QOTD #6 - Rebellion/Conformity - Stephenson

January 2009 · 4 minute read

“Which Path do you intend to take, Nell?” said the Countable, sounding very interested. “Conformity or rebellion?”

“Neither one. Both are simple-minded–they are only for people who cannot cope with contradiction and ambiguity.”

– Neal Stephenson “The Diamond Age”

So this quote come from Neal Stphenson’s 2nd science fiction novel following Snow Crash (an excellent read in its own right). While Snow Crash was a very cyberpunkish book (and the best cyberpunk I’ve read), The Diamond Age is steampunk which is a subgenre of science fiction I had actually never heard of before learning about this book. Steampunk is basically a neo-victorian esthetic; steam, clockworks, brass and coper predominate. It doesn’t necessarily reject modern technology, just re-imagines it under a new guise.

What The Diamond Age is most interested in however is a neo-victorian society. It imagines a world several centuries in the future where there are many groups and societies which are relatively easy for people to switch allegiances to and from. One of these societies reacting to the moral squalor of previous generations had taken on a victorian culture complete with top hats, strict propriety, and stringent moral codes.

This is the culture that the character Nell from the quote is dealing with.

At this point in the story Nell has essentially grown up in the victorian society, has reached adulthood and is faced with the choice of how to live her life. Should she continue on living in the culture that raised her but which is filled with hypocrisies or reject it and seek out her own path?

To be honest until I read this quote I wasn’t that impressed with this book. It was decent enough sci-fi, but nothing all that special. This quote which the entire book pivots on sold it for me. Best book I’ve read this year (er, check that…Anathem, which I should blog about soon, was better).

I’ll leave exactly what Nell choses as an exercise to the reader (of The Diamond Age) because I think we can safely extract this quote from most of its context within the book and let it stand on its own. We all are faced with the choice of conformity/rebellion or some kind of middle path. The question is what exactly that middle path is.

The idea of allowing contradiction in your thought is somewhat trippy. I remember taking a logic class in college and learning that if you have a contradiction in your argument than anything follows. So:

  1. Schrodinger’s cat is dead
  2. Schrodinger’s cat is not dead
  3. I, too, am a small pie made of chicken

Is perfectly valid! Ain’t logic great! (with apologies to Terry Pratchet)

It’s amazing where contradictions pop up, even in places where you wouldn’t expect them like mathematics (disclosure, I am not a mathematician just a fan of Godel, Escher, Bach. Take what I’m about to say with a grain of salt.). About 100 years ago mathematicians set out to purge formal systems of all contradictions and came up with the Principia Mathematica (our last, best hope!). Sadly that hope was crushed by Godel’s incompleteness theorem which pointed out that if you wanted to say anything interesting (i.e. be complete) you had to allow contradictions in your formal system.

The proof of the incompleteness theorem actually involves a contradiction, basically a formal variation of the liar paradox: “This statement is a lie”. The proof is also closely related to the Halting problem in computer science where instead of provability the question is will an arbitrary program halt?

Anyhow, the point here is that if contradictions exist at the “purest” and most “true” level of the sciences how much more so will contradiction and ambiguity exist in the less pure realms of science or everyday life? And are we willing to accept the contradiction and ambiguity and allow it to inform our lives? Or do we try to reject it and seek comfort in either conformity or rebellion?