poetix (old content)

oh build your ship of death

Two Tribes

“The information superhighway” is now to all intents and purposes a dead metaphor, a gobbet of defunct PR. The term was first introduced by Al Gore, but any lasting fame it enjoys will be no doubt be due to the fictional confrontation, in Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, between the self-taught hacker Randy Waterhouse and the smug humanities professor 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… “Very well, let me put it this way,” Kivistik said magnaminously - 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?” […] 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. […] “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.

In some respects, the scene is a replay of the famous moment in Annie Hall in which Woody Allen pulls Marshall McLuhan out of the wings to berate a tedious intellectual show-off for his glib misuse of McLuhan’s name and signature jargon. Kivistik is the show-off promoted to the status of McLuhan himself, and there is no real McLuhan on hand to take him down. The challenge has to come from below: from the rhetorically unsophisticated but technically adept Randy, who knows next to nothing about Foucault but almost everything there is to know about TCP/IP.

We’re given to understand that Kivistik’s an operator, someone who knows how to work an academic crowd, and for whom metaphors are good or bad largely to the degree that they produce the desired rhetorical effects. He has a quasi-Nietzschean epistemological argument to back this up, but this too is only really a concatenation of rhetorical gestures (“he held up a fork”). In keeping with the tribal sociology of Stephenson’s novels (most explicit in The Diamond Age, in which humanity is divided into numerous competing “clades”), Kivistik and Randy face off as the elected champions of their respective “crowds”, here described as Hobbits of the Shire (idle, talkative and fanciful) and Dwarves of the deep mines (“stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spent a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power”). Kivistik is a successful manipulator of the values and prejudices of his tribe, a skilled player of its status games. Randy, who is drawn into the argument in defence of his own tribal values, is at this point separated from his “people”, and has yet to assume a position of equivalent respect and significance among them (he has to wait until page 869 before he finally gets the girl).

Randy’s assumptions about the legitimate bases of respect and discursive authority are at odds with Kivistik’s because he inhabits a different symbolic economy: precise technical knowledge, painstakingly acquired, is a source of kudos for Dwarves, but scorned as “technocratic” by Hobbits (Kivistik: “Oh, I see…so we should rely on the technocrats to tell us what to think, and how to think, about this technology”). In order to think at all lucidly about the internet, you do indeed need to know a certain amount about TCP/IP, amongst a good many other things. But lucidity of this kind is besides the point if the discursive game you are playing is about moving rhetorical markers around in order to accumulate righteousness.

In terms of plot development, the point of the Waterhouse/Kivistik encounter is to emphasise Randy’s alienation from and social incompatibility with his Hobbit girlfriend, and give him a stimulus to jet off around the globe having geeky adventures with Avi. We learn that there are different systems of motivation in Stephenson’s fictional world, and that Randy’s will motivate him to do particular kinds of things in pursuit of goals that will seem arcane (or simply uninteresting) to characters with Hobbit-like motivations. Stephenson also gets to have some fun at the expense of condescending humanities-types into the bargain. But what’s also interesting in this scene is the political crux at the end of the argument, where all of a sudden both parties are talking about privilege and false consciousness:

“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 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. [Or The Diamond Age, for that matter - DF] “So? Just because it’s an old idea, doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Randy said.

The point to understand here is that Randy is right for a small, local value of “this society”: if you are in a position to participate in the social customs and network of the Dwarves, the path to advancement is indeed to “work hard, educate yourself, and keep your wits about you”. If you are amongst Hobbits, you need to practice quite different virtues. Tribes such as these act as force-multipliers for personal effort (working one’s ass off, something Kivistik has also presumably done in his own way), provided it is directed towards goals that the tribe esteems and is in a position to reward. What is “entrenched” is of course not Randy’s personal position within the tribe to which he is affiliated, but the position of the tribe itself, with its considerable resources of knowledge and power.

The ideological move common to Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age is to displace class analysis (which would have something to say about hierarchy and exploitation, as fundamental operators of the division of the social world) into a “pagan” compartmentalisation of the world into competing tribes, a flat ecology of value-systems whose historical development is governed by something like an evolutionary fitness landscape. This is apparent from Cryptonomicon’s opening metaphor of the “first self-replicating gizmo” as a “stupendous badass”, and progenitor of a tremendous and varied proliferation of badassery throughout the natural and, by metaphorical extension, social world. This compartmentalisation enables Stephenson to range across wildly varied social and moral environments, and gives the Baroque Cycle its bewildering sweep and scope as well as its synoptic power. But it leaves Randy Waterhouse essentially mystified as to the nature of the opportunities available to him, and unable to grasp the Hobbits’ point, rendered as it is in language that seems offensively fatuous and vapid to him, about “false consciousness”.