Friday, April 14, 2006

That’s no excuse for using bad metaphors

Wherein, YES! it's another extended quote from Cryptonomicon!


Maybe I'll start a Friday feature of long Neal Stephenson excerpts and work on some of his other books to give Cryptonomicon a rest. Feel free to nominate one of your favorite sections.

Pooh has an interesting post. Over at Done With Mirrors, Reader_IAM comments on it. I'm not commenting on it here. It just triggered another Neal Stephenson flashback about the term "information superhighway." That term had always bugged me as initially sounding cool, but ultimately meaning not a damn thing.

This excerpt, one of my favorites, has many things: the irrelevance of out of touch academics, Dwarves and Hobbits taxonomy, why Information Highway is a bad mataphor, and the politics of oppressed-person’s language. Regarding the Information Highway, it's important to remember this was published in 1999, so was written at the beginning of the Dotcom boom. The Web (as opposed to the internet; you can be on the internet without being on the Web and anyone who recognizes Archie, Jughead, Gopher knows what I'm talking about) didn't even exist until...well, that depends on how you want to define it. Hypertext was developed in the 1980s, the first webpage at CERN was 1991 (the official birth of WWW), and Mosaic was released in 1993 (when WWW really began to be used by the public). Internet Explorer wasn't the Windows default browser until 1996. AOL didn't even allow Internet access until 1994 or 1995. I went to my high school 25 year reunion in 1997 and was shocked by the number of people without email addresses. Things have changed quickly and it's hard to believe there was a time without the internet.
Randy was forever telling people, without rancor, that they were full of shit. That was the only way to get anything done in hacking. No one took it personally.

Charlene’s crowd most definitely did take it personally. It wasn’t being told that they were wrong that offended them, though—it was the underlying assumption that a person could be right or wrong about anything. So on the Night in Question—the night of Avi’s fateful call—Randy had done what he usually did, which was to withdraw from the conversation. In the Tolkien, not the endocrinological or Snow White sense, Randy is a Dwarf. Tolkien’s Dwarves were stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spent a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power. Thinking of himself as a Dwarf who had hung up his war-ax for a while to go sojourning in the Shire, where he was surrounded by squabbling Hobbits (i.e., Charlene’s friends), had actually done a lot for Randy’s peace of mind over the years. He knew perfectly well that if he were stuck in academia, these people, and the things they said, would seem momentous to him. But where he came from, nobody had been taking these people seriously for years. So he just withdrew from the conversation and drank his wine and looked out over the Pacific surf and tried not to do anything really obvious like shaking his head and rolling his eyes.

Then the topic of the Information Superhighway came up, and Randy could feel faces turning in his direction like searchlights, casting almost palpable warmth on his skin.

Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik had a few things to say about the Information Superhighway. He was a fiftyish Yale professor who had just flown in from someplace that had sounded really cool and impressive when he had gone out of his way to mention it several times. His name was Finnish, but he was British as only a non-British Anglophile could be. Ostensibly he was here to attend War as Text. Really he was there to recruit Charlene, and really really (Randy suspected) to fuck her. This was probably not true at all, but just a symptom of how wacked out Randy was getting by this point. Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik had been showing up on television pretty frequently. Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik had a couple of books out. Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik was, in short, parlaying his strongly contrarian view of the Information Superhighway into more air time than anyone who hadn’t been accused of blowing up a day care center should get.

A Dwarf on sojourn in the Shire would probably go to a lot of dinner parties where pompous boring Hobbits would hold forth like this. This Dwarf would view the whole thing as entertainment. He would know that he could always go back out into the real world, so much vaster and more complex than these Hobbits imagined, and slay a few Trolls and remind himself of what really mattered.

That was what Randy always told himself, anyway. But on the Night in Question, it didn’t work. Partly because Kivistik was too big and real to be a Hobbit—probably more influential in the real world than Randy would ever be. Partly because another faculty spouse at the table—a likable, harmless computerphile named Jon—decided to take issue with some of Kivistik’s statements and was cheerfully shot down for his troubles. Blood was in the water.

Randy had ruined his relationship with Charlene by wanting to have kids. Kids raise issues. Charlene, like all of her friends, couldn’t handle issues. Issues meant disagreement. Voicing disagreement was a form of conflict. Conflict, acted out openly and publicly, was a male mode of social interaction—the foundation for patriarchal society which brought with it the usual litany of dreadful things. Regardless, Randy decided to get patriarchal with Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik.

"How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?" Kivistik said. This profundity was received with thoughtful nodding around the table.

Jon shifted in his chair as if Kivistik had just dropped an ice cube down his collar. "What does that mean?" he asked. Jon was smiling, trying not to be a conflict-oriented patriarchal hegemonist. Kivistik in response, raised his eyebrows and looked around at everyone else, as if to say Who invited this poor lightweight? Jon tried to dig himself out from his tactical error, as Randy closed his eyes and tried not to wince visibly. Kivistik had spent more years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford than Jon had been alive. "You don’t have to bulldoze anything. There’s nothing there to bulldoze," Jon pleaded.

"Very well, let me put it this way," Kivistik said magnanimously—he was not above dumbing down his material for the likes of Jon. "How many on-ramps will connect the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway?"

Oh, that’s much clearer, everyone seemed to think. Point well taken, Geb! No one looked at Jon, that argumentative pariah. Jon looked helplessly over at Randy, signaling for help.

Jon was a Hobbit who’d actually been out of the Shire recently, so he knew Randy was a dwarf. Now he was fucking up Randy’s life by calling upon Randy to jump up on the table, throw off his homespun cloak, and whip out his two-handed ax.

The words came out of Randy’s mouth before he had time to think better of it. "The Information Superhighway is just a fucking metaphor! Give me a break!" he said.

There was a silence as everyone around the table winced in unison. Dinner had now, officially, crashed and burned. All they could do now was grab their ankles, put their heads between their knees, and wait for the wreckage to slide to a halt.

"That doesn’t tell me very much," Kivistik said. "Everything is a metaphor. The word ‘fork’ is a metaphor for this object." He held up a fork. "All discourse is built from metaphors."

"That’s no excuse for using bad metaphors," Randy said.

"Bad? Bad? Who decides what is bad?" Kivistik said, doing his killer impression of a heavy-lidded, mouth-breathing undergraduate. There was scattered tittering from people who were desperate to break the tension.

Randy could see where it was going. Kivistik had gone for the usual academician’s ace in the hole: everything is relative, it’s all just differing perspectives. People had already begun to resume their little side conversations, thinking that the conflict was over, when Randy gave them all a start with: "Who decides what’s bad? I do."

Even Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik was flustered. He wasn’t sure if Randy was joking. "Excuse me?"

Randy was in no great hurry to answer the question. He took the opportunity to sit back comfortably, stretch, and take a sip of his wine. He was feeling good. "It’s like this," he said. "I’ve read your book. I’ve seen you on TV. I’ve heard you tonight. I personally typed up a list of your credentials when I was preparing press materials for this conference. So I know that you’re not qualified to have an opinion about technical issues.’’

"Oh," Kivistik said in mock confusion, "I didn’t realize one had to have qualifications."

"I think it’s clear," Randy said, "that if you are ignorant of a particular subject, that your opinion is completely worthless. If I’m sick, I don’t ask a plumber for advice. I go to a doctor. Likewise, if I have questions about the Internet, I will seek opinions from people who know about it."

"Funny how all of the technocrats seem to be in favor of the Internet," Kivistik said cheerily, milking a few more laughs from the crowd.

"You have just made a statement that is demonstrably not true," Randy said, pleasantly enough. "A number of Internet experts have written well-reasoned books that are sharply critical of it."

Kivistik was finally getting pissed off. All the levity was gone.

"So," Randy continued, "to get back to where we started, the Information Superhighway is a bad metaphor for the Internet, because I say it is. There might be a thousand people on the planet who are as conversant with the Internet as I am. I know most of these people. None of them takes that metaphor seriously. Q.E.D."

"Oh. I see," Kivistik said, a little hotly. He had seen an opening. "So we should rely on the technocrats to tell us what to think, and how to think, about this technology."

The expressions of the others seemed to say that this was a telling blow, righteously struck.

"I’m not sure what a technocrat is," Randy said. "Am I a technocrat? I’m just a guy who went down to the bookstore and bought a couple of textbooks on TCP/IP, which is the underlying protocol of the Internet, and read them. And then I signed on to a computer, which anyone can do nowadays, and I messed around with it for a few years, and now I know all about it. Does that make me a technocrat?"

"You belonged to the technocratic elite even before you picked up that book," Kivistik said. "The ability to wade through a technical text, and to understand it, is a privilege. It is a privilege conferred by an education that is available only to members of an elite class. That’s what I mean by technocrat."

"I went to a public school," Randy said. "And then I went to a state university. From that point on, I was self-educated."

Charlene broke in. She had been giving Randy dirty looks ever since this started and he had been ignoring her. Now he was going to pay. "And your family?" Charlene asked frostily.

Randy took a deep breath, stifled the urge to sigh. "My father’s an engineer. He teaches at a state college."

"And his father?"

"A mathematician."

Charlene raised her eyebrows. So did nearly everyone else at the table. Case closed.

"I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat," Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person’s language, maybe in an attempt to turn their weapons against them but more likely (he thinks, lying in bed at three A.M. in the Manila Hotel) out of an uncontrollable urge to be a prick. Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly; etiquette dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed. Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat. "No one in my family has ever had much money or power," he said.

"I think that the point that Charlene’s making is like this," said Tomas, one of their houseguests who had flown in from Prague with his wife Nina. He had now appointed himself conciliator. He paused long enough to exchange a warm look with Charlene. "Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite. You’re not aware of it—but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges."

Randy finished the thought. "Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are."

"The false consciousness Tomas is speaking of is exactly what makes entrenched power elites so entrenched," Charlene said.

"Well, I don’t feel very entrenched," Randy said. "I’ve worked my ass off to get where I’ve gotten."

"A lot of people work hard all their lives and get nowhere," someone said accusingly. Look out! The sniping had begun.

"Well, I’m sorry I haven’t had the good grace to get nowhere," Randy said, now feeling just a bit surly for the first time, "but I have found that if you work hard, educate yourself and keep your wits about you, you can find your way in this society."

"But that’s straight out of some nineteenth-century Horatio Alger book," Tomas sputtered.

"So? Just because it’s an old idea doesn’t mean it’s wrong." Randy said.

1 Comments:

Blogger XWL said...

Precisely why I avoided going to a dinner party where I knew Jacques Derrida would likely also be.

Having my hands clutched around his throat, vigorously throttling his sad form, though momentarily gratifying, and in many circles quite justified, simply wasn't worth the stress, and possible legal trouble an action like that would have caused.

(I'm not a violent person, but for him I would have made an exception, and besides, I could use deconstruction theory to justify the performative aspect of non-verbal communication and how throttling that lousy frenchman was the only way to properly communicate my criticism of his sorry theory)

4/15/2006 10:23:00 PM  

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