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on the relationship between values, culture, and economics in a world where nation states have disappeared and been replaced by “tribes” without borders.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?”

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