Gargoyles are no fun to talk to. They never finish a sentence. They are adrift in a laser-drawn world, scanning retinas in all directions, doing background checks on everyone within a thousand yards, seeing everything in visual light, infrared, millimeter-wave radar, and ultrasound all at once. You think they’re talking to you, but they’re actually poring over the credit record of some stranger on the other side of the room, or identifying the make and model of airplanes flying overhead. For all he knows, Lagos is standing there measuring the length of Hiro’s cock through his trousers while they pretend to make conversation.
The gargoyle named Lagos and his antics were my favorite part of the 1992 Neal Stephenson novel Snow Crash. I loved everything about that book, but the guy who walked around and drank in huge amounts of data was a revelation, a declaration of a future I thought was cool and wanted to be a part of. Well, now I am, and so are the rest of you.
10. Cell phones. The gargoyles needed computer modules slung all over their bodies, but we already have all that and in a case of gorilla glass in the palm of our hand.
9. Surveillance camera operators. They watch you walk, talk, and put your bag down when you’re on their street or in their mall. You know they do all kinds of analyses on that footage to spot suspicious characters, track shoplifters and so they know a ton about you just from a still frame or a few seconds of video.
8. The Cloud – in Snow Crash, gargoyles worked for a privatized CIA and Library of Congress, uploading everything they recorded about you and everyone else. Between vacuuming up your surfing, calling, and app-using habits, what do you think Google, Apple and other smartphone makers/ISPs do with all of your songs, books, and app purchases? The difference is, we are the gargoyles, and we pay for the privilege.
7. Siri. AI-ish online helpers already exist and are not doing too bad. You can search Google with a voice command, but it doesn’t talk back. Yet. Gargoyles were like an annoying version of Siri.
6. The NSA and FBI. Emails, calls, web-surfing, they got you covered. No, really, they have access to it all.
5. Marketing firms. They collect your financial records, your purchasing history, slot you into a marketing stereotype, and sell that data to companies. The latest iteration is Facebook and Google tossing ads into your field of view based on what you do on their sites. This goes a little beyond what Gargoyles had access to in the novel.
4. Satellites, helicopters. Water usage, traffic analysis, the kind of cars people own, what kind of trash or patio furniture people own, all from a simple overhead shot of a neighborhood, can say more about the people in it than ten gargoyles. Can sats scan retinas from space? Maybe not yet.
3. GPS. When my commuter bus is stuck in traffic, I look at Google maps to see what the jam is like and how far it extends. My relative lack of speed becomes a data point that feeds into the map I’m seeing. I am gargoyling myself.
2. ID cards. RFID, barcode, doesn’t matter. Slap it, swipe it, or simply walk by, a ubiquitous sensing world can track your movements, time your activities, and probably intuit your behavioral patterns (the coffee gang makes their run at 10:15 on Wednesdays, etc.).
1. The human eyeball. Everything the gargoyle does, the old wetware globe and the think-meat behind it have been doing for ages. In a glance, we can guesstimate someone else’s personal information with a large degree of accuracy. Those who do security work train this here ball of jelly (and the think-meat) to be highly sophisticated data collection and analysis devices.
Does that gargoyle sound like someone sucked into their own cellphone? Yeah, we’re there almost. We just don’t have all the capabilities pooled together for a single person yet. But when we do, he or she will be better informed than Batman and possibly more socially awkward than a gargoyle. Any volunteers?