Cyber-punk to Enlightenment

This essay was originally written for a conference in New York University about the Enlightenment and the present, but its published version appeared in

Michael Schiach et al (ed.), History-Making, Public History, Historiography: a Festschrift for Eckhart Hellmuth (Munich. 2011).

It seemed perfectly placed as a contribution to the volume for an old friend and collaborator, probably the least pompous German history professor to grace the academy.  His festschrift included a CD recorded by a well-known Munich female punk singer who also happened to have been his graduate student.  Its presentation on a hot and sticky afternoon in the Bavarian capital was a great occasion.

From Cyber-Punk to Enlightenment: Neal Stephenson’s The Baroque Cycle.

My aim in this paper is to look at a variety of interconnected issues about the Enlightenment and its visibility/purchase in the contemporary world, using the case study of Neal Stephenson’s trilogy, The Baroque CycleQuicksilver (2003); The Confusion (2004), and The System of the World (2004). One of my main objects is to show how notions that we associate with the Enlightenment are disseminated not just (perhaps not even predominantly) by works that emanate from the Academy, but through other means. I became aware of Stephenson and his work in part because it was one of the few ways in which my students at CalTech (and most of them, to be honest, were quite clueless when it came to the Enlightenment either as a body of thought or as an historical period) had acquired some historical knowledge.

As we shall see, the manner in which they learned was profoundly unfamiliar to an academic like myself, and was linked to the poetics of Stephenson’s writing which are a peculiar mixture of realism – telling the reader what this was really like – and a sort of picaresque, whose dynamics (and they run at MTV speed) are redolent of computer games and other sorts of digital technology. As we shall also see, Stephenson’s fictional writing, at least in The Baroque Cycle, has a strong didactic streak. Stephenson defines science fiction as “fiction that’s not considered good unless it has interesting ideas in it”.

My paper is split into three parts. The first is a very brief survey of the Baroque Cycle, concentrating on the final volume, The System of the World, and its poetics. The second takes on the larger themes of the work, in particular the questions of the value and abuse of science.   I use this as a way of opening up a discussion about Stephenson’s progression from hip, witty, irreverent writer of cyber-punk fiction to the turn to a more serious contemplation of history, something I connect to his critique of contemporary culture in his famous web-published essay, In the Beginning was the Command Line (

  1. The Baroque Cycle.

It is virtually impossible to summarize the plot of a three-decker novel that extends over 3,000 pages, and I won’t attempt to do so.   In essence this is the fictional version of Roy Porter’s Enlightenment. Britain and the Modern World. Set in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the main plot line, a thread that runs through all three volumes, though there are a huge number of diversions and sub-plots, is the so-called priority dispute between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz about the development of calculus. The cycle is written in two distinctive registers. It alternates picaresque action sequences of violence, squalor and brutality with long passages of philosophical and scientific exposition, switching its pace from the fast-forward furiousness of an MTV video to the glacial slowness of the academic expositor. Its cast of characters includes many historical figures: not just Newton (here called ‘Ike’), and Leibnitz (thankfully without a diminutive), but also Louis XIV, Peter the Great, a succession of British royals, politicians and military leaders like the Duke of Marlborough, and a bunch of members of London’s Royal Society, including Oldenburg, Wilkins and Robert Hooke. Accompanying them is a range of fictional figures from high and low life. These include Jack Shaftoe, adventurer, king of the vagabonds and counterfeiter, and his lover, the beautiful Eliza, Countess of Zeur, who are the protagonists of the picturesque scenes in the trilogy. But the centre of the narrative is Daniel Waterhouse, a puritan American and founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony of Technological Arts, a man who combines the sententiousness of Polonius with the qualities of the most boring geek you ever sat next to in a physics class. Like James Boswell a generation later, he has an uncanny knack of turning up at the right place at the right time.   He rooms with Newton at Cambridge, witnesses the execution of Charles I in 1649 and, in the final volume, is named as one of the Regents to oversee the transition from the Stuart to the Hanoverian succession in 1714. His peregrinations hold the story together.

What links low life and the philosophical, Jack Shaftoe and Isaac Newton, is the issue of gold and money, a matter that unites issues of power and science. Stephenson’s fiction links the manipulation of the coinage and the financial system on which it depended to the struggles over regime change in the early eighteenth century.   Here the key figure is ‘Ike’ Newton who was not just Britain’s foremost natural philosopher but an ardent Whig and the Master of the Royal Mint, every bit as concerned to ensure the circulation of a stable currency as he is to explain the laws governing the motion of objects.   It turns out that Ike is an alchemist intent on finding Solomonic Gold, gold “made through an alchemical process, bearing traces of the Philosophick Mercury” (144). According to Stephenson, he takes the post of Master of the Mint because he believes it will help him find the Solomonic gold that he is convinced has survived down the ages.

Newton’s alchemical interests connect the philosophical conflicts and political plot.   Ike’s alchemy, it transpires, is part of his general vision of the laws of nature, one that diverges from that of his great rival Leibnitz.   According to Stephenson, the historic quarrel between Newton and Leibnitz over who first discovered calculus was part of a larger clash over the relationship between the new mechanical philosophy and the vexed questions of human agency and free will.   At the same time Newton’s obsession with Solomonic gold leads him into a protracted struggle with Jack Shaftoe, the king of the vagabonds and counterfeiter who has his hands on the store of more than twenty-four carat gold.

At the story’s end the quarrel between Newton and Leibnitz – Stephenson’s “Philosophick Showdown at Leicester House” – remains unresolved, and Newton is thwarted both of the gold and of revenge on Jack Shaftoe. It is clear, I think, that Stephenson is signaling to the reader that Newton’s preoccupation with alchemy and fool’s gold was an error, a false path he followed, and from which, in the cycle, he is blocked. The Solomonic gold, the source of so much strife, is subject to a different sort of alchemy.   At Daniel Waterhouse’s behest, it is transmuted into metal punched cards for the Logic Mill – a sort of proto-computer – that Daniel and Leibnitz are trying to develop with the (highly intrusive) patronage of Peter the Great of Russia.

Such a bald summary cannot do justice to the many sub-plots, descriptive excursions, allusions and jokes (some funny, some not) that fill Stephenson’s cornucopia of a text. Stephenson describes his work not just as science fiction but as “a historical, swashbuckler, potboiler epic” in the tradition of Alexander Dumas and Charles Dickens,  But many of the scenes, like Leibnitz’s description of Peter the Great partying with his Cossacks, or the account of Jack Shaftoe and the Jacobites stealing the crown jewels in the Tower of London (complete with spectacular rocketry – a personal passion of Stephenson’s), remind me less of Dumas than the eighteenth-century picaresque fictions of Tobias Smollett. And, in another way, they hark back to the extravagances of the virtual world of Hiro Protagonist in Stephenson’s famous cyber-punk novel, Snowcrash (1992).   But these baroque extravaganzas are dwarfed by grand tableaux crammed with historical detail.   Here the tone is altogether different. Stephenson’s historical, topographical and technical knowledge of the Baroque age and of London is truly remarkable. If you want to know the lay-out of Newgate Gaol and the Fleet prison, the nature of coining and counterfeiting, the beauties of the gardens at Herrenhausen, the dynastic politics of Europe, the operations of the Royal Mint or the lay-out of every last nook and cranny of London, then Stephenson’s your man. Some historical novelists complain about too much information, too many facts; Stephenson wallows in them, drowning the reader in a sea of data. There is a remorseless didacticism, a determination to cover everything, to leave no stone unturned.   Stephenson wants to dispense knowledge, not deal in affect.   Most novelists writing about a steam machine might convey to the reader the sorts of feeling it evoked in the viewer – awe, incomprehension, admiration or fear. Stephenson explains how it works.   For the literary reader – for most readers brought up in the humanities – this plethora of information and implacable instruction makes for rebarbitive reading, crying out for a good editor. For most of my students, trained in the sciences, it is precisely this sort of explanatory detail that makes The Baroque Cycle so riveting.

Lurking in these thickets of facts are the big ideas that make The Baroque Cycle a work of science fiction as much as a portrait of an age.   What Stephenson unveils is the emergence of a new “system of the world”, the forces that made it possible, and the ideas and institutions that sustained it. At its heart is the recognition of a new notion of power (whether mechanical, economic, literary or political) set forth by Daniel Waterhouse and his allies.   As Daniel explains, “I am using the word Power in a novel sense… to mean a sort of general ability to effect change, in a measurable way…Everywhere you look you will see opportunities to put Power to use”.   The key point about power is that it is not a fixed quantity but, like the value of a commercial stock, subject to fluctuations. It can be made to grow. As another character remarks, engines – and these include mechanisms like a bank and a stock market as well as steam machines – can create power and value. As knowledge advances so does power. “The amount of Power in the world … is ever-increasing, and the rate of increase grows faster as more of these Engines are built”.   This power depends on number and measurement – whether in the form of money (the measure of all things), number, or serial time. It relies on what Daniel describes as the “bankers, merchants, clock-makers, or Longitude-finders, … Astronomers and Alchemists” that make it work, but above all it needs the philosophers who in the end animate the parts of the system, give it meaning and make it whole.

The Baroque Cycle is both an account of the emergence of a generally apprehended theory of human progress and an extended meditation on how the power of science can be exploited and distorted. It is the way that many of my students (and, to judge by the commercial success of these novels, many others) have learnt about the important epistemological shift we have given the short-hand form, the Enlightenment. As Stephenson himself has remarked, critical analysis of his work and debate about it has not, on the whole, taken place in the review pages of the mainstream press, nor indeed within the literary academy. To find about Stephenson’s work you have to enter an altogether different network, one comprised of web-sites and on-line reviews and journals like Slashdot, Wired, Sfsite, Librarything, and Squidoo, read web interviews (usually conducted by email rather than face to face) or use the site he developed using Metaweb with its detailed information about the Baroque Cycle in order, as he puts it “to seed a bed of knowledge”.

It’s important, I think, to see that what Stephenson portrays is not merely a history of science or an account of the Scientific Revolution. If it is history of science, it is much more akin to science studies rather than a traditional history of science, placing great weight on cultural practices, and making very clear that science cannot and does not work in isolation. At the same time, Stephenson seems to take a position in which the creation of a define realm of deliberative reason, a sort of public sphere, is the only way to ensure that technical knowledge of the world is not abused.

In the Beginning was the Command Line

Quite a number of Stephenson’s science fiction fans have raised the question of why he should have turned to history, and to the history of what to them seems a remote and obscure era.   At one level the answer is obvious: it allows Stephenson to back-project the world of hackers and geeks, to show that what seems irredeemably modern – attitudes towards science, number and computation – has a longer history than we knew. But something more is going on here, an agenda that we can best see outlined, I think, in Stephenson’s brilliant and fascinating essay, first published on the web and subsequently in book form, entitled, “In the Beginning was the Command Line” ( ).

In part Stephenson’s essay is a lucid and technically well-informed account of how the development of graphic user interfaces (GUIs) solved the problem of general access to software operating systems for those, like me, who are not computer literate. It explains how Microsoft won out over Apple in the pc and software markets, but it also poses a number of questions. Drawing an analogy between cars and operating systems, Stephenson asks why so many people buy an ugly, unreliable station wagon (Windows), and a few go for a much smarter sporty model with bells and whistles that you can’t maintain yourself (Apple), when a completely free and far more reliable model (Linux) is available?   The key development was the invention by Apple of the GUI in 1984, rendering strings of code (what Stephenson calls telegrams) into graphic form, creating “a stack of metaphors and abstractions” between the user and telegrams. This had the effect of making operating systems more user-friendly and initiating the personal computer revolution which made Jobs and Gates very rich. And because the operating systems of Microsoft and Apple couldn’t really be run without GUIs, operating systems and GUIs became one and the same in the larger public’s mind. There are of course no files and folders, no desktop and no waste bin – only strings of ones and zeros, but we have become so beguiled with these graphic representations that it only when we suffer ‘snow crash’, when our screen dissolves into a cloud of pixels, that we realize that we have not been dealing with a thing but a graphic representation. Most of us prefer ease of use and access to a bunch of applications (bolted on to the operating system) and perhaps brand image over free access and much greater product flexibility and reliability.

This is a puzzle to Stephenson who, as an accomplished hacker, can use the complex string of code that flows from the command line of Linux, enjoy its flexibility, and who can share in the fixing of faults that is demonstrably swifter thanks to the open participation of Linux users, all of whom share an interest in repairing and improving the operating system.   His explanation for the triumph of GUI operating systems is largely cultural.   Today, he says, we have what he calls an interface culture, one exemplified in his anecdote of watching a visitor to Disney World watching a cam-recorder screen with an image of Main Street USA. “Rather than go see a real small town for free, he had paid money to see a pretend one, and rather than see it with the naked eye he was watching it on television.” Stephenson sees our passive acceptance of GUIs as analogous to our passive infatuation with all sorts of visual simulacra that give us a reassuring illusion rather than a more troubling – though eventually more productive – knowledge and truth. He compares Disney and the GUIs: “Disney and Apple/Microsoft are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces. Disney is a sort of user interface unto itself – and more than just graphical. Let’s call it a Sensorial Interface. It can be applied to anything in the real world, real or imagined, albeit at staggering expense”. GUIs may have begun with computing, but now they are everywhere – on wristwatches, phones, VCRs, stoves. “So,”, says Stephenson, “the GUI has gone beyond being an interface for personal computers, and become a sort of meta-interface that is pressed into service for every new piece of consumer technology”

Stephenson concedes that part of the explanation for the triumph of the GUI is an issue of complexity: (there are far more John Brewers using computers than Neal Stephensons).   But he also sees this passivity as an intellectual failure or a failure of intellectuals. In the twentieth century he claims intellectuals “screwed everything up and turned the century into an abattoir”   Only the Americans “didn’t get creamed at some point during all 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 …We seem much more comfortable with propagating those values to future generations non-verbally”.

For Stephenson this fall from grace has two chief components. The first is a retreat from the word. “The word”, he writes, “in the end, is the only system of encoding thoughts – the only medium that is not fungible, that refuses to dissolve in the devouring torrent of electronic media”… they 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”. What this means, he concludes, is that “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”.

Linked to this is Stephenson’s view that the world of virtual simulacra has created what he calls “a global anti-culture” devoid of any specific identity other than a negation of judgment.   “The basic tenet of multi-culturalism … 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 is true and that false”. On the one hand this produces a people without culture: “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 post-modernists 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.” On the other this nihilism, as he sees it, produces “our suspicion of, and hostility towards all authority figures in modern culture” and our belief that they are “hypocritical buffoons” and that “hip jaded coolness is the only way to be”. Thus modern passive aggressiveness.

In its place Stephenson wants to put something like the Linux community whose free exchange of ideas produces optimal solutions which are the result of the active participation of knowledgeable and critically engaged participants. This knowledge is both technical and historical. “Unix … is not so much a product as it is a painstakingly compiled oral history of the hacker subculture. It is our Gilgamesh epic … What made old epics like Gilgamesh so powerful and so long-lived was that they were living bodies of narrative that many persons knew by heart, and told over and over again – making their own personal embellishments whenever it struck their fancy. The bad embellishments were shouted down, the good ones picked up by others, polished, improved and, over time, incorporated into the story”.   Thus a hacker’s utopia, complete with Stephenson’s favorite bit of software, a freeware window manager called “Enlightenment”..

There is a lot to criticize and ponder here: a naïve sense of the stability of words; some Mickey Mouse history of the twentieth century; the over-determined analogy between going to Disney World and using a GUI – the technologies may be the same but the activities radically different; the characterization of American culture as skeptically morally relativist (whatever happened to religious absolutism?); the sense of the historian (and others) that we have heard versions of this jeremiah many times before (De Tocqueville??). And, in the end, Stephenson recognizes that the sort of pure sphere of deliberative reason he posits must always be quite strictly bounded.

But In the Beginning was the Command Line is important for at least two reasons. First, it overtly signals a shift in view of a generation of writers who were the first to be brought up fully saturated in modern visual media.   In passing, Stephenson alludes to the arguments of David Foster Wallace in his 1990 essay, E Unibus Pluram. Television and American fiction. Wallace’s essay is about the bankruptcy of the position of detached irony as a mode of cultural critique in the American novel This is how he puts it: “My two big premises are that, on the one hand, a certain subgenre of pop-conscious postmodern fiction, written mostly by young Americans, has lately arisen and made a real attempt to transfigure a world of and for appearance, mass appeal and television; and that, on the other hand, televisual culture has somehow evolved to a point where it seems invulnerable to any such transfiguring assault. Television, in other words, has become able to capture and neutralize any attempt to change or even protest the attitudes of passive unease and cynicism that television requires of Audience in order to be commercially and psychologically viable at several hours a day”. This is because television (and, by extension, other visual and spectacular media) have learned “the very same cynical postmodern aesthetic that was once the best alternative to the appeal of Low, over-easy mass marketed narrative.”

Foster Wallace’s account is a penetrating analysis of the American novel from Pynchon and Delillo to Mark Leyner’s My Cousin, my Gastroenterologist, but it does not offer any cure for the disease it identifies.   Indeed it betrays a certain lack of imagination about the future. Stephenson, with his propensity to fix things, to make them work, does however seem to have an answer.   The reception of Snow Crash made Stephenson a cult figure of cyberpunk. As he himself put it, “You get to wear leather jackets and mirrored shades and be hip and cool as long as cyberpunk is hip and cool”.   Stephenson was, at least in his public persona, the embodiment of the attitude that both he and Foster Wallace have subsequently criticized as jaded and cynical.   But if for Foster Wallace the question is one of what should the novel do, for Stephenson the issue is a larger one. (he doesn’t seem to have abandoned his leather jacket.)   His persistent concern in his recent fiction, non-fictional writing and interviews, has been with the position of the sciences and their practitioners in the polity at large. This is obvious throughout the Baroque Cycle. In In the Beginning was the Command Line he characterizes contemporary culture as “a two tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Well’s the Time Machine”. In Wells “the Eloi were an effete upper class supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world its 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”.   The latter “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”.   A successful culture is one that makes this disequilibrium work, though one has the sense that Stephenson would like to dispense with it altogether. But the historical work of science fiction takes science out of nature and puts it into history, making clear the complex ways that scientific knowledge comes into play and enabling us to see the forces that shape its results.   Stephenson wants a return to a positive, more critically engaged position that makes clear what is at stake with modern technology and its uses. The good scientist cannot be what Stephenson calls a geek or a mere “propeller head”.   He (and the subject usually seems gendered) should understand what is at stake in scientific work – should, in a sense, be an enlightened citizen, so that critical reason can prevent what Stephenson calls “power disorders”.   The shift in his thinking might be characterized as a move from post-modern irony and cool to an affirmation of Enlightenment values and the unfettered exchange of ideas embodied in the Linux open software movement.


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