It's Not What You Have, It's How You Use It.
By Izel 'Izzy' Sulam firstname.lastname@example.org
Although conventional wisdom often seems trite, overgeneralized and ultimately useless, it may, at times, inspire a train of thought that can give rise to an allegedly culturally elevated literary dissertation.
That sounded pretty good. The trick, now, is to make the title sound equally profound, which may not be nearly as trivial.
One might, upon hearing any sentence, at first consider the truth value encoded within the proposition. In propositional calculus, the validity of a statement (i.e. its correllation with real life) is represented as a Boolean value, 1 for true, 0 for false. However, in the case of opinionated statements, the truth value can only be interpreted from the points of view of specific individuals - that is, if someone agrees with an opinion, then that statement gets assigned a truth value of 1 as far as that person is concerned. We can therefore conclude that the title of this essay encodes a truth value of 1 for Neal Stephenson, Elliot Carver, the evil media mogul in the latest James Bond flick Tomorrow Never Dies (see Wayne Huang's piece for additional commentary), Bill Gates, Saddam Hussein and, of course, Sigmund Freud.
One of the main emphases of the course so far seems to be the role that information plays within the context of cultural and social institutions. Information appears to be gaining even more importance as financial transactions, everyday communication, creative works, and basically, all manners of human enterprise are conducted on digital media Digitization, of course, immediately implies organization and information - just ask any hardened hacker. Hiro would gladly offer his most sincere supporting arguments at this point, all of which would most likely be peppered with cheesy puns and metaphors about binary numbers. We might even go so far as to claim that all human enterprise constitutes information (since it's conducted through the use of cognitive capabilities) or even that all organic life constitutes information (DNA is machine code in amino acids).
That would, however, be missing the point. Information definitely matters, and may well form the essence of the universe. However, information, in and of itself, remains useless. In Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash, as well as in Gibson's The Neuromancer Trilogy, the plots strongly suggest that those who control the the dissemination of information ultimately succeed, or at least manage to survive, which is sometimes the best outcome you can hope for in a cyberpunk universe.
Consider Stephenson's virus analogy, which, much like Baudrillard's Disneyland parking lot - concentration camp analogy, gets stretched just a little too much for comfort. How Stephenson justifies equating digital and biological dissemination is completely beyond me - two mediums with almost completely incompatible message codebooks, signal-to-noise ratios and, from a semantic point of view, unrelated motivations. Any self-respecting information theorist would have to commit suicide within ten seconds of having finished the book - that is, of course, assuming that she lasts until then. Regardless, however, an analogy between the two concepts may well be justified, and may indeed hold some merit in that the analogy brings certain important concepts to attention.
A thesis I wrote during the first term of my sophomore year on the motivation behind all human enterprise stated that any dynamical system, to put it bluntly, is 'more than the sum of its parts'. Every complex system merely constitutes a network of simpler subunits which act according to simple sets of rules in and of themselves. The interaction between these simple subunits, however, gives rise to complex emergent behavior often associated with intelligence. The idea explicated in the above paragraph immediately perpetuates itself - if any piece of information is disseminated thoroughly enough to a substantial number of individuals within any multi-agent system, then the dynamics of said multi-agent system can effectively be controlled, or at least influenced, by the party or parties responsible for creating the aforementioned piece of information. (This vague description covers anything from the mad cow virus spreading through a herd of cows to a ridiculously large percentage of the 12-year old girls all over the planet simultaneously believing that the Spice Girls are the best thing to come along since the New Kids on the Block.) Information, by itself, remains useless. When the information gets spread - through word of mouth, advertisements, commercials, education, brainwashing, computer or biological viruses or whatnot - it becomes power. Those who can control that power can ultimately control the planet.
Enki, in Stephenson's Snow Crash, prevents such free dissemination by modifying the human mind such that languages tend to diverge. By assuming the role of the only entity with the power to disseminate information, it becomes, in some sense, the ultimate deity.
Elliot Carver, in Tomorrow Never Dies, plans to dominate the world's media channels by broadcasting the news of catastrophes and military conflicts which he has personally arranged for beforehand. Although he possesses remarkable financial resources, an outright military attack or numerous financial investments do not seem effective enough to him. He plans to acquire ultimate control of the planet by assuming the position of the foremost (and in some sense, only) disseminator of important information. Unfortunately for him, James Bond intervenes, and as usual, he is shaken, but not stirred, by Carver's evil plot.
Bill Gates, by producing programs utilized by computer users all over the world to create, sort and modify information, constitutes yet another pretender to the throne. Although Microsoft programs process information (in this sense, their identity may be categorized as meta-information) they impose order upon the universe and therefore constitute information in and of themselves. They may appear to play a secondary role to the data that people deal with directly, however, these programs ultimately encompass information that may be a lot more important than individual documents. The Word file format, for instance, constitutes a set of specifications which Microsoft can modify at will. Although this seems highly unlikely, if Bill Gates decided to ship all new versions of Office with a copy of Word that happened to be incompatible with any documents produced with former versions of Word, and then sold a simple file converter for a ludicrious sum of money, people would ultimately be forced to fork out the cash. Gates would thereby assume the same power that Enki exercised - prevent access to information, prove that you're the only agent who can provide said access, and make sure that the lowly proles suffer terribly - or pay dearly - before you do anything about it.
Saddam Hussein's use of power comes from keeping information to himself. While the UN inspectors circle the Middle East in search for nuclear installations, Hussein does his best to keep the information both confidential and everchanging. Weapons have been known to be transported out of the back door of factories while inspectors were kept busy by the front door. By being the sole possessor of information, and by controlling its dissemination and content, Hussein assumes an Enkiesque power - not for much longer, we're hoping.
In conclusion, "Information is power." although a popular motto, is somewhat inaccurate. "Control over the dissemination of information is power.", while quite a mouthful, seems a lot more accurate. Our point may be elegantly summed up by repeating the title: "It's not what you have, it's how you use it."
Although Sigmund Freud would definitely agree with the title as would the other people discussed in this essay, the author will refrain from elaborating on Freud's motivations on the grounds that his reasoning would probably differ markedly from that of the others.
[To other discussions of Snow Crash by members of English 111, Cyberspace and Critical Theory, Spring 1998.]