I was struck recently by how Neal Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon has remained relevant. Here’s one of my favorite passages.
Men who believe that they are accomplishing something by speaking speak in a different way from men who believe that speaking is a waste of time. Bobby Shaftoe has learned most of his practical knowledge—how to fix a car, butcher a deer, throw a spiral, talk to a lady, kill a Nip—from the latter type of man. For them, trying to do anything by talking is like trying to pound in a nail with a screwdriver. Sometimes you can even see the desperation spread over such a man’s face as he listens to himself speak.
Men of the other type, the ones who use speech as a tool of their work, who are confident and fluent, aren’t necessarily more intelligent, or even more educated. It took Shaftoe a long time to figure that out. Anyway, everything was neat and tidy in Bobby Shaftoe’s mind until he met two of the men in Detachment 2702: Enoch Root and Lawrence Pritchard Waterhouse. [He began] to suspect that there might be a third category of man, a kind so rare that Shaftoe never met any of them until now.
“I don’t like the word ‘addict’ because it has terrible connotations,” Root says one day, as they are sunning themselves on the afterdeck. “Instead of slapping a label on you, the Germans would describe you as ‘Morphiumsüchtig.’ The verb ‘suchen’ means to seek. So that might be translated, loosely, as ‘morphine seeky’ or even more loosely as ‘morphine seeking.’ I prefer ‘seeky’ because it means that you have an inclination to seek morphine.”
“What the fuck are you talking about?” Shaftoe says.
“Well, suppose you have a roof with a hole in it. That means it is a leaky roof. It’s leaky all the time even if it’s not raining at the moment. But it’s only leaking when it happens to be raining. In the same way, morphine seeky means that you always have this tendency to look for morphine, even if you are not looking for it at the moment. But I prefer both of them to ‘addict,’ because they are adjectives modifying Bobby Shaftoe instead of a noun that obliterates Bobby Shaftoe.”
“So what’s the point?” Shaftoe asks. He asks this because he is expecting Root to give him an order, which is usually what men of the talkative sort end up doing after jabbering on for a while. But no order seems to be forthcoming, because that’s not Root’s agenda. Root just felt like talking about words. […] Waterhouse never gives direct orders, so men of the first category don’t know what to make of him. But apparently men of the second category fare no better; such men usually talk like they have an agenda in their heads and they are checking off boxes as they go, but Waterhouse’s conversation doesn’t go anywhere in particular. He speaks, not as a way of telling you a bunch of stuff he’s already figured out, but as a way of making up a bunch of new shit as he goes along. And he always seems to be hoping that you’ll join in. Which no one ever does, except for Enoch Root.
There are two things that I find compelling about this incident. One is that people’s relationships to words and meaning is a leitmotif of the book, and this moment makes explicit (as opposed to demonstrating) that as Bobby Shaftoe does, you can live a satisfying life without getting deeply into word-games and syntactic manipulation. The world around you is available to you directly: abstractions are not the only valid way to engage with it. Randy, another protagonist, by contrast worries that he’s “too much of a Platonist” and spends a lot of time introspecting as he participates in a plot to build a digital currency founded on cryptography—on meaning selectively obscured.
The basic setup of the book, where one set of characters are attempting to jumpstart a digital, crypto-based currency and are harassed by the US Government, should definitely remind you of BitCoin, other digital currency experiments, and the particular tactics which the 2000-2013 government of the United States uses to retain power. That part’s easy. A government that demands ability to participate in every aspect of civic and private life, necessarily reacts with great hostility to the idea that people might have real privacy at all, let alone a right to it. There has been plenty of ink spilled about this, so I’ll leave off for the moment.
The other way in which this passage sheds light is the spiel about being “morphine-seeky.” I have come to find that very important to my views, or at least to be a good way of articulating them. It’s pretty much pure Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis stuff: the way that you describe the world has a feedback loop with how you percieve the world and how you act on those descriptions and perceptions (notice again the connection to the book’s themes about constructing meaning). This is why I bristle when someone uses the shorthand “illegals” for anyone (in practice, anyone brown) who is in the United States for an extended period of time without having gone through the Wagner-length tragedy that is our immigration bureaucracy. “Illegal” is a noun that obliterates the actual person—and a certain political persuasion likes little better than an excuse to do violence to the person of immigrants or suspected immigrants.
It is also a good principle to keep in mind when we describe one another. I share a community, the furry subculture, with a lot of people with mental health problems. We have a bit more practice at dealing with the problem of integrating everyone in the community healthily, but we are just people, and so we fail as often as anyone else at coping. One of the pole-stars for me in this situation is Root’s advice: adjectives, not nouns. Don’t reduce people to their disabilities, their tropes, their health problems, their kinks, their politics, or to the last thing they did that hurt your feelings.
Of course it is also a good guideline for life in general: if you are reducing people to conveniently dumbed-down nouns, you are refusing to acknowledge their full personhood. This is a reliable way to rationalize harmful behavior. I buy into the notion that one of the roots of evil is treating people as means to an end, rather than as ends in themselves—as fully realized beings with their own aspirations, plans, and flaws. There is no simplification of a person that stands up to great scrutiny, that works in the general case.