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March 2nd, 2004

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02:23 pm - Linux, Disney-inspired terrorism, moral relativism, and my livejournal
No offense, but I don't post to my livejournal for you.

I post to my livejournal for myself, and it amazes me that people actually read it. Of course, I don't mind -- if I didn't want anybody to read my journal, it wouldn't be online. The real reason I keep a livejournal is that I like to write, but I have no academic or work-related obligation to do so. I don't write fiction because I'm not very good at it (one of those (I'm not sure which) is the cause of the other). Chronicling the events of my day, the things that make me happy, and the things that annoy me has turned out to be fun and (to some extent) therapeutic.

But then there are entries like this one. Before I delve into explaining this entry, I'll point out that while the next paragraph is going to make this sound like a computer rant, it's not. It's a sociology rant. A really good sociology rant. You can skip it if you like, but I wanted to get that out of the way so that you don't lose interest when you see the phrase "Command Line."

I've just finished reading an essay by Neal Stephenson called In The Beginning... Was the Command Line, which was first posted a few years ago on Slashdot.org. You can download it in plain text format from this link, or (since I feel bad about excerpting it here), you can buy it in trade paperback form. It's a well-informed (and occasionally brilliant) look at the past and future of operating systems. It also makes some other very good points.

There's a portion of the essay which relates very directly to a conversation I've had several times recently, so I've pasted it below. None of the people I've had this conversation with read my livejournal, but Mr. Stephenson has done a much better job of stating exactly what I wanted to say about the role of (among other things) American media in global culture. You won't need to be a computer person to understand it.

[During the 20th] century, intellectualism failed, and everyone knows it. In places like Russia and Germany, the common people agreed to loosen their grip on traditional folkways, mores, and religion, and let the intellectuals run with the ball, and they screwed everything up and turned the century into an abbatoir. Those wordy intellectuals used to be merely tedious; now they seem kind of dangerous as well.

We Americans are the only ones who didn't get creamed at some point during all of this. We are free and prosperous because we have inherited political and values systems fabricated by a particular set of eighteenth-century intellectuals who happened to get it right. But we have lost touch with those intellectuals, and with anything like intellectualism, even to the point of not reading books any more, though we are literate. We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations nonverbally, through a process of being steeped in media. Apparently this actually works to some degree, for police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it's explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged. Starsky and Hutch reruns, dubbed into diverse languages, may turn out, in the long run, to be a greater force for human rights than the Declaration of Independence.

A huge, rich, nuclear-tipped culture that propagates its core values through media steepage seems like a bad idea. There is an obvious risk of running astray here. Words are the only immutable medium we have, which is why they are the vehicle of choice for extremely important concepts like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. Unless the messages conveyed by our media are somehow pegged to a fixed, written set of precepts, they can wander all over the place and possibly dump loads of crap into people's minds.

Orlando used to have a military installation called McCoy Air Force Base, with long runways from which B-52s could take off and reach Cuba, or just about anywhere else, with loads of nukes. But now McCoy has been scrapped and repurposed. It has been absorbed into Orlando's civilian airport. The long runways are being used to land 747-loads of tourists from Brazil, Italy, Russia and Japan, so that they can come to Disney World and steep in our media for a while.

To traditional cultures, especially word-based ones such as Islam, this is infinitely more threatening than the B-52s ever were. It is obvious, to everyone outside of the United States, that our arch-buzzwords, multiculturalism and diversity, are false fronts that are being used (in many cases unwittingly) to conceal a global trend to eradicate cultural differences. The basic tenet of multiculturalism (or "honoring diversity" or whatever you want to call it) is that people need to stop judging each other-to stop asserting (and, eventually, to stop believing) that this is right and that is wrong, this true and that false, one thing ugly and another thing beautiful, that God exists and has this or that set of qualities.

The lesson most people are taking home from the Twentieth Century is that, in order for a large number of different cultures to coexist peacefully on the globe (or even in a neighborhood) it is necessary for people to suspend judgment in this way. Hence (I would argue) our suspicion of, and hostility towards, all authority figures in modern culture. As David Foster Wallace has explained in his essay "E Unibus Pluram," this is the fundamental message of television; it is the message that people take home, anyway, after they have steeped in our media long enough. It's not expressed in these highfalutin terms, of course. It comes through as the presumption that all authority figures -- teachers, generals, cops, ministers, politicians -- are hypocritical buffoons, and that hip jaded coolness is the only way to be.

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. All that remains is clog dancing and macrame. The ability to make judgments, to believe things, is the entire it point of having a culture. I think this is why guys with machine guns sometimes pop up in places like Luxor, and begin pumping bullets into Westerners. They perfectly understand the lesson of McCoy Air Force Base. When their sons come home wearing Chicago Bulls caps with the bills turned sideways, the dads go out of their minds.

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, at least at first. The only good thing you can say about it is that it makes world wars and Holocausts less likely -- and that is actually a pretty good thing!

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. And -- again -- perhaps the goal of all this is to make us feckless so we won't nuke each other.

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, and there are Hasidic Jewish enclaves in New York where large numbers of kids are being brought up according to traditional beliefs. 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. And so issues that are important to book-reading intellectuals, such as global environmental collapse, eventually percolate through the porous buffer of mass culture and show up as ancient Hindu ruins in Orlando.

You may be asking: what the hell does all this have to do with operating systems? As I've explained, there is no way to explain the domination of the OS market by Apple/Microsoft without looking to cultural explanations, and so I can't get anywhere, in this essay, without first letting you know where I'm coming from vis-a-vis contemporary culture.

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. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we've evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that's no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Now I realize that most of this probably sounds snide and bitter to the point of absurdity: your basic snotty intellectual throwing a tantrum about those unlettered philistines. As if I were a self-styled Moses, coming down from the mountain all alone, carrying the stone tablets bearing the Ten Commandments carved in immutable stone -- the original command-line interface -- and blowing his stack at the weak, unenlightened Hebrews worshipping images. Not only that, but it sounds like I'm pumping some sort of conspiracy theory.

But that is not where I'm going with this. The situation I describe, here, could be bad, but doesn't have to be bad and isn't necessarily bad now:

It simply is the case that we are way too busy, nowadays, to comprehend everything in detail. And it's better to comprehend it dimly, through an interface, than not at all. Better for ten million Eloi to go on the Kilimanjaro Safari at Disney World than for a thousand cardiovascular surgeons and mutual fund managers to go on "real" ones in Kenya. The boundary between these two classes is more porous than I've made it sound. I'm always running into regular dudes -- construction workers, auto mechanics, taxi drivers, galoots in general -- who were largely aliterate until something made it necessary for them to become readers and start actually thinking about things. Perhaps they had to come to grips with alcoholism, perhaps they got sent to jail, or came down with a disease, or suffered a crisis in religious faith, or simply got bored. Such people can get up to speed on particular subjects quite rapidly. Sometimes their lack of a broad education makes them over-apt to go off on intellectual wild goose chases, but, hey, at least a wild goose chase gives you some exercise. The spectre of a polity controlled by the fads and whims of voters who actually believe that there are significant differences between Bud Lite and Miller Lite, and who think that professional wrestling is for real, is naturally alarming to people who don't. But then countries controlled via the command-line interface, as it were, by double-domed intellectuals, be they religious or secular, are generally miserable places to live. Sophisticated people deride Disneyesque entertainments as pat and saccharine, but, hey, if the result of that is to instill basically warm and sympathetic reflexes, at a preverbal level, into hundreds of millions of unlettered media-steepers, then how bad can it be? We killed a lobster in our kitchen last night and my daughter cried for an hour. The Japanese, who used to be just about the fiercest people on earth, have become infatuated with cuddly adorable cartoon characters. My own family -- the people I know best -- is divided about evenly between people who will probably read this essay and people who almost certainly won't, and I can't say for sure that one group is necessarily warmer, happier, or better-adjusted than the other.

Current Mood: impressedimpressed
Current Music: An awful muzak version of Girl by The Beatles

(11 comments | Leave a comment)


[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 02:24 pm (UTC)
It's going to take me about three days to process that. Up for a lengthy conversation sometime?
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 06:57 pm (UTC)
Yeah, why not? Besides, I was thinking I oughta get in touch with you so we don't fall off each other's respective maps.
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 03:26 pm (UTC)
I feel the need to comment on this, not because I agree with it or disagree with it, but because my intellectual training tells me that I ought.

Actually, I disagree with the assessment made on multiculturalism. US multiculturalism IS about not judging whether something is right or wrong in a culture. To an extent. Spartan mores are generally frowned upon in the US. But what I've read, through many different authors who happen to be living multiculturalism, it's about preservation and persistance of a culture, of traditions, in a completely different cultural society. Our culture tells us that it is wrong to say that something is wrong in another culture. But why is this so? Is it just because that it's what we're told to do and therefore we do it? No. It's because we recognize the right of alternative cultures to exist. I don't think that culture can be scraped down into a "this or that" outlook. Not only is it overly simplistic, it ignores the basis for the existance of culture: differentness.

Thus the statement, "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," ignores the "real" basis for which culture and multiculturalism exist.

I do agree that there is a mass-media culture. I don't think of it as a true culture, because it of how it exists. The goal isn't for it to differentiate itself, but to absorb others into it in a "borg" like manner, so that they lose all identity. There are some benefits to it, as he mentioned. But if this is the assertion as to what US culture has become, I find it also to be overly simplistic. I don't know for certain, but it seems as if he's trying to propogate the idea that the US has a "yes or no" culture. While I agree there can be lots of evidence to this, there is also ignored evidence to the contrary. Unfortunately, my time here at work has run out, but watch some Star Trek movies in the mean time. Kirk out.
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 09:12 pm (UTC)
The points regarding the mass-media "culture" were the ones that resonated most with me. I don't think Neal Stephenson believes the world he's describing has actually happened, but I think he sees us on that particular track, and I happen to agree with him. Nobody likes to admit it, but the media dictates us more than we dictate the media, and the shockwave reaches every corner of our culture (and many others, since we are, after all, the U.S. of Friggin' A). That's what worries me.

As I mentioned to Kyle though, the passage above completely out of context.
As I mentioned to Kyle though, this passage is completely out of context.
[User Picture]
Date:March 3rd, 2004 12:22 am (UTC)
That I tend to agree more with than the general mass media "culture" exerpted. And it tends to make more sense.
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 03:55 pm (UTC)

Read this one, and realize that here Neal Stephenson is a Romantic with some serious reservations about what his brand of thinking has wrought. And he waffles straight into a "we're better off, but dull" endpoint that makes criticizing him feel like kicking a puppy.

I love David Brin for his thoroughly realistic optimism. I'm going to drop in a quote from one of my favorite interviews of his:

"Stop holding your neighbors in contempt. Many of them watch the same movies. They are almost as smart as you are, and care about many of the same things."
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 08:20 pm (UTC)
Understand that this essay was an echo of my own opinions and not a catalyst for epiphany, so... So I read the David Brin essay and I still have to stand by Neal Stephenson. I should also point out that later in the essay, he acknowledges his "but it's all good" conclusion. I've taken this passage completely out of its original context, and there may have been a better place to cut it to make my point.

In the original essay, this whole argument is used to fuel his point that simple (ie, homogeneous, "dumbed-down") interfaces make complex tools (your car, your DVD player, your computer...) more enjoyable to use:

In order to understand how bizarre this is, imagine that book reviews were written according to the same values system that we apply to user interfaces: "The writing in this book is marvelously simple-minded and glib; the author glosses over complicated subjects and employs facile generalizations in almost every sentence. Readers rarely have to think, and are spared all of the difficulty and tedium typically involved in reading old-fashioned books."

I still recommend that you read the whole essay (it's good. No, really), but if it doesn't interest you at all, you might want to check out Neal Stephenson's fiction. His cyberpunk novel Snow Crash is worth a read, simply for the fact that the main character is named Hiro Protagonist.

Sorry I deleted and reposted this. Damn typos.
[User Picture]
Date:March 2nd, 2004 09:41 pm (UTC)
I love old fashioned books, I don't watch television and I read Colin's journal. So what does that make me?
[User Picture]
Date:March 3rd, 2004 06:03 am (UTC)
Dangerously underinformed about just how short and transparent skirts can be.
[User Picture]
Date:March 3rd, 2004 06:07 pm (UTC)
Wait a sec... you mean skirts are short and transparent these days?
[User Picture]
Date:March 3rd, 2004 06:21 pm (UTC)
Maybe not, but they would be if I were running things.
Garmonbozia for the soul.

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