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American Literature 74.4 (2002) 807-831
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Convergence of the Two Cultures:
A Geek's Guide to Contemporary Literature
In Geeks: How Two Lost Boys Rode the Internet out of Idaho (2000), Jon Katz introduces what some might consider a rare creature: a teenage computer hacker who reads literature. Katz's nonfiction bestseller follows two working-class kids who achieve success because of their technological savvy. They are members of an ever-growing group, whose mastery of computers has suddenly made them, in Katz's words, "culturally trendy." 1 They are "the new cultural elite, a pop-culture-loving, techno-centered Community of Social Discontents" (G, xi). Jesse struggles to explain himself to the author through months of conversations and e-mail exchanges. The breakthrough occurs when Jesse thinks to ask Katz if he has ever read David Copperfield. "That's how I feel about myself," Jesse says. "I can't say it any better" (G, 81). The author of ten books of investigative journalism, political commentary, memoirs, and detective fiction, Jon Katz is an occasional college professor and a columnist for numerous magazines—a writer whose journalistic passion about obscure social outcasts has its own Dickensian quality. But it is the techie kid who invokes Dickens. Katz is not surprised in the least: "A computer geek who explains himself through Dickens is less remarkable a phenomenon than one might think. Geeks' passions often crisscross back and forth between technology and more traditional forms of culture, with unusual depths of interest in both" (G, 83).
Such crisscrossing is the hallmark of important sectors of American society at the turn of the millennium. From the young loners Katz chronicles to their successful counterparts in Silicon Valley, from role-playing gamers to the computer-special-effects wizards at movie [End Page 807] studios, from open-source mavericks to corporate Web designers, the freedom to range across diverse zones of interest and inquiry is a major source of creativity. To be passionate about technology, traditional culture, and pop culture all at once is less rare than many realize. "Journalists, educators, and pundits frequently fuss that kids like Jesse don't read or aren't well informed; in fact, they read enormous amounts of material online, and are astonishingly well informed about subjects they're interested in" (G, 41). If most of this cultural life takes place on-line,
the single cultural exception [is] books. Perhaps as a legacy of his childhood, Jesse remained an obsessive reader. He liked digging through the bins of used bookstores to buy sci-fi and classic literature; he liked books, holding them and turning their pages. (G, 42)
As a result, this teenager "was almost shockingly bright" (G, 10)—his notion of culture mixed philosophy, films, literature, music, technology, and politics. For Jesse, and the computer pioneers who helped produce the Internet boom of the 1990s, the idea of separating technology from other domains of culture made little sense.
This essay will explore a group of writers who have also discerned that the relations among science, technology, and literature are shifting. They approach the two-culture split from the other side—the literary domain—but their sense of the interconnected nature of today's culture would appeal to many computer geeks. In the next section, I will introduce a new genre of contemporary literature that focuses on science and technology. Although not widely noted, a veritable explosion of such novels, short stories, poems, and plays has occurred in the last decade. 2 Indeed, the increase in fictional explorations of scientific issues is one of the most striking developments in American literature at the turn of the century. After sketching the outlines of this genre, I will turn to Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon (1999), a novel that participates in the trend but turns a skeptical eye on utopian accounts of what this change portends. Stephenson, like the best of the other writers surveyed here, does not imagine that combining literature with science will magically reunify culture, creating the kind of untroubled synthesis that Edward Wilson...