The Age of Scrutiny


I swear, this is the only political post I will do before the elections. No, really!

As the elections get closer and closer, the more I realize Neal Stephenson is not an author, but a prophet. He (co-)wrote a book called Interface which was a book about a politician who has a stroke, and has a chip implanted in his brain by the shadow government. It restores his motor control, but has the side-effect of having the ability to trigger memories with the direction of an external wireless device (designed to be a kind of "pacemaker" for the chip).

I know it sounds pretty crazy, but in the context of the book, it actually flows pretty believably.

Anyways, he goes on to run for President, and his campaign works out a way to use this memory-trigger to their advantage. They pick a small sample of people that represent a cross-section of the country, and then hook them up to a little Dick Tracy TV with an EKG in it that transmits their immediate emotional response to whatever they show them back to the campaign (sound familiar?). The campaign then triggers various memories so he can change tactics instantly if he starts losing support during a television appearance.

It's insane, and basically completely believable with current technology. Polling has become more and more prominent, to the point where polls about people's opinions about how they feel about how they think other people will react to polls is considered normal.

My favorite part of the book is when his campaign manager, Cy Ogle, is explaining why the issues don't matter in the current political realm.

"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." ...

"So what's it about now?" Aaron said.

"Scrutiny. We are in the Age of Scrutiny. A public figure must withstand the scrutiny of the media," Ogle said. "The President is the ultimate public figure and must stand up under the ultimate scrutiny; he is like a man stretched out on a rack in the public square in some medieval shithole of a town, undergoing the rigors of the Inquisition. Like the medieval trial by ordeal, the Age of Scrutiny sneers at rational inquiry and debate, and presumes that mere oaths and protestations are deceptions and lies. The only way to discover the real truth is by the rite of the ordeal, which exposes the subject to such inhuman strain that any defect in his character will cause him to crack wide open, like a flawed diamond. It is a mystical procedure that skirts rationality, which is seen as the work of the Devil, instead drawing down a higher, ineffable power. Like the Roman haruspex who foretold the outcome of a battle, not by analyzing the strengths of the opposing forces, but by groping through the steaming guts of a slaughtered ram, we seek to establish a candidates fitness for office by pinning him under the lights of a television studio and constructing the use of eye contact, monitoring his gesticulations-- whether his hands are held open or closed, toward or away from the camera, spread open forthcomingly or clenched like grasping claws."

Spooky, isn't it?

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