Snow Crash is Neal Stephenson‘s third novel, published in 1992. Like many of Stephenson’s other novels it covers history, linguistics, anthropology, archaeology,religion, computer science, politics, cryptography, memetics, and philosophy.
Stephenson explained the title of the novel in his 1999 essay In the Beginning… was the Command Line as his term for a particular software failure mode on the early Apple Macintosh computer. Stephenson wrote about the Macintosh that “When the computer crashed and wrote gibberish into the bitmap, the result was something that looked vaguely like static on a broken television set—a ‘snow crash’ ”.
The book presents the Sumerian language as the firmware programming language for the brainstem, which is supposedly functioning as the BIOS for the human brain. According to characters in the book, the goddess Asherah is the personification of a linguistic virus, similar to a computer virus. The god Enki created a counter-program which he called a nam-shub that caused all of humanity to speak different languages as a protection against Asherah (a re-interpretation of the ancient Near Eastern story of the Tower of Babel).
In the Beginning… Was the Command Line is an essay by Neal Stephenson which was originally published online in 1999 and later made available in book form (November 1999, ISBN 0-380-81593-1). The essay is a commentary on why the proprietary operating systems business is unlikely to remain profitable in the future because of competition from free software. It also analyzes the corporate/collective culture of the Microsoft, Macintosh, and free software communities.
Stephenson explores the GUI as a metaphor in terms of the increasing interposition of abstractions between humans and the actual workings of devices (in a similar manner to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and explains the beauty hackers feel in good-quality tools. He does this with a car analogy. He compares four operating systems, Mac OS by Apple Computer to a luxury European car, Windows by Microsoft to a station wagon, Linux to a free tank, and BeOS to abatmobile. Stephenson argues that people continue to buy the station wagon despite free tanks being given away, because people do not want to learn how to operate a tank; they know that the station wagon dealership has a machine shop that they can take their car to when it breaks down. Because of this attitude, Stephenson argues that Microsoft is not really a monopoly, as evidenced by the free availability of other choice OSes, but rather has simply accrued enough mindshare among the people to have them coming back. He compares Microsoft to Disney, in that both are selling a vision to their customers, who in turn “want to believe” in that vision.
Stephenson relays his experience with the Debian bug tracking system (#6518). He then contrasts it with Microsoft’s approach. Debian developers responded from around the world within a day. He was completely frustrated with his initial attempt to achieve the same response from Microsoft, but he concedes that his subsequent experience was satisfactory. The difference he notes is that Debian developers are personally accessible and transparently own up to defects in their OS distribution, while Microsoft “makes no bones about the existence of errors.”
Famously, Google says it’s on mission to organize the world’s information. And Wavii says it’s on a mission to understand the world’s information.
Wavii analyzes blogs, tweets, and other web content and tries to organize it so that it can be readily mined for stuff that you’re interested in. That’s quite a challenge. Some internet is already structured with this sort of thing in mind, but there are so many different ways of structuring it, and most web data is unstructured. The dream of a the “semantic web” — where all web content would conform to standard structures to make it easier for machines to organize information — is still a long way from reality. Wavii attempts to overcome this limitation by using machine learning to understand natural language and automatically structure data.
Adrian Aoun wants to build a system that instantly understands everything posted to the internet.
As it stands, Wavii’s online service is a Facebook-like newsfeed for everything other than Facebook. It feeds you news about what’s going on in the world at large, not just random thoughts from your friends and family. But in building this service, Aoun and company are tackling a much larger problem. They’re trying to organize the internet’s information in ways that machines can understand it.
“There’s a world of untapped information out there, in news articles and blogs and tweets,” Aoun says. “What we’ve done is we’ve taught our machines to read those articles, blogs, and tweets, and we extract the concepts that are being talked about. We’re watching the web in real time, what everyone is writing about and talking about, and we’re building structured data that can then be used by automated applications.”
The best analogy I’ve heard about the structure of content on today’s internet goes like this:
Imagine a big port.
That port’s all yours, it’s where all of the things you consume come in to dock. Now, you could hop in your little sailboat and visit all of the island sites you want content from, but that wouldn’t be very convenient. You could visit the maiden isle of The Verge or the continent of CNN.
But no, there’s no time for that. You can have your content delivered.
Well, content platforms like WordPress, Blogger, Medium, and YouTube bring in ships to your port. But that won’t do either — those ships bring in a lot of content but it’s not worth checking each ship individually.
What you need is a monster ship to carry all of the content mediums.
More than that, you need an excellent crew on board that monster ship to sort through the containers of content and pick out the worthwhile bits. That’s what services like Facebook and Google+ try to be — giant transport ships that let you choose your own crew.