Monday, December 28, 2009

Excerpt: Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out by Neal Stephenson

Turn On, Tune In, Veg Out
Published: June 17, 2005

"Concentrate on the moment. Feel, don't think. Trust your instincts," says a Jedi to the young Anakin in Episode I, immediately before a pod race in which Anakin is likely to get killed. It is distinctly odd counsel coming from a member of the Jedi order, the geekiest people in the universe: they have beards and ponytails, they dress in army blankets, they are expert fighter pilots, they build their own laser swords from scratch.

And (as is made clear in the "Clone Wars" novels) the masses and the elites both claim to admire them, but actually fear and loathe them because they hate being dependent upon their powers.

Anakin wins that race by repairing his crippled racer in an ecstasy of switch-flipping that looks about as intuitive as starting up a nuclear submarine. Clearly the boy is destined to be adopted into the Jedi order, where he will develop his geek talents - not by studying calculus but by meditating a lot and learning to trust his feelings. I lap this stuff up along with millions, maybe billions, of others. Why? Because every single one of us is as dependent on science and technology - and, by extension, on the geeks who make it work - as a patient in intensive care. Yet we much prefer to think otherwise.

Scientists and technologists have the same uneasy status in our society as the Jedi in the Galactic Republic. They are scorned by the cultural left and the cultural right, and young people avoid science and math classes in hordes. The tedious particulars of keeping ourselves alive, comfortable and free are being taken offline to countries where people are happy to sweat the details, as long as we have some foreign exchange left to send their way. Nothing is more seductive than to think that we, like the Jedi, could be masters of the most advanced technologies while living simple lives: to have a geek standard of living and spend our copious leisure time vegging out.

If the "Star Wars" movies are remembered a century from now, it'll be because they are such exact parables for this state of affairs. Young people in other countries will watch them in classrooms as an answer to the question: Whatever became of that big rich country that used to buy the stuff we make? The answer: It went the way of the old Republic.

1 comment:

Brian Martin said...

Nice. What can I say? True.