Randy was forever telling people, without rancor, that they were full of shit.  That was the only way to get anything done in hacking.  No one took it personally.

Charlene’s crowd most definitely did take it personally.  It wasn’t being told that they were wrong that offended them, though—it was the underlying assumption that a person could be wrong or right about anything.  So on the Night in Question—the night of Avi’s fateful call—Randy had done what he usually did, which was to withdraw from the conversation.  In the Tolkien, not the endocrinological or Snow White sense, Randy is a Dwarf.  Tolkien’s Dwarves were stout, taciturn, vaguely magical characters who spend a lot of time in the dark hammering out beautiful things, e.g. Rings of Power.  Thinking of himself as a Dwarf who had hung up his war-ax for a while to go sojourning in the Shire, where he was surrounded by squabbling Hobbits (i.e., Charlene’s friends), had actually done a lot for Randy’s peace of mind over the years.  [. . .]

Then the topic of the Information Superhighway came up, and Randy could feel faces turning in his direction like searchlights, casting almost palpable warmth on his skin.

Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik had a few things to say about the Information Superhighway.  He was a fiftyish Yale professor who had just flown in from someplace that had sounded really cool and impressive after he had gone out of his way to mention it several times.  [. . .] Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik had been showing up on television pretty frequently.  Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik had a couple of books out.  Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik was, in short, parlaying his strongly contrarian view of the Information Superhighway into more air time than anyone who hadn’t been accused of blowing up a day care center should get.

A Dwarf on sojourn in the Shire would probably go to a lot of dinner parties where pompous boring Hobbits would hold forth like this.  This Dwarf would view the whole thing as entertainment.  He would know that he could always go back into the real world, so much vaster and more complex than these Hobbits imagined, and slay a few Trolls and remind himself of what really mattered.

That was what Randy always told himself, anyway.  But on the Night in Question, it didn’t work.  Partly because Kivistik was too big and real to be a Hobbit—probably more influential in the real world than Randy would ever be.  Partly because another faculty spouse at the table—a likable, harmless computerphile named Jon—decided to take issue with some of Kivistik’s statements and was cheerfully shot down for his troubles.  Blood was in the water.

[. . .]

“How many slums will we bulldoze to build the Information Superhighway?” Kivistik said.  This profundity was received with thoughtful nodding around the table.

Jon shifted in his chair as if Kivistik had just dropped an ice cube down his collar.  “What does that mean?” he asked.  Jon was smiling, trying not to be a conflict-oriented patriarchal hegemonist.  Kivistik, in response, raised his eyebrows and looked around at everyone else, as if to say Who invited this poor lightweight?  Jon tried to dig himself out from his tactical error, as Randy closed his eyes and tried not to wince visibly.  Kivistik had spent more years sparring with really smart people over high table at Oxford than Jon had been alive.  “You don’t have to bulldoze anything.  There’s nothing to bulldoze,” Jon pleaded.

“Very well, let me put it this way,” Kivistik said magnanimously—he was not above dumbing down his material for the likes of Jon.  “How many on-ramps will connet the world’s ghettos to the Information Superhighway?”

Oh, that’s much clearer, everyone seemed to think.  Point well taken, Geb!  No one looked at Jon, that argumentative pariah.  Jon looked helplessly over at Randy, signaling for help.

Jon was a Hobbit who’d actually been out of the Shire recently, so he knew Randy was a dwarf.  Now he was fucking up Randy’s life by calling upon Randy to jump up on the table, throw off his homespun cloak, and whip out his two-handed ax.

The words came out of Randy’s mouth before he had time to think better of it.  “The Information Superhighway is just a fucking metaphor!  Give me a break!” he said.

There was silence as everyone around the table winced in unison.  Dinner had now, officially, crashed and burned.  All they could do now was grab their ankles, put their heads between their knees, and wait for the wreckage to slide to a halt.

“That doesn’t tell me very much,” Kivistik said.  “Everything is a metaphor.  The word ‘fork’ is a metaphor for this object.”  He held up a fork.  “All discourse is built from metaphors.”

“That’s no excuse for bad metaphors,” Randy said.

“Bad? Bad? Who decides what is bad?” Kivistik said [. . .].

Randy could see where it was going.  Kivistik had gone for the usual academicians’s ace in the hole: everything is relative, it’s all just differing perspectives.  People had already begun to resume their little side conversations, thinking that the conflict was over, when Randy gave them all a start with: “Who decides what’s bad?  I do.”

Even Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik was flustered.  He wasn’t sure if Randy was joking.  “Excuse me?”

Randy was in no great hurry to answer the question.  He took the opportunity to sit back comfortably, stretch, and take a sip of his wine.  He was feeling good.  “It’s like this,” he said.  “I’ve read your book.  I’ve seen you on TV.  I’ve heard you tonight.  I personally typed up a list of your credentials when preparing press materials for this conference.  So I know that you’re not qualified to have an opinion about technical issues.”

“Oh,” Kivistik said in mock confusion, “I didn’t realize one had to have qualifications.”

“I think it’s clear,” Randy said, “that if you are ignorant of a particular subject, that your opinion is completely worthless.  If I’m sick, I don’t ask a plumber for advice.  I go to a doctor.  Likewise, if I have questions about the Internet, I will seek opinions from people who know about it.”

“funny how all of the technocrats seem to be in favor of the Internet,” Kivistik said cheerily, milking a few more laughs from the crowd.

“You have just made a statement that is demonstrably not true,” Randy said, pleasantly enough.  “A number of Internet experts have written well-reasoned books that are sharply critical of it.”

Kivistik was finally getting pissed off.  All the levity was gone.

“So,” Randy continued, “to get back to where we started, the Information Superhighway is a bad metaphor for the Internet, because I say it is.  There might be a thousand people on the planet who are as conversant with the Internet as I am.  I know most of these people.  None of them takes that metaphor seriously.  Q.E.D.”

“Oh.  I see,” Kivistik said, a little hotly.  He had seen an opening.  “So we should rely on the technocrats to tell us what to think, and how to think, about this technology.”

The expressions of the others seemed to say that this was a telling blow, righteously struck.

“I’m not sure what a technocrat is,” Randy said.  “Am I a technocrat?  I’m just a guy who went down to the bookstore and bought a couple of textbooks on TCP/IP, which is the underlying protocal of the Internet, and read them.  And then I signed on to a computer, which anyone can do nowadays, and I messed around with it for a few years, and now I know all about it.  Does that make me a technocrat?”

“You belonged to the technocratic elite even before you pick up that book,” Kivistik said. “The ability to wade through a technical text, and to understand it, is a privilege.  It is a privilige conferred by an education that is available only to members of an elite class.  That’s what I meant by a technocrat.”

“I went to a public school,” Randy said.  “And then I went to a state university.  From that point on, I was self-educated.”

Charlene broke in.  [. . .] “And your family?” Charlene asked frostily.

Randy took a deep breath, stifled the urge to sigh.  “My father’s an engineer.  He teaches at a state college.”

“And his father?”

“A mathemetician.”

Charlene raised her eyebrows.  So did nearly everyone else at the table.  Case closed.

“I strenuously object to being labeled and pigeonholed and stereotyped as a technocrat,” Randy said, deliberately using oppressed-person’s language[ . . .].  Some of them, out of habit, looked at him soberly, etiqutte dictated that you give all sympathy to the oppressed.  Others gasped in outrage to hear these words coming from the lips of a known and convicted white male technocrat.  “No one in my family has ever had much money or power,” he said.

“I think the point that Charlene’s making is like this,” said Tomas, [. . .] “Just by virtue of coming from a scientific family, you are a member of a privileged elite.  You’re not aware of it—but members of privileged elites are rarely aware of their privileges.”

Randy finished the thought.  “Until people like you come along to explain to us how stupid, to say nothing of morally bankrupt, we are.”

“The false consiousness Tomas is speaking of is exactly what makes entrenched power elites so entrenched,” Charlene said.

“Well, I don’t feel very entrenched,” Randy said.  “I’ve worked my ass off to get where I’ve gotten.”

“A lot of people work hard all their lives and get nowhere,” someone said accusingly.  Look out!  The sniping had begun.

“Well, I’m sorry I haven’t had the good grace to get nowhere,” Randy said, now feeling just a bit surly for the first time, “but I have found that if you work hard, educate yourself, and keep your wits about you, you can find your way in this society.”

“But that’s straight out of some nineteenth-century Horatio Alger book,” Thomas sputtered.

“So?  Just because it’s an old idea, doesn’t mean it’s wrong,” Randy said.

Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon (1999).  Pages 80-85.

How did Randy get so off-track?  He started attacking the use of the Information Superhighway metaphor to support the contention that the Internet is bad for the poor.  Dr. G. E. B. Kivistik started out saying that slums would be bulldozed, then he said ghettoes would not be connected by on-ramps.  Rather different things that should have been addressed once the useless metaphors were dispensed with.  It is not true that every word is a metaphor.  A metaphor is a word or phrase using words normally associated one thing to describe something else, implying comparison or transferability of properties.  Randy should have pointed that out while giving some reason why the Information Superhighway metaphor obscured more than it revealed.  Instead, he just called it bad.  Then Randy went on to declare that “qualifications” gave him the right to decide what is bad.  The worth of one’s opinion should be based on what one says, and what is demonstrably true and what is logical, not what one’s credentials or even knowledge are and is.  It may be generally true, but it is not absolutely true that if one is ignorant of a subject then one’s opinion is worthless.  To the greatest extent possible, statements should be evaluated on their merit and not the merit of the people who make the statement.  An assertion must stand on its own and not rely on the prestige of those who make it.  To do otherwise means, among other things, debate about people’s credibility rather than debate about the significance and accuracy of what they said.

What in the world does his being a technocrat, or a monarchist, or a Communist, or a Unitarian, have to do with the value of his opinion that the Information Superhighway is a bad metaphor for the Internet?  The uselessness of labels, and the damage they do, is evident.  Here is Randy defending himself against charges of being a technocrat, whatever that is.  (Education is hardly the power elite-making privelege, and it certainly doesn’t make one a ruler or even a participator in governing.)  In doing so, he makes the old argument that anyone can find success in America if they work hard etc.  (Being old doesn’t make an idea wrong or right.  As a literary history note, Horatio Alger has been unfairly decried and praised for celebrating the idea that anyone can make it through honest hard work: his characters are the open enjoyers of prodigious amounts of good luck, and they tend to say something at the end about how lucky they are and how it is too bad that everyone can’t be as fortunate—not sermonize on the benefits of their admittedly admirable work ethic and self-educating drive.)  That there is a chance that anyone can make it through hard work, and that Randy may have, is not the point.  The point is that most people have unfair disadvantages, including Randy, based on their family’ power, manifested primarily in property.  Certainly there are many, many, many people who started richer than Randy, who had a more expensive education, who had more opportunities but who did not become Internet experts or something comparable.  Certainly there could be someone from a much poorer background (who wouldn’t buy the TCP/IP books but get them out of the library, and use the Internet there— provided the library has the resources available; can you really get access to UNIX outside the university?), someone with uneducated parents and few advantages (relative to other people living in industrialized nations) who does become an Internet expert, and a higher paid one at that.  But that doesn’t change what is more likely to be the relative ‘success’ and ‘failure’ a person with more property and one with less, and it doesn’t change the fact that these differentials in opportunity with on average corresponding differentials in result are unfair and bad for the prosperity of society as a whole.

(Because Stephenson portrays Charlene and her friends as apparent ‘liberals,’ I want to mention that the only parallel experience that I have had came at the hands of a largely Republican class led by a Republican (outspoken about it, I don’t usually know my professors’ political affiliations) political science teacher and a Republican (working for Governor Cellucci) economics professor.  The class was discussing the obvious inequality among people’s abilities, and the athletic superiority of black people was put forward as an unquestioned (and presumably politically correct) example of these differences.  “Hey people, reality check!” I broke, and explained that the groups with the least other opportunities – and who were allowed into sports – were usually represented disproportionately in them, and that did not say anything about their group-average physical strength or agility.  The Jews and then the Irish dominated boxing, for example.  I didn’t seem to convince anyone, my criticisms seemed to be brushed off with a vague ‘yes but.’  They all knew that the NBA had a lot of black people and that seemed to be proof enough.  The discussion continued — it now having been established that people, incidentally by race, differed genetically in “abilities” — to the naturalness, inevitability, and desirability of unequal results.  After class the poli-sci professor asked me, rhetorically, how I thought people felt when I say something like ‘reality check,’ and that I should be more sensitive to their feelings.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum: which was to be demonstrated.