Reading: Cryptonomicon, Virtual Light trilogy

I started re-reading Cryptonomicon before I left for San Francisco, and finished it a few days after returning. It’s really interesting to read a second time, after getting through the Baroque Cycle. You can see the beginnings of Stephenson’s interest in currency and economics. Also, the technology really ties the book to 1998/99, so in a lot of ways it feels like a book about a year that didn’t happen that way, but could have. (I just went and found his website, which is dated in design, but contains a very entertaining set of pages listed under “Author”.)

Next I read Virtual Light, Idoru, and All Tomorrow’s Parties in quick succession, because I’d been in San Francisco and wanted to see if the books were any different as a result. Interestingly, there was a bit of that, but more striking were the things that have or haven’t happened yet. The books are intended to take place in the early 00s, I think, but the pace of technology in real life has been somewhat slower, so we’re just now starting to see 3D VR communal spaces, and not particularly widespread. Plus SF and Tokyo have not been hit by massive earthquakes, so there’s no rebuilding and no chance of people who live on the bridge. And I think the one thing that everyone looking forward missed out on, which is how prevalent cell phone use is and how that’s really shaping everything.

But I recommend reading these three books one after the other without breaks, because I could see how they hooked together much more clearly with everything fresh in my mind. I really enjoyed the “average joe” nature of the characters, too, which hadn’t struck me before. It’s not a Star Trek universe, where all the main characters are exceptional and we never really see how most folks live. Rydell is just this guy, in the middle of strange events. I like that.

Something that’s been on my mind anyhow, but one of the characters in All Tomorrow’s Parties actually says, is the idea that geography is “dead” because of communications technology. Maybe if you spend all of your time in the suburbs, or traveling the tech conference circuit, it could look that way, but most of the time it’s more like we have a better pair of binoculars. Not “flat” or whatever metaphor you want to use.

One of the things I would like to see happen is a shift from different kinds of labor being sorted by where people are cheaper (which is a grossly insulting concept, yet pretty widely accepted) to a system that focuses on the particular strengths and weaknesses of different communities, and the various specializations and offerings that might come out of that. The Portland area isn’t your typical high-tech hub because we don’t have the university R&D outflow like the bay area or Seattle, and the area seems to attract young people with a relatively laid-back approach to earning money. But we do have a large open-source community here, maybe as a direct result. There are things about the environment that draw people with particular interests, and we’re starting to see communities forming and collaborating as people become aware of this. I think that pattern has the potential to be true anywhere, and it’s only in accepting that geography does matter that we’ll be able to see it.

I’ve been feeling a certain amount of ennui over the last several months, on and off. The good side-effect is that I’m reading more. The bad side effect is that I feel like I don’t really know what I want to be working on. I’m not sure if the recent focus on near-future technology-heavy sf is helping or not. I picked up some part time contract work. And there are cool things I’m working on, like the magazine and the food carts and etc. So I don’t know why I still feel unfocused. Maybe I need to find more collaborative things? Or take a long vacation at the coast? It’s frustrating.

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