Neal Stephenson's new essay

M. E. Smith (
Wed, 28 Jul 1999 07:55:02 -0700 (PDT)

Greetings, Neal Stephenson fans! Be informed that Stephenson's new novel _Cyptonomicon_,
which I just finished reading, has its own web site,, and that the web
site has a very interesting long non-fiction essay by Stephenson entitled "In the Beginning
was the Command Line" which is mainly about the history of computer operating systems, but does A LOT of interesting digressing into discussions about culture and other things.

You may remember the thread a began months ago about the apparent lack of AI in Stephenson's _The Diamond Age_. I haven't written since then, so I hope you'll forgive me if I discuss
what portions of the "In the Beginning..." essay reveal about his beliefs in other matters not related to AI, and how a better understanding of the novels can be had by knowing where
he's coming from.

Among the things I find fascinating about Stephenson's writing is that much of it (in particular _The Diamond Age_, but also _Snow Crash_) seemed to me to implicitly reveal the
author's opinions on certain matters, but I could never be sure, because all I had to go on was what his characters believed, which could always be different that how the author felt.

For example, in the future history of _Snow Crash_ and _The Diamond Age_ (which is a common future history; there are strong hints that _Snow Crash_'s youthful "Y.T." is none other than _The Diamond Age_'s elderly "Mrs. Matheson"), one gets the impression that Stephenson has a low opinion of contempory American culture. I say this because, among other things, he seems to portray it as eventually causing a period of poverty and chaos (_Snow Crash_) followed by the rise of more conservative cultures which he presents in a much more positive light, such as phyles "New Atlantis" (a.k.a. the Neo-Victorians), the "Heartlanders", etc.

What makes the essay "In the Beginning was the Command Line" different is that it is
NONfiction; it is actually the Neal Stephenson talking, not John Hackworth. Therefore, I found the digressions into issues of culture very interesting, as they confirmed my
suspicions that Stephenson's writings were more than just cool cyberpunk, but carried certain messages such as:
(1) Some cultures are superior or inferior to others in that they are more or less likely to lead to the happiness and prosperity of their adherents.
(2) Contemporary American secular culture is inferior in the sense of (1).

Stephenson makes these memes such central themes to some of his writing that I feel you
cannot understand the novels without knowing that these themes are there.

The following are highly edited excerpts from Stephenson's "In the Beginning was the Command Line":

"The problem is that once you have done away with the
ability to make judgments as to right
and wrong, true and false, etc., there's no real culture left... The ability to make
judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture...

"The global anti-culture that has been conveyed into
every cranny of the world by television is a culture unto itself, and by the standards of great and ancient cultures like Islam and France, it seems grossly inferior...

"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...

"On the other hand, if you are raised within some
specific culture, you end up with a basic set of tools that you can use to think about and understand the world. You might use those tools to reject the culture you were raised in, but at least you've got some tools...

"In this country, the people who run things--who
populate major law firms and corporate
boards--understand all of this at some level. They pay lip service to multiculturalism and diversity and non-judgmentalness, but they don't raise their own children that way. I have highly educated, technically sophisticated friends who have moved to small towns in Iowa to live and raise their children... Any suburban community might be thought of as a place where people who hold certain (mostly implicit) beliefs go to live among others who think the same way...

"And not only do these people feel some

responsibility to their own children, but to the country as a whole. Some of the upper class are vile and cynical, of course, but many spend
at least part of their time fretting about what direction the country is going in, and what responsibilities they have..."

I think Stephenson's attitudes on these things are relevant to Extropianism in that many
Extropians seem to relish ideas such as the downfall of the nation-state and the elimination of so-called "religious" memes, and a lot of Stephenson's writings are very cautionary when it comes to these sort of Extropian attitudes. (He may feel that the downfall of the
nation-state might be inevitable, but he shudders to think what life will be like until they are replaced by something like "phyles".)

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