Emergic: Rajesh Jain's Blog

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Quicksilver

September 22nd, 2003 · No Comments

NYTImes has a review of the new book by Neal Stephenson. What caught my attention was this:

Noah’s Ark,” reads one card. “The pharynx and its outgrowths,” reads another. “Pantomime” and “Testes” say two others. And then there are “Nonsymmetrical dyadic relations,” “Sunspots” and “Requirements for valid maritime insurance contracts.”

The cards are stacked precariously in a cabin in Newtowne, the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1713 where a philosopher, Daniel Waterhouse, is trying to organize all of human knowledge. Each card is also inscribed with a number. And just as each number is a unique product of prime numbers, so, in this system, is each concept a unique product of elemental concepts. For every number there’s a concept, for every concept a number.

For if all the world’s knowledge could be encoded in number, then the acts of creation and invention would just be forms of calculation. And the world would reveal itself as a calculating machine, an information processor.

In Mr. Stephenson’s book, Waterhouse’s stacks tumble down like a house of cards, which is probably a demonstration of how impossible this dream is to realize, but it still haunts contemporary computer culture. What is the hacker, after all, but someone who is a master of number and code? What is the hacker’s power, but the ability to affect the engines of commerce simply by manipulating number? The hacker controls the material world by mastering its code, a notion that has become familiar from the “Matrix” films.

Mr. Stephenson is seeking the origins of the hacker grail, the moments when the world first seemed an incarnation of number and information.

The book is the first in a 3000-page trilogy. Even before release, it is already in the top 10 on Amazon. Seems like one which should be a good read.

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