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Thursday, December 02, 2004

Information Superhighway

You know that feeling in class when the teacher asks a question and you really *really* know the answer? And your hand is up as far as it can go and ... you really really want it to be you who grabs the kudos?

That's how it's been ever since Julie Leung posted her blog query about "why, in spite of all the hype, the term "information superhighway" never caught on."

In his novel, Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson describes in hilarious scary detail a dinner party that nails at least one aspect of this topic.

My dilemma was that it was some time since I'd read this 918pp masterpiece and I didn't fancy trawling through the pages just to find this one passage. But it nagged me and I kept imagining some other smarty pants coming up with the goods and impressing the hell out of JL.

This morning I could take it no longer. I sat down with my copy and prepared to wade through when ... gadzooks! The book fell open at the very page 80. Baht sup. The Chinese are right about that 8: Lucky Number, indeed.

At the risk of incurring the wrath of some copy rightist - and my finger hovers ever over the delete button - here is the passage which speaks for itself. Typos are mine from speed tapping before the java's kicked in.

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 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 mine over the years. He knew perfectly well that if he was stuck in academia these people and the things they said would seem momentous to him. But where he came from, nobody had taken 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 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 f*** 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 centre 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 in to 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 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 had 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 better, everyone seemed to think. Point well taken, G.E.B.! No one looked at Jon, that argumentative pariah. Jon looked helplessly over at Randy, signaling for help.

Jon was a Hobbit who had actually been out of the Shire recently, so he knew Randy was a 'Dwarf. Now he was f***ing 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 f***ing 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 decided 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 this 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 its 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," Kivisk 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 it make me a technocrat?"
"You belonged to the technocrat 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."

... and so on and so forth. I hope this helps. I've had so much pleasure and learned so much from everything Stephenson writes, I can only urge you get to know this man. If you already know him, you should have sung out about this chapter earlier and grabbed the spotlight!

Meanwhile, enjoy this Salon interview with le maƮtre.

Thank you. Very interesting....I'd like to spend more time reading about Stephenson and his novels sometime...thanks again!
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