Tag: neal stephenson

Oct 7 2019

The Miasma

In Neal Stephenson’s newest book, Fall; or, Dodge in Hell: A Novel, the protagonist Richard “Dodge” Forthrast uses the phrase “The Miasma” to refer to the collection of technology that we commonly call “The Internet.”

When I first came across the phrase, I said out loud, “Brilliant.”

I was poking around on the Miasma this morning looking for a reference to this and found this Slashdot post about an interview with Stephenson from PC Magazine.

Q: How would you describe the current state of the internet? Just in a general sense of its role in our daily lives, and where that concept of the Miasma came from for you.

Neal Stephenson: I ended up having a pretty dark view of it, as you can kind of tell from the book. I saw someone recently describe social media in its current state as a doomsday machine, and I think that’s not far off. We’ve turned over our perception of what’s real to algorithmically driven systems that are designed not to have humans in the loop, because if humans are in the loop they’re not scalable and if they’re not scalable they can’t make tons and tons of money.

The result is the situation we see today where no one agrees on what factual reality is and everyone is driven in the direction of content that is “more engaging,” which almost always means that it’s more emotional, it’s less factually based, it’s less rational, and kind of destructive from a basic civics standpoint… I sort of was patting myself on the back for really being on top of things and predicting the future. And then I discovered that the future was way ahead of me. I’ve heard remarks in a similar vein from other science-fiction novelists: do we even have a role anymore?

Still brilliant.

I’ve spent the past year struggling with the Miasma. I’ve deliberately disengaged from some of it through deleting my Facebook account, limiting my Twitter usage to broadcast only, and trying to use LinkedIn in a productive way even though the UX seems to be set up to purposely inhibit you from using it in a way that doesn’t suck you into the LI vortex. I’ve stopped going to websites online proactively, have unsubscribed to everything except for a limited number of technology-oriented newsletters, and only read the articles that I click through to. I get summaries of what is going on daily through Techmeme’s newsletter, have a set of specific search filters set up in Google Alerts, and scan blogs I’ve subscribed to via Feedly. I try to never, ever, go to news.website.com (whenever I am bored and feel like doing this, I do ten situps instead.)

But the Miasma is still – well – the miasma. The relevant definition, if you don’t know it, is:

an influence or atmosphere that tends to deplete or corrupt

or

a dangerous, foreboding, or deathlike influence or atmosphere

While I was reading Edward Snowden’s book Permanent Record, he reflected on the joy of interacting with the Internet of his youth, which was the Internet from the mid-1990s. He remembers it as an idealized thing that has now become completely and totally corrupted.

When I described this to Amy, she responded with a magnificent rant that was something like “this is a romanticized utopian ideal about a thing that was inhabited by socially inhibited, white male nerds who consider themselves too smart to be misogynistic but, well, often are.”

Yup.

The Miasma is a mess. It’s always been a mess. And it will always be a mess. Figuring out how to find beauty, usefulness, and joy in the mess is the opportunity. I’ve been thinking about that more lately and have a few ideas I’m going to play around with.

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Aug 14 2019

Book: Recursion, Permutation City, and Fall

I didn’t read much last month, but I got an email this morning from someone who mentioned that I’d like Greg Egan’s Permutation City. I read it in April when I was in Japan on my Q219 Vacation with Amy but never really blogged much about it.

When I got the email today, I thought of two novels that I’ve read this year that are in the same vein. They are Blake Crouch’s book Recursion and Neal Stephenson’s book Fall; or, Dodge in Hell.

All three of these books are outstanding. They are all near term science fiction, with extraordinary world-building dynamics, and complex time narratives.

While Neal Stephenson is possibly the best world builder in the entire fiction genre today, both Blake Crouch and Greg Egan are in the same category. Some people find Stephenson’s world-building overwhelming, but as a fast reader, I’ve learned how to skim through parts while absorbing the essence of what is going on. Interestingly, this technique isn’t required for Crouch but occasionally is needed with Egan.

All three books incorporate the concept of recursion in very foundation ways. Everyone studying computer science learns the magic of recursion very early on, often through the factorial example, listed below for fans of Scheme, just to bring back memories of 6.001.

(define (factorial x)
   (if (= x 0)
      1
      (* x (factorial (- x 1)))))

While Crouch hits you over the head with it in the beginning, Egan spends about 100 pages getting you ready for it. Stephenson probably takes about 200 pages before you start getting a feel for it. But, by the last quarter of each book, you are deep, deep, deep, deep, …

I thought each book ended extremely well. For all three, I found myself staying up late reading, which is always a sign the book has grabbed me since my bedtime since I was ten has been 10 pm.

While summer reading time is almost over, you’ve still got a few weeks for one of these if you want to explore the literary equivalent of a Sierpiński triangle.

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