Science Fiction and Complexity Theory - Neal Stephenson's Books

I’ve been recommending “The Diamond Age” to folks for awhile now. Found an article on complexity theory in science fiction. @Stephers take a look at the excerpt.

“In an essay entitled “Life at the Edge of Chaos,” the Artificial Life scientist Christopher Langton poses the question: under what conditions can we expect a dynamics of information to emerge spontaneously and come to dominate the behavior of a physical system (41)? Since living systems are characterized by precisely this condition-that is, one in which a dynamics of information processing has gained control over the dynamics of energy exchange-the question bears directly on our understanding of the origins and evolution of life and intelligence. Langton’s answer, not surprisingly, is emblazoned in his title: it is “at the edge of chaos,” between highly ordered structures and randomly colliding molecules, that we can expect to see living systems emerge from non-life, mainly because this is where processes that can store and transmit information have the best chance to arise and to gain a foothold. To be sure, as a scientist Langton does not mean by “the edge of chaos” a vaguely delineated area between order and disorder; he argues, rather, that this space “between” can be defined mathematically as a critical phase transition, with its own complex, unique structure. It is complex because it can support “complex interactions between propagating and static structures,” which in turn “can be pressed into service as logical building blocks in the construction of a universal computing device” (69).”

On Neal Stephenson’s “The Diamond Age” - wet-net computing

" In brief, by failing to report the mugging Hackworth arouses the suspicions of the local authorities, the Confucian Judge Fang and his police associates, who suspect him of concealing stolen technology. Hackworth is brought speedily to Confucian justice, with far-reaching political complications. For it turns out that Judge Fang has been meeting with the same Doctor X who had made the illicit copy of The Primer, and who is now revealed to be a secret, high-ranking official of the Celestial Kingdom looking for a way to obtain the new “seed” technology. So a deal is struck: Hackworth is allowed to get off with a lesser punishment in return for supplying Doctor X with The Primer’s encryption codes, plus the changes necessary to make a version of the book suitable for orphaned Chinese girls. In addition, Hackworth must perform certain unnamed services for the next ten years. In a complicating twist, Hackworth discovers that his boss and English intelligence are also aware of his crime, but willing to forgive all if he will agree to keep them apprised of Doctor X’s activities-to spy for them in effect. Hackworth cannot but accept, and departs from Shanghai on an unknown mission to America after the inscrutable Doctor X has minuscule “nanosites” injected into his blood.

Ten years pass, but for Hackworth it is a period of an only vaguely remembered existence with the Drummers, an orgiastic cult who live under the ocean’s surface in tunnels Hackworth had entered from Vancouver, following Doctor X’s unexplained instructions. Ostensibly, the Drummers expend themselves semi-consciously in an orgy of unrestrained sex, freely exchanging partners and bodily fluids, their nights and days marked only by an incessant drumming and a strange ritual in which a single woman ignites and burns after sex with a ring of men wearing phosphorescent condoms cut off at the tip. The sacrificial woman’s ashes are then mixed in a large drum of liquid and consumed by the entire gathering in small mugs. It is hinted that these exchanges involve information, specifically packets of data exchanged by means of interlocking nanosites carried by bodily fluids.

Thus the Drummers’ sexual activities are really exchanges of data, information constantly reshuffled and combined with new information as participants come and go. But the purpose of these biological computations remains unknown. Answers come in a series of revelations from diverse sources after Hackworth emerges from the Drummer tunnels. Apart from endless, anonymous sex, Hackworth himself can only remember dim images of a new technology he had been working on, specifically the image of a large brown seed, hanging in space, as in a Magritte painting. This new seed technology, he reveals to his daughter in a strange, trance-like state, is greatly sought after by CryptNet, a secret underground communications network whose members are thought to have penetrated into many upper-level phyles.

Members of CryptNet believe that the free flow and self-replication of information will inevitably lead to a more highly evolved society based on this seed technology, which will replace the centralized and rigidly controlled Feed of the current nanotech system. CryptNet thus engages in secret subversion of Protocol Enforcement, the international police agency responsible for the political and technological status quo. The next revelation comes from another source, underscoring what the reader already suspects: that information in the novel is highly distributed, or, as The Primer represents it in a series of allegorical quest journeys, no single figure possesses all the keys.

The source is Carl Hollywood, an important minor character introduced earlier. Hollywood is the director of a group of “ractors,” as those who perform dramatic roles for broadcast on the world wide mediatronic network are called. Holed up in his favorite Shanghai teahouse, and on-line with various mediatronic sources, Hollywood begins to think about the Drummers, whom he had long thought to be “a giant system for breaking codes” (433). The security of the Net, he reflects, is based on cryptography, using immense numbers of primes as magic keys. Such encrypted codes can be broken, but it requires tremendous computing power.

Yet there may be an method, like the mental tricks hackers sometimes employ to bypass laborious programming.7 Perhaps, Hollywood muses, the Drummers as a whole were engaged in some method of collective computation, which allowed them to “see through the storm of encrypted data that roared continuously through media space, cause the seemingly random bits to coalesce into meaning” (433). But even if the Drummers could break the code, how could the information be used or communicated, since “all communication between the Drummers and normal society took place unconsciously, through their influence upon the Net, in patterns that appeared subliminally in the ractives that everyone played within their homes and saw playing across the walls of buildings” (434)? Somehow, Hollywood concludes, this must be Hackworth’s role."

" Events now converge in multiple mass movements and a fimal biological computation. As the victorious Chinese army sweeps eastward, all the defeated forces in Shanghai and along the coas are threatened. The only escape route for the refugees and defeated foreigners is the China Sea. Aided by breathing equipment that mysteriously appears on the beach inside translucent eggs, those seeking escape descend into the water and make their way toward New Chusan. The last foreigner to enter the water is a man recognized to be Hackworth. Hearing this, Hollywood surmises that Hackworth must have decided to take advantage of these propitious circumstances after all and use “the wet Net to design the Seed” (495): He saw it all now: that the refugees had been gathered into the realm of the Drummers for the harvest of fresh data running in their bloodstreams, that this data had been infused into the wet Net in the course of the great orgy… It was Hackworth’s doing; this was the culmination of his effort to design the Seed and in so doing to dissolve the foundations of New Atlantis and Nipponand all the societies that had grown up around the concept of a centralized, hierarchical Feed." (498)

In the end, however, Hollywood is able to rescue the woman who is to be sacrificed in this massive calculation of data (it turns out to be Miranda, Nell’s surrogate mother), and the invention of the new technology is put off-“for years if necessary,” the text states-until another opportunity can be found."

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