Stephenson: Anathem

When does knowledge become dangerous?

It is a question every loving parent faces as their kids grow ever more capable of interacting with the world. Not without a palpable sense of worry. On the one hand, it is their duty to nurture and encourage such personal growth that the child can stand on their own two feet and participate as a full member of this world. On the other hand, it is also their duty so watch over these same children so that they do not injure themselves in the process of growing and learning.

Some things are inherently more dangerous than others. The expression to play with fire comes to mind. While it is useful to be able to properly set thing aflame in certain situations, the path to knowing what constitutes these proper situations is less than self-evident, and knowing how without knowing when is a recipe for potential disaster. It is a question of judgment, for all parties involved, and many manufacturers play it safe by using phrases proclaiming their items not suitable for children.

In Anathem, Neal Stephenson asks this question through a series of iterations. Institutions of learning are set up across the world, and subsequently isolated from it, giving their members free reign to experiment and advance their pursuit of knowledge. From this isolation springs any number of useful innovations, which are then distributed to the outside world through some unspecified means. And, every once in a while, these institutions manage to invent something so effective and destructive that the outside world feels it necessary to crack down on them and ban any further developments in that direction.

Except, of course, for some useful tidbits that requires specialized training in order to maintain. Fire, while dangerous, is still useful. Every iteration retains some tidbit of useful knowledge, restricting it to a set of practical real world useful applications. While never going so far as to close down the institutions all together, each iteration impose ever stricter limitations on what knowledge can be pursued without outside intervention.

These limitations follow a certain direction, from the physical through the digital to information in and of itself. Blowing things up in a physical sense is, as you might imagine, a useful capability for political entities to have, but its usefulness becomes a clear and present danger when possessed by everyone. Blowing things up in a similar, digital way is also useful for these same entities, and equally dangerous when the hoi polloi get their hands on it. The comparison holds for the information of life itself; given the fears of natural mutation of already existing viruses, giving everyone a basement gene lab is a fiery proposition indeed.

Stephenson pushes the question further in the same direction by, ever so indirectly, asking when simply thinking about thinking poses a similar threat. When does it become an unequivocal threat to everyone involved to have disciplined and dedicated metathinkers roaming around with their uncontained and mostly unknown cognitive superpowers?

And what useful tidbits would be left behind after an intervention to contain these roaming brainiacs?

This question is, naturally, not new, as any student of philosophy will be wont to tell you. The enthusiasts will quote any number of passages praising the usefulness of philosophy in all manner of things, while their more jaded peers will simply let you glance at the required reading lists. Justifying the raw potential power of philosophy is very much a part of philosophy as a discipline, and depending on who you ask, it is either a footnote or the raison d‘etre of the whole enterprise.

At first glance, the notion of explosive philosophy might cause a giggle. Then, upon further reflection, it might cause a frown, followed by an unarticulated suspicion that there might be more to it than blowing up cars in a cinematic fashion with your mind. As the Philosopher said, you are what you do, and as later philosophers have commented on this, you do what you think, and what you think is, if you really think about it, some sort of philosophic reasoning. And if you can change what you do by simply thinking about thinking – well, that is explosive stuff, if you keep at it.

Anathem, being a work of fiction, gives Stephenson the discursive excuse he needs to keep pushing this idea in any number of directions. Should you attempt to put it into action, however, you would most likely find yourself straining at the limits of your social surroundings. You are, after all, not an isolated self-sufficient enclave free to pursue whatever strikes your fancy, but an integrated part of a social context, with obligations, duties and communicative hurdles containing you to a limited range of possible options. Thinking is all well and good, but saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can scar you for life.

Which, to be sure, brings us right back to where we started. When does knowledge become dangerous? How does a loving parent go about teaching their young ones the useful things they need to know, without inadvertently causing harm further down the line? Are there best practices for how to play with fire, physical as well as metaphysical? Who gets to decide these things?

Ask not for whom the bell tolls, lest you become anathem yourself.

Stephenson: Anathem

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