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Foreseeable Future

Neal Stephenson is a digital age visionary -- The novelist on Hollywood, the Net, and why no one reads ''Moby Dick''

Digital Age visionary, best-selling author, Neal Stephenson is a downright cyber-lebrity. The young and wired have turned his 1992 novel, Snow Crash (180,000 copies in print, and optioned by Paramount), into their dog-eared bible. Why? Probably because Stephenson's science fiction is closer to future fact. Consider that Snow Crash's central location, the Metaverse — a computer world where people jack in and interact via on-line surrogates — prefigured virtual communities now appearing on the Internet. We spoke to the 35-year-old Seattle-area resident about Hollywood, the Net, and why no one reads Moby Dick anymore.

How far away are we from a dial-in virtual world like the Metaverse?
Within the last year I've seen several demo projects, including WorldsAway (backed by Fujitsu). There's any number of would-be Metaverses either coming out now or...next year, but none as technically sophisticated as the one in Snow Crash. But I think we'll come pretty close to that model of the Internet in five years.

Is the Metaverse a good thing?
When I came up with the idea I was trying to make it morally ambiguous. I just sat down and said to myself, ''Okay, we've got the Net, we've got graphical computers, we've got virtual reality. What would happen in the future if these technologies were exploited by the same companies that give us our popular mass media today: television studios, videogame companies, and the like?'' A system like that is going to have some negative consequences. Take daytime talk shows, or vulgar sitcoms, or even gambling. A lot of people who can't control their gambling problems will be able to gamble 24 hours a day from their couch in virtual casinos. The Metaverse would give everyone the chance to inflict damage to themselves pretty conveniently.

Do you think virtual reality will keep people from dealing with real reality?
In the end it all comes down to a question of time budget. You have to sleep about eight hours, you have to work, you have to eat, kids have to go to school. That leaves a certain amount of time left over for goofing off. And a lot of kids in this country spend large portions of their free time on television and Nintendo. So I don't think something like the Metaverse would decrease the amount of time they spend goofing off. Whereas television is totally passive and all it does is rot your brain, I think the Metaverse would offer broader horizons.

Are we moving toward a future of information haves versus information have-nots?
I don't think there are going to be any information have-nots in the future. Everybody's going to be an information have because it's in the interest of the media companies to run [wires] into every home, apartment, and office in the world. They're not going to make any money by deliberately holding back these new media from large numbers of people. It's going to be as ubiquitous as radio and TV are now.

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