By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
In the foreground, Cryptonomicon traces the growth of cryptography and code breaking from World War II to the present. The supporting cast includes key figures from the development of crypto systems and the digital computers that made them practical, notably Alan Turing, the computer pioneer who ran Britain's famed Enigma project and broke the Nazi's devilish codes. The heroes of the code wars of the 1940s are exactly that: men of valor who bound their skills to a world-saving cause. In alternating chapters, set in the present, a new generation of techno magi pursues a goal that is not so disinterested: to create a "datahaven" in Austronesia for encrypted financial transactions. This technology would enable a system of truly â untraceable e-cash, making it all but impossible for governments to control the flow of money and collect taxes. The crypto-rebels acknowledge, sadly, that awful people will exploit this resource to commit crimes, and some of these carpetbaggers make memorably horrid guest appearances in the novel. But the technology also will help to midwife a world that will never again need saving in the old sense, because no single private or governmental force can ever hope to control it. The fractal political landscape of Snow Crash seems to be just over the horizon.
For Cryptonomicon's Randy Waterhouse, the hacker-favorite computer system UNIX has become the "fundamental metaphor for just about everything." Stephenson's own dedication to that metaphor is evident in his longest nonfiction piece, "In the Beginning Was the Command Line." The essay is built around a distinction between the two dominant conventions for interacting with computers, the CLI or Command Line Interface (DOS, Linux) and the GUI, or Graphic User Interface (the Mac OS, Windows). For Stephenson, the distinction is technological, but also moral and perhaps even metaphysical. The CLI requires a lot more knowledge and more time and effort to master, but it also offers direct control over the things our machines are really doing down at the primary, binary level, where it's all just a mess of ones and zeroes. With GUI, on the other hand, we know less and less, and hand over more and more control to the system. The so-called "blinking 12 syndrome" (a reference to the eternally throbbing clock face on the VCR whose owner can't figure out how to set the time) expresses a truism of modern engineering: It is impossible to underestimate the cluelessness of the consumer.
IS THERE ANY HOPE FOR THE CLUELESS? As far back as Zodiac, Stephenson was complaining that "the ability to think rationally is pretty rare, even in prestigious universities. We're in the TV age now, and people think by linking images in their brains." In Cryptonomicon and "Command Line," the ability to think rationally has become the only significant class distinction, dividing the can-do Morlocks from the effete consumerist Eloi, here a sort of pampered underclass -- the social stratification of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine turned upside down. The notion that GUIs like the Mac and Windows desktops are democratizing the cyberworld by opening it up to the mentally flabby Eloi is a dangerous illusion, Stephenson implies, because all they're getting is a cutesy graphical approximation, a wholly inadequate substitute for the real thing. The only person with authentic power is still the guy who knows how the engine works.
Like the mining and transportation tycoons in Ayn Rand's novels, Stephenson's heroes could stall the entire global mechanism just by lifting the hood and yanking out a couple of wires. "[The] key realization," Stephenson wrote in Snow Crash, "was that there's no difference between modern culture and [ancient] Sumarian. We have a huge work force that is illiterate or alliterate and that relies on TV -- which is sort of an oral tradition. And we have a small, extremely literate power elite . . . who understand that information is power, and who control society because they have this semimystical ability to speak magical computer language."
It would be stretching a point to dub Cryptonomicon the Atlas Shrugged of cyberpunk. But the book does embody a comparable conviction that a mere handful of people now control "the motor of the world." As Stephenson notes in "Command Line," "The richest man in the world made his fortune from what? Railways? Shipping? Oil? No, operating systems." And once we get past the immediate consequences of these ideas, the implications are downright cosmic. The Morlocks of Silicon Valley may be plugged into larger forces than they realize. In "Command Line," pondering the mind-bending theories of physicist Lee Smolin (The Life of the Cosmos), Stephenson observes, "It's beginning to look as if, once you get below a certain size -- way below the level of quarks, down into the realm of string theory -- the universe can't be described very well by physics as it has been practiced since the days of Newton. If you look at a small enough scale, you see processes that look almost computational in nature."
Although Neal Stephenson seems to relish the detritus of modern global pop culture, often making it both the subject and the raw material of his cascading fiction, he is clearly no fan of its effects on human beings. In "Command Line" he declares: "The only real problem is that anyone who has no culture, other than this global monoculture, is completely screwed. Anyone who grows up watching TV, never sees any religion or philosophy, is raised in an atmosphere of moral relativism, learns about civics from watching bimbo eruptions on network-TV news, and attends a university where postmodernists vie to outdo each other in demolishing traditional notions of truth and quality, is going to come out into the world as one pretty feckless human being . . .
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