Tuesday, April 03, 2007

damn it.

Dear blog readers, please forgive the fact that the intended audience of this post is not (originally) you. I just don't have the strength to explain it all again.


The Metametaphor of Information,
or, You are What You E-Know,
or, How/Why I Forgot my Lecture and the Nam-Shub of Enki

Were it on purpose, it might be clever to offer virtuality in place of Real lecture. (Or perhaps some of you would like to comment on whether there is any substantial difference…)

The Story of How I Forgot to Lecture is a simple one: a narrative which involves the (mis)coding of information. Once upon a time there was a conversation: a dissemination of information via sound waves, which, when received and properly internalized, is encoded chemically in the brain for later data retrieval. This process is, of course, sometimes hit-or-miss; so once upon a time there was also a dayplanner, into which the same information could be coded into written symbols, a different code repeating the same information received by the sound waves and encoded chemically in the brain. But these symbols can be misunderstood, corrupted, lost or obliterated over time…Or dayplanners can simply go unopened, and like long-lost clay tablets with vital information on them, if they go unread, the information therein is ineffective.

The nam-shub of Enki turns out to translate from the cuneiform as, “isn’t Dr. Osmer still in Germany?”

Indeed.

The plot of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash hangs on the supposition that Information is All. Why can a human being get a virus from a computer? Answer: what is a computer?—a machine that codes information/ what is a virus?—a tiny bit of self-replicating information/ what is a human being?—a conglomeration of genetically coded information. As Hiro Protagonist, broke and recently unemployed resident of U-Stor-It, Greatest Swordsman in the World and Warrior Prince of the Metaverse, gradually realizes, not only is the Metaverse an instantiation of Information, a collection of coded protocols written in languages that manipulate the basic binary code of computer-existence, Reality itself is constituted by information, a collection of physical, biological, social and cultural patterns of information enacted and embodied by various artifacts: machines and people and ideas, animals and franchulates and religions. Information is the substratum of Life and Reality.

We as readers must, just as Hiro must, negotiate these intersecting media of information, tracing the virus across these intersecting levels of genetic/biological, linguistic, cultural and virtual instantiations. Snow Crash is first presented to us as a computer virus, encoded in binary form; then a neurolinguistic virus coded in glossalalic syllables; then a biological virus, genetically encoded in infected blood cells. The virus, variously instantiated, is the same Information, which, regardless of its medium, enacts the same disruptive result on those who contract it—through religion, through exchange of bodily fluids, or through the binarily coded information on a bitmap accessed through the optic nerve. The destination of the virus is to coil like a serpent around the human brainstem, and it may travel in whatever way is convenient to get there.

To say that Information is All is to say something basic about, well, everything. To say that human beings are genetically coded Information says…what? It is commonplace now to refer to genetic code as “blueprints,” to think of our human genes as an instruction kit for the various proteins to meticulously assemble themselves into a human being over a 9-month (give or take) period of construction. Human being=a certain pattern of information assembled out of a supplied medium. What anthropological assumptions are at work here? And what are the implications for humans as mobile biological information systems?

It is no coincidence that the posthuman appears again in Snow Crash. If we are embodied patterns of information, and Information is All, then we (like the Snow Crash virus) may be variously instantiated in media other than the strictly biological. Information is pattern; and pattern can be replicated using different materials.

But Stephenson gives us more than a vision of The Posthuman; he gives us a variety of posthumans, and a companion cyborg species. (Post-dog as post-man’s best friend.) Ng is perhaps the most grotesque of the posthuman figures Stephenson gives us: “a sort of neoprene pouch about the size of a garbage can suspended from the ceiling by a web of straps, shock cords, tubes, wires, fiber-optic cables, and hydraulic lines…At the top of the pouch, Y.T. can see a patch of skin with some black hair around it—the top of a balding man’s head…Below this, on either side, where you’d sort of expect to see arms, huge bundles of wires, fiber optics, and tubes run up out of the floor and are seemingly plugged into Ng’s shoulder sockets. There is a similar arrangement where his legs are supposed to be attached, and more stuff going into his groin and hooked up to various locations on his torso” (225-6). Bizarre though this physical manifestation is, as Ng coolly explains to Y.T., the van is nothing more than a really souped-up motorized wheelchair. The apparatus attached to him enables the informational pattern that constitutes Ng to resist disintegration; it is an alternative medium, but the Information is Ng.

Likewise, Ng’s creation of Rat Things allows for a certain psychological continuity in which the instantiation of Information in the purely biological medium is retained in the memory, and forms the informational pattern that makes the Rat Thing the same dog it always was: B-782 is Fido, and Rat Thing B-782 loves Y.T. because Fido loves Y.T. (443-4). Most telling is Ng’s explicit statement to Y.T. countering her disgust at both him and the Rat Things: “Your mistake is that you think all mechanically assisted organisms—like me—are pathetic cripples. In fact, we are better than we were before” (248). [Here, the really interesting question of the overlap Ng achieves between Metaverse and Reality, symbolized for us in the virtual masseuse that gives a Real massage through the electrocontractive gel Ng's Real body is immersed in, prompts us to wonder, with the Velveteen Rabbit, what is Real? Which Ng is the real Ng? A question we will return to with regard to our Hiro.]

In contrast to Ng and the Rat Things, who are Information preserved in alternative media, are the wireheads of L. Bob Rife. The wireheads are still fully biological in terms of life-sustaining systems; their cyborg parts are in addition to, rather than substitution for, their biological ones. Yet despite their higher degree of biological integrity, the wireheads are the truly frightening posthuman figure, for they are corrupted Information, rather than preserved Information. L. Bob Rife has left the medium more or less unmolested, but the Information—that which carries identity—has been purposefully hijacked by the virus.

Occupying a gray area between Ng and his Rat Things, and L. Bob Rife’s wireheads, are the gargoyles, and Hiro himself. And the difference between Hiro as freelance hacker, sometime Warrior Prince of the Metaverse, and Hiro as gargoyle (265) is a matter of degree so slight as to disappear. Which brings us to the question: is the difference between Hiro’s access of technology and our own interface with it also a degree so slight as to disappear?

This indeed would be the question that Donna Haraway would put to us via her "Cyborg Manifesto." To be a cyborg is not only to have machine literally grafted into flesh. It is also simply to be so dependent on technology that one cannot function without it—and this, I dare say, describes every single one of us, members of the technological elite, who interface with our technology multiple times a day.

Haraway’s ultimate goal in the "Manifesto" is not to laud the imminent arrival of the cyborg as a technophile. Rather, she is deeply suspicious of the oppressive economic possibilities of technology in a way resonant with the landscape of Stephenson’s future America of Burbclaves and franchulates. Stephenson draws for us a caricatured but logical extension of tendencies already present and at work in American culture: to identify with people who are “like us,” and paradoxically at the same time, to manufacture identity as image. The nearly infinite fracturing of group identities is obvious in the ever-growing list of ethnic identities that includes “jeeks” and “Nips” but also “the Military” and “skateboarders” as distinct ethnic groups. The fracturing of the United States government into independent franchises mirrors the ethnic fracturing in a literal way: each Franchise is for “people like us” and some, such as the New South Africa Franchulate, are violently racist. Stephenson offers no anodyne for this disturbing social development. There seems to be no possibility for identity and solidarity other than that of natural identity and origin—those “like us.” Haraway, too, pegs this tendency in her "Manifesto," and prescribes as nam-shub, “affinity,” that is, “related not by blood but by choice, the appeal of one chemical nuclear group for another, avidity.” When one is hybrid, identification by natural origin is precluded—and this, Haraway and Stephenson both tell us, is a good thing. It is not by accident that Hiro is racially hybrid, ethnically hybrid, and occupies an intersecting set of economic and class categories, in addition to becoming something very close to the cyborg of Haraway’s essay.

Which brings us to the question: who is Hiro Protagonist, Really? Is the real Hiro the penniless former-Deliverator freelance hacker in the U-Stor-It, or is Hiro indeed the Warrior Prince that he is in the Metaverse? Is the Warrior Prince a manufactured image, much as the facades of Uncle Enzo and the daffy Chenglish-speaking Mr. Lee are? Or is it that Hiro, unburdened by the limits of circumstance, becomes more fully himself in the Metaverse than anywhere else? If this is so—again, what does this say about what constitutes a human being? As Hiro’s identities converge, leading to a Metaverse triumph with very Real consequences, what might this say about the connection between image and identity in a world of malleable information? If Hiro is Information, can he be re-imaged/re-written/re-programmed?

Of course he can: for this is the threat of the Snow Crash/Asherah virus. And this brings us, finally, to the question of religion as virus, a metaphor Stephenson puts forward in several places. Religion, like any other cultural meme (or in Stephenson’s term, me), spreads like a virus: through contact, specifically, linguistic contact, for language is the medium of interpersonal informational connection. Consider "truthiness." Consider, if you will, Wikiality. Like truthiness, religious doctrine is more or less contagious, depending on the susceptibility of those exposed to it: a conceptual virus that enacts itself by re-patterning behavior of those who catch it. But in Stephenson’s conception, religion is a cultural meme like any other: praise God, bake bread. It is simply information that generates behavior. Is this what religion is—simply a set of more or less compelling ideas? Is religion is so thoroughly naturalized that the metaphysical disappears into the social?

Or does it? The mystical reappears under the same guise that quashes it: Information. For Information is All. And Information must come from somewhere—and for this, Stephenson reaches for the Metavirus from Outer Space. The Fount. The Source. The Logos. Hiro observes during the course of his researches with the Librarian that the Metaverse is a single vast nam-shub, enacting itself on L. Bob Rife’s fiber-optic network (211). But the Metaverse is simply another version of Reality, a single vast nam-shub enacting itself variously on the biomass, spoken into existence by the Metavirus from Outer Space. Information acting itself out in various media.

But religion as virus is not unambiguously negative, for the Snow Crash/Asherah virus through which L. Bob Rife the paranoid egomaniacal Texas wants to control all Information (and therefore everything), is countered by the nam-shub of Enki, the Babel/Infocalypse, a counter-neurolinguistic virus which is Reality’s salvation from undifferentiated, centralized Informational Control. Religion, then, is a medium for information, rather than Information itself, a constant of human nature (as Juanita points out, 200-1) that may be exploited for either good or ill.

There is, perhaps, an underlying Good that may be identified in Stephenson’s narrative of the Babel incident, and that is, the value of diversity. In the fractured landscape of Burbclaves and franchulates, where every group has its label, (its mascot, and its company motto), diversity has become estrangement. But Stephenson also offers us the information that diversity is necessary, valuable, and in a certain sense, salvation. Monocultures, like fields of corn, are vulnerable. “Maybe Babel was the best thing that ever happened to us” (279).

…In conclusion, I would point out that you, fellow members of the elite techno-priesthood, are also en with powers over multiple nam-shubs. Every day you work your magic through simple speech: 'I love you' is as transformative an utterance as one might ever give or receive, in any language. And as I again beg your indulgence for my personal snowcrash this week, I would most humbly remind you, so is, as well, absolvo te.

JTB

5 comments:

hermit greg said...

Ouch. Once, in a seminar that inexplicably had a take-home midterm with assigned topics, I paid so little attention to the assigned topics that I wrote four pages about the wrong text.

Although I was offered a do-over, I didn't take it--I had better things to do with my time.

TKP said...

I wish I had an idea of what you were talking about.

Scott said...

I've been dying to read Snow Crash. I'm hooked on Second Life and I know that Stephenson's book was instrumental in its inception.

JTB said...

Scott,
You won't be disappointed. It's not The Road or anything, but it's fun and sarcastic and full of badasses who blow stuff up. You can't beat the opening scene. I won't spoil it for you. Just one word: the "Deliverator."

priscilla said...

I have no idea of what you are talking about - again - but as your supplier, I do have more 'supplies' available Dr W S3E1. Woohoo!