Book Review: Snow Crash

Essay:

Advertising - Forces of good or evil

Copy Text (and Translation)

Snow Crash is a science fiction novel penned by physicist and programmer Neal Stephenson, who is co-founder of the cyberpunk genre.
The book was first published in 1992 and anticipates many concepts that nowadays seem ordinary: virtual reality (known in the book as the Metaverse), globalisation, hyper-inflation and increasing privatisation of governmental responsibilities. It exaggerates these themes and takes them to an extreme, dystopian level, bordering on the satirical. The book explores the thesis that religion, drugs and viruses are essentially one and the same - self-perpetuating information - which is illustrated by means of an elaborate plot centred around a conspiracy for world domination, featuring a biological and a virtual virus, Sumerian myths, linguistic theory and religious fanaticism. The two main characters stumble upon this conspiracy more or less by accident, and are quickly swept away into a fast-paced quest to save their broken, neon-coloured world. The one striking feature of the book is, doubtless, its style. Written entirely in the present tense, it conveys a feeling of immediacy without equal. Combined with Stephenson's often colloquial choice of words, his skill in creating atmosphere by description and the super surrealistic setting, this makes for an extraordinary reading experience that is closer to reading a comic book than an actual novel: bold, colourful, fantastic.
In fact, Snow Crash was originally intended to be a computer generated comic, a project that was abandoned for unknown reasons. Along these lines, the characters appear comic-like: Hiro Protagonist, a Korean-Afro-American swordfighter and hacker wearing a black leather kimono and riding futuristic motorbikes way too fast, and his partner Y.T., a mouthy teenage girl surfing the dense traffic of overcrowded America as a skateboard courier. Though great personages for a comic, both of them remain a bit shallow throughout the novel, in defiance of the author's attempts to lend credibility to the figures by sketching out their personal backgrounds in broad strokes. Most of the time, their thoughts and feelings are concealed from the reader and can only be guessed at by their actions, which, strangely enough, seem frequently incoherent with their stated motivations. More often than not I was left wondering at their seemingly arbitrary reactions, like choosing to have a discussion about the complications of a relationship while running for their lives, or simply not asking an informant the crucial question or not pursuing an obvious clue.
Same goes for every other character in the book, all of them archetypes with little personality: the crippled nerd, the charismatic Mafioso, the unkillable super villain. Often they appear to be slaves to the plot and mouthpieces for the author's theories rather than actual human beings. The fact that Stephenson can write about a character for several pages without even giving her a name (only referring to her as 'Y.T's mom'), and his decision to tell the showdown of the whole story from the viewpoint of a secondary character, ought to say something about the importance he places on them. In terms of structure, the book presents events in a fairly chronological order, though the dramatic composition is in places questionable: plot points are only vaguely defined, and frequently the turn of events appears to depend on accidents and coincidences rather than logical consequences (like the evil super villain falling in love with one of the characters on first sight, and the cavalry arriving conveniently just in time to save the hero).
A good few times, Stephenson robs himself of momentum and suspense by keeping the reader in the dark about what really is at stake. We don't know what precisely is happening, stumbling along with the chronically ill-informed protagonists, and when characters and readers finally have wrapped their heads around a situation, the conflict is resolved, the scene over, and it doesn't matter anymore.
The usually fast-paced action is for long periods bogged down by tedious pseudo-dialogue between Hiro and a piece of software to impart the necessary background information, and vague equivalents of character arcs are thrown into the plot right before the ending: a tragic connection between hero and villain and a lovestory finally gone right, none of it entirely logical or particularly conducive to the story. To sum up, Snow Crash may be a very enjoyable novel due to its great style and 'visuals', if you're not going for rounded characters and highly designed plot as much as I do, and have the patience to bear with the author for page-filling Sumerian mythology and crazy (but well researched) theories.
Personally, I felt that there was much more potential in the setting and the ideas than actually was tapped, that it could have been an excellent book if not for the sketchy character depiction and the sloppy plot development. * * *
Advertising - forces of good or evil? It might sound strange, but one of my earliest memories is of me asking my father a question about advertisements. I asked him why there were commercials on TV in the first place, when everybody knew that nothing they told us was true. Yes, it's that simple for a child. My father, being a quick-witted man, answered that, without commercials, no one would know when a there was something new to try out. I found that plausible enough not to give the matter much thought afterwards - right up until 2009, when the financial crisis sparked my interest in the monetary system and from there in the workings of the economic model we live with today. So, confronted with the question as to whether I think advertising to be a force of good or evil, based on my amateur level of understanding of how the world works, I can only give one answer: advertising is an agent of the forces that sadly define our society today, an agent of consumption and money, altering and clouding the human mind, and as such is definitely to be viewed with suspicion at least. Now, there are unarguably some good aspects to the whole marketing business. A graphic artist by trade, I can without envy admire the craft of those involved in the making of advertisements: how they manage to capture a recipient's attention, tell a story and make it stick, all of it in under thirty seconds or even in a still frame. A whole lot of brainpower has gone into most advertisements, and for those who make them, it is often a creative challenge and a personal achievement to stand out from the bulk of commercials these days. It is not for nothing that there are awards, an entire industry and education system dedicated to the production of advertisement.
This industry produces some high quality ads, some of which communicate important ideas such as 'thoughts are free' by the email provider GMX or 'it's hard but rewarding to be a good person' by startsocial.de. Some are merely clever and funny (though more often than not, a humorous commercial will lose the connection to its advertised product over time).
Organisations such as Greenpeace or the WWF make use of ads to point out issues of global interest, thus showing that advertising's main function is still to raise public awareness. But let's face it - the grand majority of ads is plain daft, and there's no end to it. They take up a significant portion of almost every TV program, magazine or website. In fact, a CEO of the Südwestrundfunk once told me that the movies and shows are just a framework for broadcasting commercials. This never-ending stream of mind-dulling spots flicker over our TV screens, they pop up everywhere, hypnotically, repetitively - have you ever counted the thumbnail brand stickers in any room? That is akin to brainwashing on a grand scale, especially considered the malleability of a child's brain.
And what do those advertisements do? They try to sell. Nothing else. No philosophy, no art, just plain profit. So, could not all the resources that are sunk into marketing be put to better use? MacDonald's alone spends countless billions each year for marketing purposes, all the while the corporation is cutting down the Amazonas forests for food production. Could not all the creativity, the great innovative capability of the human mind that is poured into burger advertising be better used - by thinking, for example, of ways how those billions could be invested into resource-conserving, efficient production? Instead of maximising a profit that is based on damaging the planet and a lot of people's health... But of course, it does not stop there. The influence of advertisement on today's society is far greater than one would assume form a casual glance at the topic. As I suspected even as a child: commercials lie. Not only do they try to sell a product (that in most cases, we would not know of and hence have had no need of without it being advertised), they also try to sell a certain image of it, an illusion of life and happiness that is associated with the product. Given the fact that each and every one of us is exposed to advertisement for decades over the course of our lives, it is no surprise that a certain view of the world has taken over: that we supposedly need to be thin to be happy, that we need to have an iPhone, a life insurance, a designer jacket, a big car running on fossil fuel to be happy. That we need a new version of something we already have.
Now, naturally every sane human being protests at the implication of being that easily manipulated, but be honest - have you never wished to be more beautiful, more successful, less ordinary? That is the true power of advertising: selling an idea of life, then linking a product when the idea has sunken in.
Advertising is the root of hypes, of uniformity of appearance, of the Apple clan. The endless bombardment of commercials competing for our attention in ever shriller voices diminishes our ability to concentrate, to think, to form our own opinion about a product, the world, life itself, instead of chasing after a chimera. You see what I'm aiming at, right? The ultimate goal of advertising is not to inform, not to make important innovations known, as my father told me when I was little, it's not art, it's not craft. The sole purpose of advertising is to instil an artificial need to consume, a need that does not exist until instigated by external force. It does so by manipulating the real human needs, the inherent desire to be loved, to be accepted, to have purpose. It sells to us the idea that those desires can be satisfied by consumption, by amassing material value in our lives, which is, pure and simple, not true. Material wealth has never made a single human being happy, and owning a particular smartphone does not make you hip and likeable. The western world has never before been so rich in material values, and also so rich in mental disorders as now.
Even worse, the never-ceasing encouragement to consume does nothing but distract from the question of how the inherent human desires can be satisfied for real, obscured and falsified by the need to consume. In the end, all that advertising does is reduce human beings to their economic value as consumers.
And where does that lead, ultimately? Right - to more consumption. To planned obsolescence of products for the sake of forcing consumers to buy new ones. To piles of waste. In a society that already uses up everything the Earth has to offer more rapidly than it can grow back. So, about the question of good or evil. Advertising per se is neither good nor evil, it is a mere tool. But it also is a symptom, a symptom of a society that is fundamentally sick, conditioned to mindlessly consume, focused on material values, without regard for natural or intellectual resources, dependent on the insane idea of infinite economic growth in a world of finite resources. It is the carrot on the stick of the monetary system, which in my opinion is the cause of most of our global problems today, and it keeps us from thinking about those problems by glossing over them with even more consumption.
But there's hope: one way or the other, that model of society is going implode on itself sooner or later, and advertising is going to disappear along with the economic insanity we live in today.
Context: Texts for the internet presence of a small start-up business dealing in screen design, visual effects and everything 3D. The main point of it was to bring across the advantages of hiring a new, relatively unknown and small generalist over established specialists in the field. German Version Unsere Leistungen
Willkommen auf der Homepage von drei D!
Wir bieten Ihnen hochwertige 3D-Animationen und -Grafiken, maßgeschneidert nach Ihren Wünschen und passend für jedes Budget.
Egal ob Sie visuelle Effekte für Ihr Imagevideo, eine komplette 3D-Visualisierung ihres Architektur-Projekts oder eine virtuell begehbare DVD wünschen - wir setzen Ihre Vorstellung um, schön und individuell.
Von den ersten Zeichnungen bis zum fertigen Produkt arbeiten wir Hand in Hand mit Ihnen. Damit Sie auch wirklich bekommen, was Sie wollen. Wir bauen Ihre Vision.
Mit frischem Geist und Leidenschaft. Unsere Philosophie
drei D ist ein Zusammenschluss von zwei Absolventen der Hochschule der Medien in Stuttgart. Während unserer Arbeit in der Ausbildung und in der Praxis haben einige grundlegende und geteilte Ansichten zu unserer Philosophie geführt. drei D ist ein junges Unternehmen, und ein kleines.
Wir arbeiten zusammen, aber auch alleine - je nachdem, was dem Projekt am besten entspricht. So erreichen wir ein Maximum an Flexibilität, haben den direktesten Einfluss auf das Endergebnis und vermeiden unnötige Bürokratie.
Unsere Kunden haben so den größmöglichen Überblick über unsere Arbeit, direkten und persönlichen Kontakt und können jederzeit völlig unkompliziert Änderungen vornehmen. Wir machen unsere Sachen selbst und mit Herzblut - und das wird man in Ihrem fertigen Film sehen. drei D ist auf dem Boden geblieben.
Kaum ein rechnergeneriertes Bild entsteht ohne einen praktischen Zweck. Wir wollen mit unseren Grafiken und Animationen diesen Zweck verfolgen, so gut wie nur möglich, nicht weniger und nicht mehr. Wir wollen keine große Kunst verkaufen. Wir passen unsere Arbeit ihrem Zweck an und nicht umgekehrt. Ob subtiler Effekt oder blickfangende 3D-Visualisierung, bei uns zählt nur das Endergebnis. Wir rechnen keine High-End Software ab, wenn Ihr Film keine benötigt. Wir wollen eine schöne Optik, die Ihrem Projekt gut steht, und lassen den Computer im Hintergrund. Wir sind kreative Handwerker, und die Kunst dabei ist die, nur dann aufzufallen, wenn es gewünscht wird. English Version Our Services
Welcome to the threeD homepage! We offer top-quality 3D-animations and -graphics, custom-made and matching any budget. No matter whether you desire visual effects for your corporate image video, a complete visualisation of your architectural project or a virtual walk-in DVD - we make your imagination happen, neatly and personalized. From first draft to finished product we work hand in glove with you. So you really get what you want. We build your vision. With fresh spirit and passion. Our Philosophy
threeD is a union of two graduates from Stuttgart Media University. Over the course of our work and studies, we forged and shared a couple of basic beliefs that now make up our company philosophy. threeD is a young business, and a small one.
The two of us work together, but also on our own - whatever suits your project best. In this way, we achieve maximum flexibility, immediate control over results, and avoid unnecessary bureaucratic overhead. Our customers benefit from this with greatest possible insight into our work, face-to-face contact and the possibility to make changes any time, fast and fuss-free. We don't delegate, we do our work ourselves, passionately and committed - and that will show in your finished film. threeD is down to earth.
Computer-generated images rarely exist without a certain purpose. With our graphics and animation, we wish to pursue that purpose as effectively as possible, no more, no less. We don't want to sell high art. We adjust our work to its purpose, not the other way round. Whether subtle effect, elegant understatement or eye-catching HD render, what really matters to us is the final result: your vision made alive. We don't bill high-end software and countless design iterations if your film does not need any.
What we strive for is an aesthetic look that suits your project, and we leave the computer on the sidelines. We are creative craftspeople - our art is to only attract attention to the screen design when it is desired by our customers.

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