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The Vickies and Skill-biased Technological Change

February 5, 2012

Writing about a growing class divide between the cognitive elite and the rest, Arnold Kling has been making use of Neal Stephenson’s Diamond Age to explain the trend. In Stephenson’s post nation state future, a group of highly productive bespoke engineers establish a community based on the virtues of the Victorian era: discipline, self-control, submission to authority, tolerance of extreme inequality in talents and wealth, propriety, and everything else Keynes, Virginia Woolf, and the others in the Bloomsbury Group loathed.

I like Kling’s appropriation of the term, but I also enjoy Stephenson’s more developed analysis in the middle section of his classic essay, In the Beginning Was the Command Line. The cultural trends he wrote about in 1999 have only grown starker:

Contemporary culture is a two-tiered system, like the Morlocks and the Eloi in H.G. Wells’s The Time Machine, except that it’s been turned upside down. In The Time Machine the Eloi were an effete upper class, supported by lots of subterranean Morlocks who kept the technological wheels turning. But in our world it’s the other way round. The Morlocks are in the minority, and they are running the show, because they understand how everything works. The much more numerous Eloi learn everything they know from being steeped from birth in electronic media directed and controlled by book-reading Morlocks. So many ignorant people could be dangerous if they got pointed in the wrong direction, and so we’ve evolved a popular culture that is (a) almost unbelievably infectious and (b) neuters every person who gets infected by it, by rendering them unwilling to make judgments and incapable of taking stands.

Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce Disney-like Sensorial Interfaces so that Eloi can get the gist without having to strain their minds or endure boredom. Those Morlocks will go to India and tediously explore a hundred ruins, then come home and built sanitary bug-free versions: highlight films, as it were. This costs a lot, because Morlocks insist on good coffee and first-class airline tickets, but that’s no problem because Eloi like to be dazzled and will gladly pay for it all.

Read the whole thing.

  1. February 10, 2012 10:02 pm

    > Morlocks, who have the energy and intelligence to comprehend details, go out and master complex subjects and produce

    Hey there.

    I’m a long time reader of the blog, and finally felt the need to comment.

    …mostly because of the Morlock reference above!

    I’m working on the revision of my first novel, which you might be interested in when it (eventually) comes out:

    The Powers of the Earth: a novel about anarchocapitalism, economics, corporate finance, antigravity, lunar colonization, genetically modified dogs and AI

    “The Powers of the Earth” is a near-future science fiction novel in the style and spirit of Robert Heinlein’s classics, inspired both by the American Revolution and the Icelandic Settlement of the 9th and 10th centuries. It is well grounded in science, adding only the fantastic element of anti-gravity.

    And, of course, the protaganist – a Maker at war with the Takers – names his firm “Morlock Engineering”. 🙂

  2. Mac permalink
    February 9, 2012 1:32 pm

    And by leaving out this sentence which follows the above quoted excerpt almost immediately, you intend to distort the message that Stephenson was building: “The situation I describe, here, could be bad, but doesn’t have to be bad and isn’t necessarily bad now:”

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