Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Tragedy Strikes Again, Farce Eagerly Awaited

"Above all, violence became part of daily life. The ultimate authority of the modern state has always rested in extremis on its monopoly of violence and its willingness to deploy force if necessary. But in occupied Europe authority was a function of force alone, deployed without inhibition. Curiously enough, it was precisely in these circumstances that the state lost its monopoly of violence. Partisan groups and armies competed for a legitimacy determined by their capacity to enforce their writ in a given territory."
-Tony Judt, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945

Thursday, August 10, 2006

... and Hackers

I should mention, as I intended to in the last post, that Stephenson favors technological Morlocks over other sorts. This strikes me as understandable but not justifiable. Technology drives much of human progress, but it does not drive it all, and anyway we wouldn't understand this if it weren't for economics. Stephenson lives in a world wrought by political, economic, and legal giants, but he gives them only a passing nod in his works (that I've read). In Stephenson's terminology, the founding fathers were incredible hackers, implementing a new form of government on the philosophical and political theories of a few half-crazy Morlocks. Likewise Keynes and FDR and Earl Warren. A little respect, please.

Eloi, Morlocks, and Hackers

So I've been reading a couple of essays by Neal Stephenson. The first is an annotated version of "In The Beginning Was The Command Line," which contains the following passage:

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells's The Time Machine, except that it's been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it's the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks.

This is an interesting view, but I think it misses something important about the world. In a sense, we are all Morlocks and Eloi. Stephenson knows his way around a computer, but he doesn't have a solid grasp of economics. I imagine he would be completely lost in a courtroom. He's a technological Morlock and a legal Eloi. Plenty of lawyers are the opposite. Adam Smith, a philosophical and economic Morlock, explained the advantages of specialization. Today, though, if not then (Franklin and Jefferson were perhaps the last comprehensive Morlocks, and even that is stretching it a bit), intense specialization has made Eloi of all of us. It would be impossible to learn any significant fraction of the information sloshing around the world in a lifetime. We select our specialties and become Morlocks in them. In everything else we remain Eloi, dependent on a social structure that gives us access to Morlocks and their services.

This is not to deny the validity of Stephenson's point. Many people resist becoming Morlocks at all, and see the world through a glass darkly. Others gulp down information and become Morlocks as much as possible. It's crucial to remember, though, that everyone is an Eloi with regard to almost everything in the world. The question is not whether you're an Eloi (you are), but whether you have a drive to expand your Morlock side as far as possible. That is the distinction that separates, for me, the interesting people from the boring.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Truthiness Meets Wikiality

Reaction has been mixed to Stephen Colbert's awesome attack on Wikipedia (link from Freakonomics). Freakonomics liked it, but one of their commenters called it "idiotic." He argued: "It is as if I go to a park a pee all over the grass and then I claim that public parks are useless and shouldn’t be allowed because they can so easily be vandalised."

That's not a good analogy. Colbert did no lasting damage to the site. Instead, he revealed its flaws in a vivid way. This knowledge can be used for good or bad, but mostly it's important for people to understand the malleability of "truth" on Wikipedia and elsewhere. "Vicissitude" notes (on Slashdot) that Wikipedia fixed the problems rapidly and blocked Colbert. Very well, but is their response as rapid when the attack isn't broadcast on a popular TV show? That's the point.

[UPDATE: The other commenters on Freakonomics made substantially the same points, but I made them first. Look it up.]

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Thinking Big Thoughts with Mr. Stephenson

Neal Stephenson, author of the slightly overrated novel Cryptonomicon, also wrote an essay called "In The Beginning Was The Command Line." The essay has been annotated by Garrett Birkel. As I'm re-reading it, I'm struck by two things. First, Stephenson sees things from a particular perspective, so that he misses things or gets arguments wrong. Second, he seems unaware of this, and doesn't qualify his conclusions to match his limited knowledge. We're all guilty of this, of course, but I think I'll spend the next few posts addressing some of the ideas I find troubling.