Gingrich, sci-fi fan and author himself, has probably already caught a
preview of his pet fantasy: the fusion of traditional family values and a
futuristic world where technology mediates most human interaction. That’s
because the cartoon The Jetsons and Neal Stephenson’s latest novel, The
Diamond Age, depict this world in its wacky and grim dimensions
respectively.

Produced in the early 1960s by Hanna Barbara, the Jetsons retained the
1950s family structure: dad works, mom stays home and manages domestic
duties or shops, two kids behave for the most part obediently, and a loyal
dog amuses everyone.

In this comic vision of the future, people accomplish nearly everything by
pushing a button, and traditional temporal and spatial restraints
disappear. Elroy goes on a field trip to Siberia and Janey can go swimming
in Acapulco for the afternoon. But while technology makes the material
world totally malleable in the Jetsons, the show did not anticipate the
disappearance of the body altogether.

In one episode, “The Little Man,” physical presence, that is the hegemony
of atoms over bits so decried by Negroponte, is explicitly connected to
moral leadership. The show revolves around corporate sabotage of George’s
employer, Spacely, by his competitor, Cogswell. A machine used to reduce
the size of Spacely products to decrease shipping costs requires a certain
cog, produced exclusively by Cogswell’s company. The machine both reduces
and then reenlarges objects, but without this special cog, the enlarger
function doesn’t work. Alas, poor George accidentally gets reduced while
trying to fix the machine. He then returns home to his happy family as the
six-inch man. Upon seeing his father, Elroy dolefully wonders, “How can we
look up to a six-inch father?” George ends up drinking milk from a baby
bottle for dinner. And thus George, as a micro-man, is wholly infantilized
and discredited as a model for behavior. All because he’s “little,” which
puns on manliness both as bigness of action, spirit and will, and penis
size.

The Jetsons, of course, is about the foibles of literally and figuratively
flat characters; their moral development is an incidental, if humorous,
aspect of the show. And the producers do nod toward “alternative”
lifestyles with the occasional reference to “Beatniks” or teeny-weenie
bikinis. However, Gingrich should take note of The Diamond Age; there,
Stephenson (who some contend has replaced William Gibson as the bard of
cyberspace) extrapolates from current trends–technological and social–and
casts the Victorians and their values in the leading roles.

It’s the 21st century and a combination of nano and digital technologies
allow governments to monitor every aspect of people’s lives. And because
New Atlantans (the 21st century Victorians) in particular live in a sort of
virtual panopticon, the government strikes an attitude of feigned
indifference, until it suspects criminal activity. When Lord Finkle-McGraw
and his Major Napier inform Hackworth, a crack programmer, that he has been
caught copying a classified piece of software, the Major underscores this
governmental restraint: “…we don’t go round putting people under high-res
surveillance just because we are curious about their, er, avocations. In an
era when everything can be surveiled, all we have left is politeness. ”

In New Atlantis, you are never out of view of those enforcing a strict code
of behavior; its subjects have no choice but to uphold this code. This
perpetual low level surveillance, which may permit small transgressions but
no major deviance, resembles small town USA, a place that tends to elicit
uniform behavior and drive resisters to the big city. In Stephenson’s world
of overpopulated metropolises and communities severed from geography, what
shame can’t accomplish, surveillance does. This works in The Diamond Age
because schools inculcate morality as well as reading skills, something
that would make Gingrich proud. The twist though, which functions as the
premise for the entire novel, is Lord Finkle-McGraw’s interest in teaching
his grand-daughter to think independently rather than sop up the New
Atlantan moral code like a thirsty dog at a hose. To accomplish this,
Finkle-McGraw hires Hackworth to design “A Young Lady’s Illustrated
Primer,” essentially an interactive book, or in today’s lingo,
“edutainment” software. It’s Hackworth’s attempt to make a copy of the
Primer for his own daughter, which gets stolen by thugs, that sets the
story in motion.

Here in America we’re simultaneously moving towards and away from such
grimly exposed lives. Paradoxically, digital technology creates the
possibility of near total surveillance and offers the only escape from
ubiquitous electronic eyes. Public key cryptography lets technically savvy
individuals scramble all of their communications rendering them
incomprehensible to the most determined hack and inaccessible to the FBI,
until DNA computers start working. But most people don’t use such
encryption technology. (Its proliferation is checked by the US government’s
ban on exports.) Consequently, a digital doppleganger of most of us lies
scattered through various databases. Take the time (and skirt some privacy
laws) to pull the pieces together, and you’d have a pretty complete
profile, from insurance records to phone bills to purchase patterns. And of
course you’re always appearing on candid camera these days, at the ATM, in
the elevator, in the Korean Deli, sweating on the stairmaster in your gym.

Some militia groups would have us believe that the government has already
gone too far, and Clinton’s misguided attempt to give the FBI more power to
wire tap suspicious organizations and individuals helps confirm their
paranoia. But what’s far more disturbing is the way shop-owners’ and
building managers’ carefully positioned mini-cams cast all strangers,
patrons, and clients as potential enemies.