects, 1999), illustrate that the vision delivered by Gibson in “Burning Chrome” has been developed in toto into a tool for the manipulation of vast quantities of financial data, a literal interpretation of the work as a functional description of a software system.
Although “Burning Chrome” reached the hacker community with a vision of the electronic culture of the future, the publication of Gibson’s first novel, Neuromancer (1991), created an entirely new discourse of virtuality, and had a broad and still-unfolding impact on the culture at large. Allucquere Rosanne Stone, writing in Cyberspace: First Steps (Benedikt, et. al., 1991), reports on the auto-catalytic effects of the text as it encountered the communities it would thereby define:
Arguably the single most significant event for the development of fourth-stage virtual communities was the publication of William Gibson’s science fiction novel Neuromancer. Neuromancer represents the dividing line between the third and fourth epochs not because it signaled any technological development, but because it crystallized a new community, just as Boyle’s scientific papers…did in an earlier age.
Neuromancer reached the hackers who had been radicalized by George Lucas’ powerful cinematic evocation of humanity and technology infinitely extended, and it reached the technologically literate and socially disaffected who were searching for social forms that could transform the fragmented anomie that characterized life in Silicon Valley and all electronic industrial ghettos. In a single strong, Gibson’s powerful vision provided for them the imaginal public sphere and refigured discursive community that established the grounding for the possibility of a new kind of social interaction…Neuromancer in the time of Reagan and DARPA is a massive intertextual presence not only in other literary productions of the 1980s, but in technical publications, conference topics, hardware design, and scientific and technological discourses in the large.
As Stone reports, the publication of Neuromancer produced a spontaneous act of self-recognition among widely scattered communities of interest. Within a few months after its release, the term “virtual reality” was coined by Jaron Lanier. Efforts at research facilities as diverse as NASA Ames Research Center and the University of North Carolina, which had been progressing along similar, though hardly identical lines, suddenly came to be seen as “cyberspace” research.
During this period, when Neuromancer was published, “virtual reality” acquired a new name and suddenly prominent social identity as “cyberspace”. The critical importance of Gibson’s book was partly due to the way that it triggered a conceptual revolution among the scattered workers who had been doing virtual reality research groups for years: As task groups coalesced and dissolved, as the fortunes of companies and projects and laboratories rose and fell, the existence of Gibson’s novel and the technological and social imaginary that it articulated enabled the researchers in virtual reality – or, under the new dispensation, cyberspace – to recognize and organize themselves as a community.
Because it produced a seductive mythology of possibility – cyberspace, after all, is a software artifact, and therefore achievable simply by writing code – Neuromancer completely energized the hacker community; the grand project of hackers in the 1980s and 1990s, the “sexiest” work, revolved around the production of virtual reality systems and virtual communities. The author found himself swept up in Gibson’s vision, and in 1991, founded a virtual reality company that he named “Ono-Sendai”, pointing directly back at the inspiration for his own work. It can only be stated that this was a common occurrence in the years after the publication of Neuromancer; thousands of hackers around the world began their own VR projects, working to actualize the text into artifacts.
Although Gibson had many admirers – and many imitators – he remained the singular force in cyberpunk science fiction – as this movement came to be known – throughout the 1980s. No other writer had so eloquently and emotionally effected the direction of the hacker community, until Neal Stephenson published Snow Crash in 1992.
Snow Crash presents a post-Modern view of post-Millennial electronic culture, an infosphere so polluted by competing economic and ideological interests that reality has become impossibly bound up with its virtualization in the “Metaverse”, the field of human activity in cyberspace. As in Neuromancer, the protagonist – named Hiro Protagonist – is a hacker par excellence, but in Snow Crash, Protagonist becomes the savior of humanity, fighting against a set of ideas/ viruses/software known as Snow Crash, which transform the innate linguistic abilities of human beings into a prelapsarian Babel of glossalia. The confusion of codes (drug, virus, religion) produces an equivalence between them, and Protagonist becomes the one person grasps the significance of this equivalence, using this knowledge to create a cultural “anti-virus”, inoculating humanity – and in particular, his hacker comrades – from the vicissitudes of Snow Crash.
In both Snow Crash and Neuromancer, the position of the hacker as protagonist and savior gives these texts special significance in the hacker communities; an act of self-identification takes place almost unconsciously when a hacker reads these texts; when this happens, the osmotic flow of memes can progress in full force, and the technological visions expressed within the texts become hyper-saturated with meaning. The creation of technical artifacts becomes an act of identification with the protagonists.
Unlike Gibson, who publicly professes an almost Luddite distrust of technological apparatus (Gibson wrote Neuromancer on a manual typewriter), Stephenson has been trained as a software engineer, and brought his understanding of software architectures to bear in Snow Crash, some parts of which read like detailed software designs, particularly in his description of the “Metaverse”. In a sense, Snow Crash can be read as the recoding of the evocative language of Neuromancer – broad and ambiguous – into a specific set of techniques that can be defined in quantitative terms.
Because it is so specific, and so evocative, Snow Crash has, like Neuromancer before it, added another word to the language of electronic communication. The term “avatar” (Sanskrit for “incarnation of a god”) has come to define the human presence in cyberspace, at least insofar as it can be localized to a position in cyberspace. Originally coined by Chip Morningstar (Morningstar and Farmer, 1991), the term has now entered common usage. Further, just as a slew of companies named themselves after companies in Neuromancer’s dystopian universe, another generation of entrepreneur software engineers took their own company names – and products – directly from the pages of Snow Crash. For example, Black Sun Interactive, named after the super-hacker gathering place in the “Metaverse” (recently renamed Blaxxun to avoid infringement), founded in Germany in 1994, specializes in the creation of 3D VRML “avatar” environments on the World Wide Web, a direct translation of Stephenson’s vision into a software artifact.
Neuromancer and Snow Crash can be seen as “bookends”, defining the opening and closing of the “classical” era of cyberpunk fiction. Emerging in the brief span between the invention of global electronic networks and their widespread implementation as the World Wide Web, these texts fundamentally shaped our expectations of the electronic era, because they had a defining influence on the communities which created the artifacts that support electronic communication. Furthermore, Snow Crash, because it appeared on the cusp of the Internet revolution, was picked up and carried by it, like flotsam atop a tsunami. The original myths of cyberspace are Stephenson’s, and his vision has become ours.
Part Three: The Diamond Age to Diaspora (1995 – 1999)
Cultural theorist N. Katherine Hayles (Hayles, 1993) has noted the co-emergence of two sets of synthetic ideas during the 1980s: virtual reality, which sees the world as a screen upon which any vision might be projected, and nanotechnology, which sees the world as a material fabric into which any vision might be projected. Noting the ontological similarity of these apparently disparate research endeavors, she indicates that both imply a reflective world-view, where the concept of “reality” becomes entirely subordinated to the field of human experience expressed upon it. Both turn the world into code – simulated or actualized in the fabric of matter – and both provide an idealized universe for the hacker.
In the current era of science fiction, the consilience between the real and the virtual has become the dominant theme; hackers have moved from hacking cultural codes (Brunner), to synthetic worlds (Gibson), and into the real world, drawing no distinctions between them. Once again in the vanguard, Neal Stephenson followed Snow Crash with The Diamond Age: or The Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer (1995), projecting himself into the late 21st century (one of the characters from Snow Crash makes a brief appearance as an aged schoolmistress), an era of a realized nanotechnology which has ushered in an age of global hyper-abundance, without resolving the myriad social inequities of wealth or class.
In fact, The Diamond Age is really two nearly independent texts, one of which concerns the development of the “seed”, a fully realized nanoassembler (Drexler, 1986), another of which concerns the “Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer”, an interactive “storybook” which helps a young lower-class child raise herself (by her bootstraps, as it were) into the highest echelons of society and education. The Primer, a rich virtual environment, requires nanotechnology in its creation; in return, it teaches the child how to create with nanotechnology, revealing to her the mechanical secrets of the material world. By blending a still-nearly-unrealized technology with one ultimate application of that technology – a “killer app” – Stephenson provided both the means and the mythology which catalyzed a collection of hackers, uninterested in the development of virtual worlds, into a self-recognizing community of interest. Interest in all things nanotechnological spiked after the publication of The Diamond Age; it marked the beginning of a broader awareness of the implications of nanotechnology, particularly within the community of hackers - including those who had become loyal fans after reading Snow Crash – who will likely be responsible for the implementation of nano-computational elements, programming reality.
The final text which bears admission into this prestigious collection of singular scientific works has the distinction of opening a new vein in the discourse between the hacker community and the grand projects of hackerdom. Greg Egan’s Diaspora (1998) mixed the virtual and nanotechnological with the principles of artificial life and artificial evolution to produce a text whose long-term impact, the author argues, will be at least as significant as Gibson’s Neuromancer.
In his earlier works, such as Permutation City (1993) and Distress (1995), Egan played with the boundaries between the simulated in the real, and even touched upon the idea of evolution and growth in a non-biological medium. But it is in the pages of Diaspora that these ideas are fully realized, beginning with a stunning and realistically described process of “psychogenesis” – the embryonic growth of a conscious entity – in software.
The Konishi mind seed was divided into a billion fields: short segments, six bits long, each containing a simple instruction code. Sequences of a few dozen instructions comprised shapers: the basic sub-programs employed during psychogenesis…Where it was known that only one code could lead to successful psychogenesis, every route on the map converged on a lone island or narrow isthmus, ocher against ocean blue. These infrastructure fields built the basic mental architecture every citizen had in common, shaping both the mind’s overarching design and the fine details of vital sub-systems.
Built on a substrate of nanotechnology, Diaspora’s “Konishi polis” entirely straddles the boundary between the virtual and the real; terms native to one are freely applied to the other, a mixing of codes typical of this current age of hard science fiction, brought here to an entirely new level. Egan goes on to describe the fractally recursive emergence of sentient processes of consciousness:
By the thousandth iteration, the connections between the traps had developed into an elaborate network in its own right, and new structures had arisen in this network – symbols – which could be triggered by each other as easily as any data from the input channels…Mere recognition was giving way to the first faint hints of meaning
By the end of the exegesis, Egan has taken the concept of “psychogenesis” from conception, through self-identity, and into ego-formation, blending developmental psychology, artificial intelligence (constructivist) and artificial life to produce a road map which, undoubtedly, some hacker, radicalized by Egan’s vision, will attempt to replicate to produce a self-conscious system.
As the tools and techniques of virtual reality, nanotechnology and of artificial life become widely disseminated, hackers infected with visions of a fusion of nanotechnology and synthetic evolution will concretize their ideas into the designs of the hyper-animate forms of the third Millennium.
To sum up: the recent history or hard science fiction has been the defining influence on the direction of software systems development. The hacker community has been strongly shaped by science fiction texts, and this has lead to a direct, often literal concretization of the ideas expressed in those texts. The “grand philosophers” – which is to say, the writers – propose, in sweeping gestures, the shape of things to come. To the degree they are successful in “infecting” the hacker community with the beauty of their ideas, they can expect to see those ideas brought to life.
When the science fiction novel began moved first to recognize, then empower the hacker subculture, making it the heroic focus of its mythology, a series of memetic infections – texts – swept through that subculture, seducing it into becoming the willing engine of creation, the realizing force of fantasy. Since at least 1980, the epochal novels of hard science fiction have, more than any economic force or scientific goal, shaped the output of the hacker community. As the hacker mindset digests the stuff of possibilities, it excretes technologies, a one-to-one relationship between fiction and production perhaps unprecedented in the history of the novel. Novels such as Les Miserables and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have sparked social revolutions, but until Neuromancer, no text had sparked a technological revolution, none had moved from aesthetic to artifact.
In closing, a question must be posed; is it possible to construct science fiction stories so infectious in their technological and ontological dimensions that entirely new revolutions in software can be catalyzed? Can the hacker community be counted upon to dutifully mobilize its resources to translate evocation into reality? Is this a repeatable sociological phenomenon, and is it predictable? Will we wait until it happens again – inadvertently – or should we play with these forces ourselves?
2 Men – 4 Caban (6 – 8 October 1999)