Feb 8, 2005

In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
Neil Stevephenson

The written word is unique among media in that it is a digital medium that
humans can, nonetheless, easily read and write. Humans are conversant in many
media (music, dance, painting), but all of them are analog except for the
written word, which is naturally expressed in digital form (i.e. it is a series
of discrete symbols--every letter in every book is a member of a certain
character set, every "a" is the same as every other "a," and so on). As any
communications engineer can tell you, digital signals are much better to work
with than analog ones because they are easily copied, transmitted, and
error-checked. Unlike analog signals, they are not doomed to degradation over
time and distance. That is why digital compact disks replaced analog LPs, for
example. The digital nature of the written word confers on it exceptional
stability, which is why it is the vehicle of choice for extremely important
concepts like the Ten Commandments, the Koran, and the Bill of Rights. This is
generally thought to be a rather good idea. But the messages conveyed by modern
audiovisual media cannot be pegged to any fixed, written set of precepts in that
way and consequently they are free to 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 couldtake 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

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
toward, 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 absorb, anyway, after they have
steeped in our media long enough.

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