Same idea, different implementation
Callimachus writes (in the comments): Bill, I find myself checking back in to Stephenson's "Snow Crash" every couple of years to see how closely we're tracking toward his glum futuristic vision. Sure he's been more on-target than "1984" and more depressing.
Two things. One, I don't think Stephenson's visions are all that depressing. Sure, Snow Crash depicts a general break-down of society and government -- sort of the ultimate libertarian fantasy -- but overall, there's plenty of room for personal freedom and expression. Two, yeah, he's been pretty prescient. As I've said before, I wouldn't be surprised if his novels are studied for the reflections of technological and geek culture in the 1990s. Snow Crash for it's influence on just about anyone starting an online community and Cryptonomicon for its geedy depiction of the Silicon Valley hacker as civilization's savior.
But let's not forget his nonfiction. There are few people who can take complicated ideas and people and explain them in a way that is not only informative but also entertaining. Here's a few of the obvious ones: Malcolm Gladwell, Michael Ruhlman, Michael Lewis. Even with his meager output, Neal Stephenson should definately be included in this company. Go read his Mother Earth Mother Board, a meandering trot around the globe exploring deep sea cables and the history of passing information.
Then there's In the Kingdom of Mao Bell. Written just a couple years after Tiananmen square and a handful before the Hong Kong takeover, Stephenson writes about the influence of technology. Interesting to reread in regards to recent Chinese attempts to control the flow of information.
The first thing that happened during Jaruzelski's military coup in Poland was that the narcs invaded the telephone exchanges and severed the trunk lines with axes, ensuring that they would take months to repair. This and similar stories have gotten us into the habit of thinking that modern information technology is to totalitarianism what crosses are to vampires. Skeptics might say it's just a coincidence that glasnost and perestroika came just after the photocopier, the fax, and the personal computer invaded Russia, but I think there's a connection, and if you read WIRED, you probably do too. After all, how could any country whose power structure was based on controlling the flow of information survive in an era of direct-dial phones and ubiquitous fax machines?
Now (or so the argument goes), any nation that wants a modern economy has to have information technology - so economic modernization will inevitably lead to political reform, right?
I went to China expecting to see that process in action. I looked everywhere for hardy electronic frontierfolk, using their modems and fax machines to push the Communists back into their holes, and I asked dang near everyone I met about how communications technology was changing Chinese culture.
None of them knew what the fuck I was talking about.
I was carrying an issue of WIRED so that I wouldn't have to explain it to everyone. It happened to be the issue with Bill Gibson on the cover. In one corner were three characters in Hanzi (the script of the Han Chinese). Before I'd left the States, I'd heard that they formed the Chinese word for "network."
Whenever I showed the magazine to a Chinese person they were baffled. "It means network, doesn't it?" I said, thinking all the warm and fuzzy thoughts that we think about networks.
"Yes," they said, "this is the term used by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution for the network of spies and informers that they spread across every village and neighborhood to snare enemies of the regime."
See what I mean? Same idea, different implementation.
Our concept of cyberspace, cyber-culture, and cyber-everything is, more than we care to realize, a European idea, rooted in Deuteronomy, Socrates, Galileo, Jefferson, Edison, Jobs, Wozniak, glasnost, perestroika, and the United Federation of Planets. This statement may be read as criticism by people who like to trash Western culture, but I'm not one of those. For a Westerner to trash Western culture is like criticizing our nitrogen/oxygen atmosphere on the grounds that it sometimes gets windy, and besides, Jupiter's is much prettier. You may not realize its advantages until you're trying to breathe liquid methane.
Some unimaginative sorts have described this as cultural imperialism. When millions of Chinese spend their scant yuan on putting antennas up to pull in snowy programs from Hong Kong, that's us nasty Westerners being imperialistic, you see.
It's not imperialism. It's what happens when a culture with a sophisticated immune system comes into contact, as it inevitably will, with a culture without one. The Chinese have a completely different relationship to the world of ideas than Westerners do - it seems that they either take an utterly pragmatic approach, paying no attention to abstract ideals at all, or else they go nuts with it, the way they did in the Taiping Rebellion (when Chinese Christians went out of control in the 19th Century and sparked a very nasty civil war) and again during the Cultural Revolution (and let's remember that Communism is, after all, another Western import). I'm not sure what happens to such a country when radical Maoism is replaced by the far more seductive meme of Western consumer culture, as purveyed by the Hong Kong television stations.
I don't imagine we'll see anything as dramatic as the Taiping Rebellion or the Cultural Revolution again; I suppose it will be something like what's happening in the States right now: an abandonment of the value system that has traditionally made the society work. This probably won't improve matters in China, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a violent backlash.
It can be argued that the same consumer culture is in the process of dragging American civilization down the toilet, making us more nihilistic, less educated, less respectful of our own civilization in general. It's the smallpox of our time - it's hurting us badly, but we survive because we've got some immunities. Nobody over the age of three believes most of what they see on the tube. When we export it, though, cultures get flattened.
The influence of Western culture has a long way to go before it reaches its peak in China, but the early signs of a backlash are already developing. After I left, the government announced it was cracking down on private ownership of satellite dishes and intensified its regulation of the pager and cellphone business. The excuse was that these things were letting in too much Western culture (thanks in part to Star TV's Rupert Murdoch, who runs five channels out of Hong Kong). As the Economic Daily, an official publication of the People's Republic of China, put it: "If China's information system is spread about and not grasped firmly in hand, how can people feel safe?" Of course, one of the major players in these industries is the People's Liberation Army, so it's also largely a turf war; but at some point they'll have to put a stop to the spread of Western culture, in the way that Singapore, Saudi Arabia, and even France have recently tried to do.