fbpx

Lights Out

AEI’s past president, Arthur Brooks, recently published an important column on our increasingly conspiracy-driven culture. Prior to departing AEI for Harvard University and the op-ed pages of the Washington Post, Brooks pursued the argument that one of the main challenges facing American society was the tendency to demonization of political opponents, a theme explored in one of my summer reads, The Fall, or Dodge in Hell, by Neal Stephenson.

There are two types of sci-fi writers, Gene Roddenberry said: those who tell stories and those who explore philosophy. Stephenson is in the latter category. I first encountered him in the mid-1990s when Francis Fukuyama reviewed two of his early novels, The Diamond Age: Or A Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer and Snow Crash for the dearly departed Weekly Standard. He went on to write some real door-stoppers like Cryptonomicon and Anathem, which my elderly father described to me as “really deep”—by which he meant “completely incomprehensible.”

A staple of Stephenson’s writing is to pick out socio-technological trends and accelerate them into a future where possibilities embedded in our present reach full flower. The Diamond Age speculates on the relationship between values, culture, and economics in a world where nation states have disappeared and been replaced by “tribes” without borders. Members of the leading society style themselves as “the Vickys,” in a global community with local franchises that models itself on the values and social manners of 19th century British imperial power at its height, complete with its own Stanford-educated Queen Victoria boasting the biceps of a competitive rower. The novel asks why certain societies and epochs are marked by such social and economic dominance; how do these societies sustain and replicate themselves and, most crucially, can their models be exported to others?

The Diamond Age is set in coastal China, a locale Stephenson returns to in several books. His mechanism for making his social points is the Illustrated Primer, the creation of a leading Victorian Lord that is intended to inculcate Victorian social values in Vicky kids. The Primer is an electronic “storybook” connected wirelessly to a coach, who helps the reader build a personal narrative tailored to their experience but shaped by Victorian values. In a most un-Victorian act of social rebellion, a lesser member of the aristocracy steals the prototype for the Primer, which eventually finds its way into the hands of a young girl living in poverty. As she uses the Primer, her values and hopes begin to shift away from the trailer park into which she was born and toward… something else that no one would have predicted.

In Snow Crash, Stephenson imagines a world in which a debt crisis has imploded the U.S. government and global trade has created widespread economic insecurity among the residents of formerly wealthy nations. Syndicates, criminal and otherwise, have replaced governments and a new, virtual world has begun to emerge that runs in parallel to reality. The hero is a skate-board mounted pizza delivery girl who propels herself through the world by surfing off the excess energy of “bimbo-boxes” (mini-vans) on her quest to stop the destruction of the emerging digital world.

The Fall, or Dodge in Hell extends the possibilities of virtual reality considerably. Like Cryptonomicon and Anathem, The Fall is a long, long book—883 pages of dense text that considers the intersection of digital technology and cryonics, or the storage of human corpses or heads with the hope of future reanimation. The Fall posits a world in which the preservation of human tissue is abandoned in favor of technology that is able to read and store the content of a human brain—personality and consciousness, though not memory—in an online world where it can continue to grow and develop as if it still had a corporeal existence. In fact, those who are uploaded to the virtual world, while completely digital, have a self-consciousness of living an embodied life—eating, drinking, excreting, and reproducing. What they lack is the knowledge that their digital lives are made up entirely of ones and zeros and that in their second life, they have become participants in a global spectator sport, with billions of actual human beings watching their exploits, love lives, adventures, and, ultimately, wars.

It is these questions of actuality and reality—do such things exist or are they projections of a larger imagination we cannot see?—that link the many sub-themes of The Fall together. One of these sub-themes explores how the rising culture of conspiracy and internet hoaxes threatens the existence of the internet as we know it. Early on in the narrative, a Silicon Valley grandee begins the destruction of the world-wide web—a necessary predicate for the establishment of the new, digital life-world—through an elaborate internet hoax claiming to show the nuclear destruction of Moab, Utah. With a global freakout underway, the President of the United States has to fly Air Force One into Moab and hold a press conference in order to put a stop to the hoax. The scale of the information disaster is such that most of the public finally learns its lesson: what you see on the internet is not necessarily what you get. Those who can afford it hire “editors” with the dual task of extracting false data from the client’s digital profile and scrutinizing news for accuracy and reliability before it is presented. Think of it as a newspaper editorial board reinvented for the digital age.

In Stephenson’s world, however, a lot of folks don’t get the hoax memo. A “Moab-truthers” movement arises built on the insistence, against all evidence, that the U.S. government is engaged in a massive conspiracy to conceal the town’s destruction. Socially and economically isolated, the truthers effectively secede from the rest of society and set up shop in what is colloquially known as “Ameristan,” the no-man’s-land spaces between major metropolitan areas. In this new hinterland, the truthers form a cult called “the Leviticans” and become religious fundamentalists led by warlords. (It is notable that Stephenson sees the main threat of post-truthiness as the exclusive province of the political right while ignoring similar trends on the left, but that’s a topic for another day.) The heavily armed Leviticans deny Jesus’ crucifixion and spend a good bit of their time burning crosses to signify their rejection of historic Christianity. All the while, the urban centers send out missionaries with the goal not of spiritual conversion, but of reattaching people to facts, reason, and a sense of shared reality. As with missionaries of the past, they are frequently martyred for their efforts.

Stephenson’s depiction of an increasingly paranoid, fact-free culture isn’t really in our current socio-political neighborhood. But, in prime Stephensonian fashion, you can see how we might get there from where we are today. The miasma of gullibility, distrust, and anger that envelops our politics, resulting from decades of biased editorial practices at major news outlets—I’m looking at you, Fox News and New York Times—primed the pump, and ever since Uncle Walter Cronkite popped his clogs, Americans haven’t known whom or what to trust in the mainstream media. Russian troll farms, QAnon, and deep-fake video are the next steps on a path that leads we know not where. By intent, design, or sheer impotence, it seems that the big digital platforms are being jujitsued into field distortion generators. One of the notable products of this phenomenon is the political hologram we call Donald J. Trump, a man who, whatever his faults, understands the malleability of the digital moment and bends it to his personal and political exigencies. “Modern presidential” is newspeak for, “What is truth?”

Techno-apologists frequently claim that since violent robots bent on human extermination haven’t shown up yet, any caution against techno-optimism is really just neo-Luddism. Nothing to see here, move along, get with the program. However, the importance of Stephenson’s work is that it helps us remember that the future never arrives all at once; it advances organically and, often imperceptibly, creating or magnifying along the way the waves and distortions Arthur Brooks and others have identified. By the time the “bad thing” makes itself felt, the inflection point at which we might have chosen differently is long past. Perhaps taking sci-fi speculations a bit more seriously might encourage more reflection on questions like, “Should we?”, as opposed to our present course of speeding into the future on the wave of “Can we?”

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on October 22, 2019 at 11:25:54 am

“By the time the “bad thing” makes itself felt, the inflection point at which we might have chosen differently is long past. “

I am reminded of this:

https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/breaking-controversial-amazon-synod-statue-siezed-and-thrown-into-the-tiber-river-full-video

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on October 22, 2019 at 12:07:03 pm

...decades of biased editorial practices at major news outlets—I’m looking at you, Fox News and New York Times....

Biased editorial practices ... as opposed to what?

As far as I can tell, the world contains more complexity than I can absorb--and certainly more than any media source can report. The choice to report one thing rather than another will necessarily reflect a subjective human preference rather than some “absolute truth.” In a world in which complexity exceeds media capacity and human attention, I see no way to avoid this problem of subjectivity.

The problem of factual error also reflects a trade-off between accuracy and speed, and the weight to give to these considerations also reflects a subjective preference. Again, I know of no way to avoid this problem.

We might each make DIFFERENT choices than Fox News or the NYT--but we could not avoid making choices, and therefore exposing ourselves to the (accurate) accusation of bias.

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on October 22, 2019 at 12:22:19 pm

Fair enough:

"We might each make DIFFERENT choices than Fox News or the NYT–but we could not avoid making choices,..."

BUT: C'MON MAN! I think you just "GOT MOSSED"

There is a point BEYOND WHICH those different choices become clear and open hostility.

So you have allowed the narrative ball to be tossed beyond the grasp of your outstretched hands for a touchdown.
"You got Mossed", brudda.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 22, 2019 at 12:58:47 pm

Just one example of "getting Mossed", my friend:

https://www.nationalreview.com/corner/justin-trudeau-lost-the-popular-vote-will-outrage-ensue/

"orth of the border, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party will form a new government despite being a minority that captured not even one-third of the nation’s votes (33.1 percent). Conservative leader Andrew Scheer must concede defeat despite his party having won 34.4 per cent of the vote, or 240,000 votes more than Trudeau.

Will all of North America’s liberal opinion writers snap into action to denounce this abuse of the democratic process? Will we be seeing columns calling Trudeau the usurping Donald Trump of the Great White North? How many column-inches will be expended demanding that Canada rework its electoral institutions so that the more popular party can achieve power? How many hysteria-fueled think-pieces will inform us that democracy has been abolished in Canada?"

Gee, one wonders why THIS IS NOT being presented as a front page lede in the press?

You see, what DOES NOT appear has as much, if not more import than what is presented. I guess it is just a matter of choice. after all, you Proggies are ALL about Choice aren't you?

Nope, we would rather publicize the ludicrous claims of a Chardonnay sipping (well, maybe GULPING) mentally and morally confused kleptocrat about Tulsi Gabbard being a Russian Asset in order that the miscreant Fat Lady in a Pantsuit may continue to peddle her delusional excuses for her electoral loss to the The Trumpster.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 22, 2019 at 16:22:30 pm

No doubt, there is a market for unbiased multi-media, one that conserves The Truth and applies it liberally. We, The People , have a choice to refuse to be subject to multi media, that due to the character of its content, or the content of its characters, necessarily is morally “confusing”.

read full comment
Image of Nancy
Nancy
on October 22, 2019 at 17:33:59 pm

Gabe ... seriously?

Yes, in Canada the Conservative Party won a PLURALITY (34.4%). A PLURALITY is not a MAJORITY (more than 50%). (And adding in the votes for the far-right People's Party won't help, 'cuz they lost all their races.)

In contrast, the MAJORITY of Canadians voted for people who supported Trudeau for Prime Minister. Yes, those votes are split among the Liberal Party (33%), the New Democrats (15.9%), and Green Party (6.5%)--but so what? Trudeau's faction represents the MAJORITY of Canadians. This is entirely consistent with the concept of majority rule. Who (besides the National Review) is opposed to majority rule?

(I haven't heard whether the Bloc Quebecois (7.7%) is backing Trudeau or not, but it's kind of a moot point.)

gabe, have you noticed a pattern in your reading habits? The people who write the stuff you read seem to be interested in fanning your sense of outrage, but don't seem to be interested in helping you put the issues into a context that might aid your understanding and assuage your outrage. Honestly, it is far from clear that these people are your friends; they seem to be using you. Have you considered broadening your media diet?

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on October 23, 2019 at 09:11:28 am

Well, I guess one can say the same thing about the election of 1992 when Bush and Perot outgarnered that Flim flam Man, Billy Boy clinton. So what happened to Majority rule. Perot was MORE Bush than Bush was.
So what does it prove?

And no, brudda, the ONLY thing I get outraged about is when Costco is out of pre-cooked bacon. Now, that is a diet!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 23, 2019 at 09:28:06 am

Oops, I forgot:

I guess you did not like "Getting Mossed." Ha!

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 23, 2019 at 17:55:23 pm

Oops (again):

That should read:
"Now that is a meatier" diet."

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 24, 2019 at 09:54:05 am

gabe, I'm not even going to try to talk you out of all your curious ideas.

But please--don't start a meteor diet. After all, what wine would you serve with it? Just not practical....

read full comment
Image of nobody.really
nobody.really
on October 24, 2019 at 16:54:19 pm

OK, nobody, last one, I swear.

"But please–don’t start a meteor diet. "

Have no fear, my frien, this I cannot do as my wife has hidden my TIN FOIL HAT so I am no longer able to receive messages, etc from Space.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 28, 2019 at 13:17:39 pm

I think that what "Gabe" - and perhaps others - do not understand is that Canada is not the U.S.

In the U.S., each voter gets to vote for the president. In Canada, only the voters in the riding (electoral district) in which aspiring prime minsters run do. Trudeau ran in a riding in Quebec.

In Canada, Parliament choses the prime minster, NOT the voters. How? By deciding which leader and party has the confidence of the House of Commons. If, when Trudeau presents his program to Parliament in the throne speech, he then loses the vote of confidence that will follow, he will not be prime minister. Instead, the governor general will either look to another leader to see if he can cobble together enough support to form a government, or there will be another election.

This is the case whether Canada sticks to its first past the post electoral system or switches to a variety of proportional representation, which better aligns the percentage of the popular vote to the number of seats. True, often the party with the largest percentage of the popular vote becomes the government, but not always. More importantly, it becomes the government not because of the popular vote but because it is able to command the confidence of a majority of the members of the House of Commons.

A recent example from British Columbia is illustrative. In the 2017 election the Liberals won two more seats than the NDP, but when the premier met the Legislative Assembly, she found she did not have its confidence because the three Green MLAs joined the NDP in defeating her government in a confidence vote. The lieutenant governor then denied the premier's request for an election, choosing instead to ask the leader of the NDP to see if he could form a government that had the Legislative Assembly's confidence. He could and did, and the NDP, supported by the Greens, has governed since then.

Totally different system - and that is why it is not front page news and has no relevance to Trump.. So chill, "Gabe."

Skookumchuck

read full comment
Image of Hamar Foster
Hamar Foster
on October 29, 2019 at 14:23:27 pm

As for "chilling" - i always do, if only in a curmudgeonly manner.
BUT...
The Canadian system is even less representative of the electorates wishes than may, in certain circumstances, be the American system wherein the count of the electoral College is determinative.
Canada apparently is content with a system whereby a candidate with far lass than a majority, indeed in certain circumstances with less than a plurality, may be *chosen* as Premier.
thus, I double down on my point. Whereas, there was considerable moaning and gnashing of teeth, as it were, over Hillary's vote count not being sufficient to provided her with the Office of president, why is there no similar critique of the oft admired system of our Canadian neighbors.

How is that for a "chill"?

BTW: I do not worry one whit over other electoral systems. I concern myself only with inconsistent / hypocritical *narratives deployed to advance one's own political / ideological preferences.

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on October 29, 2019 at 15:11:11 pm

B TW2:

I am well aware of Parliamentary systems of governance and their "peculiar" manner of "choosing" a leader.
See the UK and Brexit wherein we find the exact outcome I allege is possible, i.e. a non-responsive Parliamentary Leadership acting contrary to the express wishes of the citizenry.
Yet, we hear no outcry from the establishment press over the shenanigans on Brexit which I submit is the direct, and anticipated outcome of such an electoral system.
Need one surmise as to the sentiments of the Establishment press concerning the outcome of Brexit?

Thus, I "calmly and chillingly" Triple Down.

Take care
gabe

read full comment
Image of gabe
gabe
on March 13, 2020 at 05:57:04 am

[…] us with unresolvable tensions and latent anxieties that no attentive reader can quite escape. Neal Stephenson’s best work probably qualifies. Arguably Frank Herbert’s Dune or Dan Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos also do this. […]

read full comment
Image of Ursula Le Guin and the Persistence of Tragedy
Ursula Le Guin and the Persistence of Tragedy

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

Related