I love Neal Stephenson. I’ve read all of his books, some of them multiple times. Well, except the Baroque Cycle trilogy, which I’m saving for a special period of time to get lost in them, and from everything.
Last week I read In the Beginning…Was the Command Line. For the second time. This time I read it on my Kindle, which was fitting.
Stephenson wrote it in 1999. As we exit 2020, it’s a great reminder of the place technology was around 20 years ago. It shows how much has changed and how little has changed.
As a continual user of a wide variety of technology, I think our modern computing infrastructure is completely fubared. As we try harder and harder to make the thing we interact with as users better, the complexity increases. Some things work beautifully, while others are a complete débâcle.
After finishing In the Beginning, I decided to clean up my TV setup. I’ve got DIRECTV, Roku, and an Apple TV. I use Savant to control it. I paid a lot of money to have someone set it all up. All I really wanted to do was log in to HBO Max so I would watch WW84, which turns out to be completely not worth it, even if all I needed to do was press a button to watch it.
Ready Player One? Yup – it felt like that. Phone in one hand. Savant remote in another. Apple TV settings. I tried resetting my password a few times. 15 minutes later, I realized that I probably had the wrong username for DIRECTV. I tried a different username. Then it got really messy since Apple TV thought I was one username, and now DIRECTV thought I was another. I finally figured this out after going over to Roku and setting things up there.
Then I decided to try to go clean up all the random tiles on Roku. Of course, I’ve lost track of my Roku controller, so I did this using Savant. But my Savant controller doesn’t have an * programmed into the Roku control section, so I had to do it app by app. I made a document with all the Channels I wanted to delete. I started manually deleting them by Search Channels one by one. Some of them didn’t appear, so they were apparently undeletable, at least until I find an asterisk.
An hour later, I was ready to watch WW84. We watched it last night. It was awful. We then realized we had watched end of the world movies four nights in a row (Tenet, Greenland, Midnight Sky, and WW84). WTF. What’s the point of that anyway.
I’m spending a lot more time at the command line these days. I’ve been learning Clojure, using Zsh and Emacs, struggling with Homebrew, and trying not to be annoyed with GitHub. And my new favorite app is Roam, which is not really a command-line app but sometimes feels like it.
I know when I get back to Aspen, where there currently is no heat due to what appears to be a natural gas line sabotage where I have Xfinity instead of DIRECTV, my Roku settings won’t have synchronized. Maybe AppleTV will, maybe it won’t. At least my Kindle will be the same. That’s because I only have one Kindle.
I haven’t even started to push anything into production.
Nothing is going to look anything like this 20 years from now.
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?
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
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.”
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.
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.
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)
(* 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.