Some of the digerati believe that cyberspace will neutralize the streak of
new tribalism unearthed in the wake of the Oklahoma City bombing. But as
virtual communities replace real ones as social adhesive, Gingrich’s
hopeful return to a set of core values becomes even more remote.

Gingrich recently proclaimed in the New York Times that the “signals” about
behavior have new relevance: “A society which gets up and says, everyday,
‘The work ethic is good, you ought to do your homework, it’s necessary to
work to be a full citizen,’ sends a signal A society which gets up
everyday and says, ‘Gee, if you’re too drunk and you don’t feel like it,
you’ve had a bad weekend, why really trouble yourself?’ sends a signal. Now,
the signals matter.”

The signals may matter more now, but they have also multiplied. And the
Net, like media for bacteria, fosters the proliferation of messages ad
infinitum. The long awaited and much hailed democratization of information
production and distribution expands the spectrum of signals our culture
transmits. And this disperses our cultural references. The beauty of the
Net is that those who wish to publish meet no ideological obstacles. (It
does discriminate against those who lack certain technical skills, but the
knowledge required is rapidly diminishing.)

What the right fails to understand, or deliberately ignores, is that this
decentralized medium potentially erodes common cultural ground, especially
in a country as diverse as ours. Gingrich wants to contain and distill this
diversity into one simple moral code, transmitted to the nation as
unambiguously as a stop light or air raid siren.

Until the late 1980s, major networks, publishing houses and movie studios
produced the dominant signals. And the printed word, in particular,
delivered the moral dictate. Think of the Bible or Aeschylus, or even
Grimm’s fairy tales. In the past, these texts (aka the Canon) knit our
culture together. “Job” is short hand for the triumph of faith and virtue
over severe challenges. And La Fontaine’s fable, The Raven and the Fox,
teaches the dangers of vanity, in a mere 140 words. This is why the battles
over curriculum, whether in New York City public schools in the early 1990s
(Fernandez and his “rainbow curriculum”) or on the fate of the Bass grant
at Yale University, have been so fierce and partisan.

The Net leap frogs over those institutions which formerly checked the flow
of the printed word. This makes for a dynamic culture in which certain
messages and signals will dominate for new reasons. The existing filters
have given way, but no one can really predict how the new ones will work
and whose message will get through the cacophony of digitized voices. E.D.
Hirsch will probably have a hard time updating his book Cultural Literacy
in 2010, when everyone has their own set of revered texts piped daily
into their customized Net browsers.

Gingrich may remain in a sort of happy oblivion about the effects of
“demassification” brought about by info technologies, but his colleague
Bill Bennett knows precisely how important common texts are to moral
development. The success of his Book of Virtues (which appeared on the New
York Times Bestseller list for 73 weeks as of May 14, 1995) reveals a
widespread craving for a condensation of discordant cultural signals into
bite size parables. But if you apply this logic to the Net, you get S.314,
the telecommunications bill that includes a provision to outlaw porn in
cyberspace. The democrats, who have only a feeble grip on the debate over
values, have tried to shed their image as bohemian heathens by carving
morality out of ether. “I’m not trying to be a super-censor. The first
thing I was concerned with was kids being able to pull up pornography on
their machines,” explains Senator Jim Exon, D-Nebraska, who wrote the
legislation. A poor choice of targets. And one which will likely founder on
technical hurdles and widespread opposition.

The Diamond Age probes the moral vacuum that The Book of Virtues and S.314
seek to plug up. Where Bennett offers Americans virtues as chewable
tablets, Stephenson presents the difficulty of transmitting morality to
generations for whom the relevance of certain values are less obvious–that
is, a society where the signals matter only because someone says they do.

Nell, the daughter of a semi-employed, abusive single mom in The Diamond
Age, accidentally gets a copy of the Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. She
lives in 21st century projects and would have had little chance of a decent
life until she starts reading the Primer. The Primer instructs by weaving
Nell’s life-story into a fantastical tale where she triumphs with the help
of some magical friends. Along the way, she learns reading, math, martial
arts, eastern philosophy, and computer programming. Eventually, Nell
figures out the purpose of the Primer: to inculcate both morality and
critical thinking.

The Primer, unlike The Book of Virtues, is not some uber-text, designed to
inject morality into impressionable young minds and to serve as a cultural
touchstone. Instead, by transforming Nell’s squalid life into a dark fairy
tale, the Primer makes moral lessons super-relevant. Nell must learn
humility so that her character in the book can go on to the next adventure.

But the Primer comes with a twist; real humans, called ractors, perform the
parts of the characters in the book. And one woman ends up devoting her
acting career to the Primer. So its this human-software hybrid (akin to
Donna Haraway’s Cyborg) which replaces a chunk of social fabric and
functions as a surrogate parent to Nell. (In this case, Gingrich’s wish to
let them eat laptops meets a sort of happy ending.) But, Stephenson needs
to bring in some unmediated human characters to lift Nell out of
depredation and complete her moral education. These take the form of Ms.
Stricken and Constable Moore. Ms. Stricken functions as a sort of Victorian
super-ego, imposing severe discipline on Nell and the other girls who
attend the Academy. Constable Moore, as a sort of Socratic counterpoint,
urges Nell to question what she learns. These two figures are place-holders
for mom and pop in the “American Family,” except that they complicate the
whole question of values as much as they clarify it. Gingrich’s simplistic
formulation doesn’t make allowances for such moral ambiguity.

Gingrich, now famous for intellectual nonchalance, has clearly not given
much thought to the process of reacquainting Americans with Victorian
virtues in the “Knowledge Age.” Which leaves me wondering how he plans
to meld this archaic (though not entirely extinct) moral code onto the
technological landscape of the next millennium.

The Tofflers happily oblige the right with language that sets the future
aglow. Despite their liberal pedigrees, they serve Newt well. He can now
cast the fact that thrift, responsibility and hard work no longer guarantee
a living wage as the inevitable consequence of a shift to a more advanced,
Third Wave society. Those who can’t make it can go live on Mars. But the
cheerful spin that Gingrich and his sci-fi pals put on economic and social
shifts cannot disguise the wrenching dislocation of many Americans who
already possess many of their cherished values. And a few speeches and
electronic pamphlets cannot drown out the shouts and murmurs of those folks
who Newt would scuttle away. While he and his cronies are negotiating the
contract for the Space Port, these Americans may just find their voice on
the Net.