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‘Snow Crash’ Is a Cyberpunk Classic

‘Snow Crash’ Is a Cyberpunk Classic

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash is one of the most popular sci-fi books of all time, and together with William Gibson’s Neuromancer it stands as a foundational text of the cyberpunk movement. Science fiction author Anthony Ha was blown away by Snow Crash when he first read it back in the late ’90s.

“This was a period when there were some clunky representations of virtual reality in movies and TV,” Ha says in Episode 487 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “So it wasn’t that Snow Crash was the first time I encountered that kind of iconography, but it was the first time it actually seemed cool.”

Snow Crash tells the story of Hiro Protagonist, a katana-wielding hacker who jumps back and forth between dystopian Los Angeles and a virtual world called the Metaverse. Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy host David Barr Kirtley notes that the novel has inspired countless entrepreneurs and inventors, including John Carmack, Reid Hoffman, and Palmer Luckey. “I started making a list of everyone in Silicon Valley who’s cited this work as inspiring them,” Kirtley says, “and I just kind of stopped at a certain point, because it was basically everyone.”

Snow Crash is still as fun and stylish as ever, but some aspects of the book have dated poorly. Science fiction professor Lisa Yaszek says that from the vantage of 2021, the book has some weaknesses when it comes to race and gender. “If you’re someone who wants to learn a lot about the history and development of cyberpunk, I do still think it’s important to read, because it is an important intervention,” she says. “It’s the moment before cyberpunk really becomes a global storytelling mode, where all kinds of people—authors of color, LGBTQ+ authors—are really going to start using it.”

Science fiction author Sam J. Miller notes that the characters in Snow Crash also feel a bit thin, to the extent that a robotic guard dog named Rat Thing stands out as one of the book’s most sympathetic characters. “In a lot of ways I think that Rat Thing might be the character who comes the closest to having heart, and an emotional arc, and who made me really feel things,” Miller says. “Everybody else is like, they’ve got three pairs of sunglasses on they’re so cool.”

Listen to the complete interview with Anthony Ha, Lisa Yaszek, and Sam J. Miller in Episode 487 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

David Barr Kirtley on character development:

“Hiro seemed interesting, and he had this interesting background with his parents, and Y.T. had this relationship with her mom. But I felt like as the book went on the character development just kind of dropped out. We never really saw much of Juanita or Da5id—I mean, he’s in a coma but he could have come out of it. There were so many characters and so many organizations, and it got really, really complicated. It’s all cool, everything in this book is super cool, but I did kind of feel like the characterization [was lacking]. There was no emotional vulnerability or heart-to-heart moments really, or people feeling regrets or anything like that. It just felt very on the surface.”

Anthony Ha on backstory:

“The problem is that if you’re reading the book for the plot, the [backstory] becomes a distraction, where at key, climactic moments, suddenly Hiro will jump back to the library and have a discussion about [ancient Sumeria] with the Librarian when he’s about to have another sword fight or something like that. So especially on a first read, especially if you’re younger, I think your foot is just kind of tapping impatiently like, ‘Why am I reading this?’ … It’s a cool MacGuffin for the story, it was interesting learning about Sumerian mythology, but there were times when it felt like a lot of words just to have Stephenson essentially say, ‘Man, isn’t language just like a virus? Isn’t that cool?’ And I was like, ‘It is cool, but it’s not maybe worth quite so many words.’”

Sam J. Miller on floating cities:

“One of the things I did prior to writing Blackfish City was I visited—in Cambodia—a community of folks who are primarily Vietnamese refugees, who are essentially a floating community. They have a church, and a school, and all these things on floats, and they have a convenience store that sells lottery tickets and gasoline, and they have alligator farms. It’s amazing, and it’s also deeply tragic, and not a super high standard of living. In large part they’re there because their ability to live on land—because of immigration issues—is limited. [Floating cities] are a cool idea, but I think in practice it’s the kind of scenario that would only evolve by necessity, and would probably not be super great.”

Lisa Yaszek on economics:

“What’s interesting is the use that people put the virus to, which is to appropriate bodies for the production of goods that don’t go to those bodies themselves. So [Snow Crash] is thinking as much about labor as it is thinking about language, and that’s the part of it that I still find interesting. … In a lot of ways I think it’s a response to William Gibson. I like it because I’m a sucker for utopian thinking, but I think Gibson is often naively utopian about the ability of marginalized communities to resist incorporation and destruction by promissory engagement with capitalism. I think part of what this book does, and what I like, is that it explores how likely that would be—can you really stay out of the nets of capitalism or not?”


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A Devastating Twitch Hack Sends Streamers Reeling

A Devastating Twitch Hack Sends Streamers Reeling

This morning, an anonymous hacker released what they claim is an enormous cache of proprietary data from Twitch, the popular streaming platform, including Twitch.tv source code and streamers’ revenue information.

“Jeff Bezos paid $970 million for this, we’re giving it away FOR FREE,” wrote the poster on 4chan. Today’s leak, which its original poster described as “extremely poggers,” is by far the biggest to ever hit Twitch, which was acquired by Amazon in 2014.

The leak, first reported by Video Games Chronicle, reportedly contains 125 GB of data. That data includes the source code for Twitch.tv; Twitch’s mobile, desktop, and game console clients; proprietary SDKs; Twitch-owned properties including Vapor, Amazon’s alleged Steam competitor from Amazon Game Studios; and internal security tools. The leak does not appear to contain streamers’ or users’ personal information, but the damage appears extensive. The post is titled “twitch leaks part one,” implying that there may be more to come.

“Anytime source code gets leaked it’s not good and potentially disastrous,” says Ekram Ahmed, spokesperson at security firm Check Point. “It opens a gigantic door for evildoers to find cracks in the system, lace malware, and potentially steal sensitive information.”

The 4chan poster also referenced Twitch’s recent wave of hate raids, in which botmakers have been spamming marginalized streamers’ chats with bigoted harassment. Mentioning the #DoBetterTwitch hashtag (more commonly #TwitchDoBetter), the poster claimed that Twitch is a “disgusting cesspool.” They wrote that the leak, which appears to contain huge amounts of proprietary data, is to “foster more disruption and competition in the online video game streaming space.” Twitch has introduced several new tools to combat these hate raids, and sued two alleged hate raiders last month.

Twitch declined to comment to WIRED but confirmed Wednesday morning that a breach had taken place. “Our teams are working with urgency to understand the extent of this,” the official Twitch account tweeted. “We will update the community as soon as additional information is available.”

“I wish I could say I’m surprised,” says Avery, a streamer who goes by Littlesiha and does not publicly share her last name for privacy reasons. “It took Twitch two months to find a way to protect marginalized creators that were getting harassed, threatened, and doxed through chatbot raids. Security on the site feels like a joke at this point.”

While much of the data appears to be legitimate, there is some debate over the accuracy of streamers’ revenue numbers. Some streamers have tweeted that their payout numbers are accurate, while others have claimed otherwise. “It was wrong, for my number,” said popular Twitch personality Asmongold while streaming Amazon’s new video game New World this morning. “It’s harder to fuck up more than this,” he told WIRED.

Also streaming on Twitch, Nick “NMP” Polom said, “I kind of feel violated right now.” His viewers, numbering in the tens of thousands, took the leak as an opportunity to meme, donating money attached to messages like “Seems like you need this more than me. I work at McDonald’s.” (On Twitter, he wrote that he is “live right now being relentlessly SHIT ON by my community for being ‘poor.’ THANKS @twitch.”) Although many streamers have expressed deep worry over the leak, some are turning it into a joke: Top streamer Chance “Sodapoppin” Morris, who was 42nd in the streamer revenue number list, begged his viewers not to view it as real: “I swear I’m one of the richest ones on the platform,” he joked. “I make WAY more than that.” (For many top streamers, Twitch payouts are just one revenue stream among many.) Streaming on Twitch, Felix “xQc” Lengyel shouted, “I told y’all—it’s trillionaire with a fucking ‘T’!”

Jamaica Is a Tech Desert. Gamers Make It Work Anyway

Jamaica Is a Tech Desert. Gamers Make It Work Anyway

While Jamaica is a beautiful destination for someone who wants to take a vacation and disconnect, for the tech-savvy locals, the unavailability of high-quality, consistent internet access and gear is a nightmare. Jamaica is in many ways a technology desert: not as the main attraction for tourists seeking refuge from tech, but because it’s hard for business owners and residents to get technology.

Technology is scarce in Jamaica because it’s expensive to import—the process is long and tedious. Companies like Amazon don’t ship directly to Jamaican residents, so there goes using a Prime account to get free and fast shipping.

Andrew Johnson, cofounder and vice president of the Jamaican Esports Initiative team, is a streamer. Johnson, like any gamer, is trying to upgrade his setup and improve the quality of his content. To do so, he needs a consistent way to obtain the same accessories and tools that any streamer needs, but he can’t buy things that Americans or Europeans take for granted, like high-end graphics cards or webcams, without paying double the price, if it’s available to him at all. 

This issue extends to internet access. The primary service providers in the country are Digicel and Flow. They charge a lot for very slow upload speeds when compared to ISPs in other countries.

Internet access is generally better than it used to be, according to Johnson, but mostly for people who live in Kingston, Jamaica’s largest city. “For persons who live in rural areas, they aren’t able to get a better cable connection,” Johnson says. “Their highest upload speed is 8 Mbps. Digicel introduced broadband and fiber. I have 200 Mbps download and 100 Mbps upload.”

A screenshot of Digicel's internet access plans in Jamaica offering relatively low download speeds for typical American...
Digical is one of two major internet service providers in Jamaica, and their prices resemble American ISPs, only with worse speeds.Courtesy of Junae Benne

To get around slow service and poor bandwidth, Jamaican streamers often go live before 6 am and after 6 pm local time, since off-hours are the best times for a stable, reliable connection.

When it comes to gear and shopping, Jamaica doesn’t have large electronics stores like Best Buy or Micro Center. Their big-box grocery stores may have some electronics, but they’re twice the price that Americans are used to paying, and Jamaican shoppers know it.

“You can buy TVs, and electronics, and stuff from small local shops like What’s New, Intcomex, and Royal Computers. A person would be ok with buying an older model TV, versus me buying an older graphics card,” says Johnson. He says he’s been in talks with local shops, like Royal Computers and Intcomex, to keep gaming-centric electronics in stock.

So why not buy abroad? Many Jamaicans simply can’t afford those American or European prices. The minimum wage in Jamaica is J$175 ($1.34 US) per hour, which optimistically translates to J$7,000 ($46) per week. The average yearly salary is about J$336,378 ($22,219)

Slow Down With These Serene City-Building Games

Slow Down With These Serene City-Building Games

During these weird and stressful times, more of us are playing video games than ever before. For some, the high-octane shooter offers release, the day’s anxieties dissipating alongside the cacophonous explosion of virtual matter; for others, adrenaline-pumping sports titles do the trick. But for players who want their heart rates to go down rather than up, there’s a growing crop of games that foreground quiet and unfussy tinkering. A top-down view, gently oscillating music, and the careful placement of buildings accompanied by a satisfyingly tactile plonk—these are the hallmarks of serene and minimalist takes on the so-called city-builder.

The rationale is simple: What if you simplified the classic city-builder game (SimCity, for example), even going so far as to cleave it of actual citizens? What if it had beautiful buildings simply for the sake of beautiful buildings, sprouting naturally from virtual rock, grassland, and water? The cumulative effects of these what-ifs has coalesced into a string of trancelike game experiences in recent years; slowly expanding towns lull the mind, alleviating stress in a manner altogether less frenetic than titles of blockbuster action.

Islanders arrived in 2019, followed by Townscaper, Cloud Gardens, and Dorfromantik, none precisely like the other but sharing a commitment to declutter, and perhaps upend the urban planning usually found in video games. Over Zoom, Paul Schnepf, one third of Islanders’ development team, describes his game as a distillation of the “fantasy” offered by series such as Anno and Age of Empires—the way they allow you to build your own realm or kingdom, to “be the god of your own little world.” But to the casual observer at least, these games of long-form civilizational progression are often inscrutably complex, filled with extensive (not to mention exhausting) production chains and the micro-management of resources. Islanders is a merciful reprieve from such demands, designed to be played in breezy, 20-minute bursts.

Boot up the streamlined game and you’re presented with a small land mass surrounded by turquoise water. Perhaps you’ll construct a seaweed farm or a lumber yard, their placement on the landscape accompanied by fluttering numbers in the bottom-left corner of the screen. Islanders isn’t entirely devoid of numbers, but it reorients them around a simple puzzle game: Make a pretty island, earn points, progress on to the next—an archipelago loop that feels like daydreaming on a beach. Of course, there’s always sandbox mode, which makes the game’s city-building core even more chill; there’s no score to worry about, just aesthetics.

Perhaps remarkably, bearing in mind its assuredly polished form, Islanders is the product of an undergraduate degree program at the applied sciences university HTW Berlin. In fact, this is the same university that Dorfromantik emerged from two years later, the two small studios informally involving themselves in one another’s work. Like Islanders, Dorfromantik is the city-builder reimagined as a puzzle game, albeit with a more obvious debt to tabletop strategy titles such as Carcassonne and Settlers of Catan. It swaps clean minimalism for a cozier, hand-drawn aesthetic verging on cottagecore. Quaint villages, steamboat-filled waterways, and fields of golden corn stretch out organically across hexagonal tile pieces like a bucolic, prewar vision of Europe.

Dorfromantik screenshot

Dorfromantik

Courtesy of Toukana Interactive

The YouTube TV, NBCUniversal Debacle Feels Like a Harbinger

The YouTube TV, NBCUniversal Debacle Feels Like a Harbinger

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

If you’re a YouTube TV user and like Sunday Night Football, chances are you’ve spent the past few days wondering whether you’ll be able to stream this weekend’s game.

In case you’re not the kind of person who follows business negotiations between multinational corporations (why would you be? I only follow them because it’s literally my job), here’s a primer: Earlier this week it came to light that the contract YouTube TV had to offer some 14+ channels from NBCUniversal—NBC, Telemundo, MSNBC, Golf, etc.—was set to expire on Thursday. Negotiations were reportedly at an impasse, and if the companies couldn’t reach a deal, all those NBCU channels would disappear from YouTube TV streams. NBCU, it seemed, wanted YouTube parent company Google to bundle its own streaming service, Peacock, with YouTube TV. The streaming service, meanwhile, wanted “the same rates that services of a similar size get from NBCU so we can continue offering YouTube TV to members at a fair price,” according to a blog post. On Thursday, the companies agreed to a “short” extension to keep the NBCU channels on YouTube TV.

The outcome of this dustup notwithstanding, it was a harbinger of the fact that navigating the streaming wars doesn’t really feel that different from navigating cable. Or, as our colleagues over at Ars Technica put it, “The dispute is a reminder that the bundling practices common to cable and satellite TV may not be eliminated by the rise of streaming services.” Streaming was supposed to help users cut the cord; more and more, it seems like it’s just out to replace the rope.

Yes, we at WIRED have said some version of this before. Earlier this year, I argued that as media companies consolidated, consumers would ultimately end up with another Big Three— that CBS, ABC, and NBC would ultimately lose territory to, say, Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, and Disney+. That still seems fairly likely. But the new battleground the YouTube TV and NBCU fracas opens up is one centered on carriers. The whole promise of streaming was that content providers could go direct-to-consumer. You want everything Disney has? Get Disney+. Love nature shows and home makeovers? Get Discovery+. But now there are so many services that viewers and companies are desperate to find ways to, in the parlance of the industry, bundle them—something that might feel like deja vu to anyone who ever tried to make the hard decisions involved in choosing between basic or premium cable packages.

Take, for example, Hulu. The service has become something of a stalwart of the streaming game for a while now. But folks forget that it started as an effort by the parent companies of NBC, ABC, and Fox to offer those channels on a Netflix-like service. It was meant to be a way for legacy networks to get in on the streaming action. In 2019, after Disney closed its $71 billion acquisition of Fox, it gained control of Hulu in a separate arrangement with NBCUniversal’s parent company Comcast. Now, consumers can get Hulu in a bundle with Disney+ and ESPN+, since, of course, ESPN is also a Disney property. There’s also now FX on Hulu, which gives Hulu subscribers access to a lot of premium Fox content. A Disney channel, ESPN, and FX? If that doesn’t feel like one of the cable packages of yore, nothing does.

This is where things get hairy, though. As part of Disney’s deal for control of Hulu, Comcast agreed to continue to license NBCUniversal content to Hulu until 2024, but NBCU retained the rights to pull back some of its programming that was exclusively licensed to Hulu. With the launch of Peacock last year, it stood to reason that NBCU would eventually want a lot of its programming on that service to bolster its appeal to consumers.