Tuesday, March 24, 2009

There Goes My [Literary] Hero

After my sister and brother-in-law (Tom) married, rather than faced with the task of building a household, they were faced with the task of combining them. They've both lived on their own for several years and have accumulated a lot of stuff that would be redundant were they to merge. dishes, small appliances, media, etc. How many toasters, coffee pots, place settings, and copies of The Matrix do you need?

So they put their things in a pile, and divested the surplus. Some of it went into storage, some of it was donated (I think) and some of it was given to friends and family. "Family" in this context is mostly represented by me. In addition to some glassware, dishes, and kitchen tools, I also inherited a box of Books and DVDs that they both had copies of. One of these books was Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson.

You can click the links if you want (spoilers in the link to the book), but for the purposes of this post, all you really need to know is that Mr. Stephenson writes [science] fiction that appeals to tech geeks, mathematicians, and the like.

Cryptonomicon is two stories. The first story is of World War II cryptography and counter intelligence efforts, as told by a Navel Lt. stationed in the Philippines, and a Mathematician Savant who can perform epic numerical stunts on the chalkboard, but is fairly inept in most other ways.

The second story is the tale of the descendants of the WWII plot line, two generations removed, who are attempting to build a data haven (think "electronic library in a physical location untouched by local and international law"). Hijinks ensue.

About a hundred or so pages in, one of the characters in the modern plot line is having dinner with Charlene, his girlfriend, Charlene's liberal arts friends, and some puffed-up white-tower academic. The academic, who has a very high opinion of himself, begins to argue that the Information Super Highway* is a socially destructive concept aimed at keeping down poor people, make the rich richer, yadda yadda yadda.

Our Grad Student of Science protagonist steps in to defend the I.S.H. and is promptly met with the standard relativity cop out so cherished by Academia to shut down all argument. "And who is to say what is bad/wrong/unwise?" And so our hero, Randy, tells them:

"Who decides what's bad? I do."

"Excuse me?"

"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."

[sarcastically] "Oh, I didn't realized 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. [...] the Information Super Highway 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."
He then goes on to take offense at being labeled a 'technocrat,' turning these peoples own weapons on them ("I'm offended/oppressed, and therefore worthy of sympathy") and makes the formal call of "Bullshit!" on their arguments.

Prior to this, he compared mixing with his Charlene's Liberal Art friends to being a Dwarf in the Lord of the Rings. Stout and taciturn, he's hung up his war axe for a while for a sojourn into the Shire, where he finds himself surrounded by squabbling hobbits (Charlene's crowd).

For all these things mentioned above, I welcome Neal Stephenson into my top 5 favorite authors of all time. Someone should tell him that, as I'm sure he'd be overwhelmed by such an honor ;-)

*This book was published in 1999, and the excerpt above took place a few years prior to the modern time line, so the expression "Information Super Highway" is not an indication of an author out of touch with modern Internet nomenclature, but rather, is aged appropriately.

No comments: