Eli Dourado

Hail Neal Stephenson! Snow Crash comes to life

Via Roderick Long, this New York Times article documents the fascinating case of Gurgaon, a quasi-anarchic city of 1.5 million people in India. While the city is subject to state and national law, there is no municipal government to speak of. Services are provided by an archipelago of private communities. In between the private communities there are miserable slums (this is India, after all), but life inside the communities is good. Alex Tabarrok also has a good post offering commentary with which I largely agree. See also The Voluntary City, coedited by Tabarrok.

As I read about Gurgaon, I could not help but think of Neal Stephenson’s 1992 postcyberpunk novel Snow Crash (Kindle version). Snow Crash envisions a future in which most people live in sovereign gated communities called burbclaves, or in the big business version of the same, franchises like Mr. Lee’s Greater Hong Kong. The US government still exists, it just has no power and little territory. Gurgaon is on its way. Builders of the private communities there, such as Tata Housing, have properties in other Indian cities. This is a lot like the franchising that Stephenson imagined.

There are other parallels between Snow Crash and reality. In the novel, the US government has gone bankrupt and had to resort to hyperinflation—quadrillion dollar bills circulate, alongside private currencies. The private currencies in Stephenson’s world are issued by popular franchise communities; they are not decentralized peer-to-peer currencies like Bitcoin. Nevertheless, it seems that a number of governments around the world are in the process of bankrupting themselves through overreach and dysfunctional politics. We may all learn more about private currencies in the near future.

In the novel, there is a flourishing private intelligence industry. Several of the characters are freelance intelligence gatherers for the CIC, the private commercial successor to the CIA. So far, the analogous real-world “private intelligence” organizations like Wikileaks and Anonymous are non-profit, but can for-profit variants be far behind? Or maybe Google is the CIC. Google Earth, for instance, resembles software described in the book, and it has long been alleged that Google has CIA ties.

Finally, there is The Raft, a flotilla of thousands of boats fastened to a former aircraft carrier and each other that functions as a floating city. Seasteading anyone? N.b. that an actual Raft as described in the book would not work. The chop of the ocean would cause the boats to smash each other to bits. So a seastead is the closest possible real-world analog of this element of the novel.

Are there other ways in which Snow Crash is coming to life? Readers are advised that although this post did not contain major spoilers, commenters may need to reference important plot elements to add to the analogy. If you haven’t yet read Snow Crash, beware, and remedy that problem soon.