Review of "Interface" by Neal Stephenson and J. Frederick George

The book is here and a plot summary is here.  It's sort of a technologically advanced Manchurian Candidate with some cool writing on the working of the brain.

Basically, a group of mysterious, wealthy people have decided that the US is incapable of governing itself after the President suggests that the US will default on its debt.  These people decided to plant a chip in the brain of the Governor of Illinois who has recently suffered a stroke.  While the Governor recovers, they use media consultants to ensure that everyone wants to vote for the Governor.  The goal is allowing "America's investors [i.e. the people who hold its debt] to have a permanent say in the management of their assets."  Their vision for the country is actually rather conservative: "In the old days, contract was sacred: divorce, bankruptcy, fraud, were taboos for the average people.  The rogues of course, the robber barons were beyond that.  We have to return the country to those values so that there won't even be a thought to renege on the debt."  Surely, the government can't borrow forever and expect no consequences:

"Do you have any idea how much money your government borrowed?" "A lot," Eleanor said.  "Ten trillion dollars."  . . . "Well, you certainly can't expect to borrow that much money from someone without incurring certain obligation, can you?"  Lady Wilburdon said, as if it were all perfectly obvious.  And it was, in fact, perfectly obvious.  "Of course, not," Eleanor said, "you're right."  "When a business borrows money from a bank, and does so irresponsibly, and is profligate and incompetent, what happens?"  "It goes bankrupt.  And the bank takes it over."

One can't help but wonder if this story-line represents an exaggeration of the authors' views on how politics actually works in the US.  Are our politicians basically robots?  Are our elections basically decided by wealthy donors?  Can media consultants really control who we vote for?  The answers, are clearly, yes, to some extent.  The book then asks what happens if these trends continue to increase.  Here's some commentary:

In the 1700s, politics was all about ideas.  But Jefferson came up with all the good ideas.  In the 1800s, it was all about character.  But no one will ever have as much character as Lincoln and Lee.  For much of the 1900s it was about charisma.  But we no longer trust charisma because Hitler used it to kill Jews and JFK used it to get laid and send us to Vietnam. . . . [Now, we manipulate the multitudes through "public opinion"] . . . "I pain a depressing picture here.  But we, you and I, are  like the literate monks who nurtured the flickering flame of Greek rationality through the Dark Ages, remaining underground, knowing each other by secret signs and code words . . . We do not have the strength to change the minds of the illiterate multitudes.  But we do have the wit to exploit their foolishness, to familiarize ourselves with their stunted thought patterns, and to use that knowledge to manipulate them toward the goals that we all know are, quote, right and true, unquote.

Like all other Stephenson stuff, there is a lot of other interesting things going on.  A seemingly illiterate dude in Iowa figures the whole thing out, which is pretty crazy.  Read the book.

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