The events at Cathedral Lakes likely prepared me to be particularly receptive to Cryptonomicon (I started listening on the long drive home), but it has remained a quake book for me.
It’s had three indelible effects:
- Guided me toward real life academics whose work I can study
- Helped consolidate my own framework of consistency of history and ideas
- Reminded me of the importance of secrets, and the fact that they’re often hidden in plain sight
The story takes place in parallel timelines:
- The adventures of a cryptographer in WWII who winds up in a unit dedicated to covert operations
- The travails of his grandson who begins to set up a secure data center in SE Asia for electronic money transfers
Stephenson has a gift for humanizing historic characters, for example being able to look at Turing from a multi dimensional perspective gives me a deeper appreciation for his work on the mechanical underpinnings of computation. I’ve noticed that many of the real life characters who show up in Cryptonomicon are worth reading.
But on a deeper level, Stephenson deepened my understanding of humans and ideas as more similar than different even over large spans of time. In fact, the tree of human knowledge might have more nodes added all the time, but there’s a strange way in which one can tunnel from first principles to the frontier regardless of when a person lives. Beyond abstract ideas, human motivations and limitations remain the same over time. If you’re in the business of reconstructing strategies, you can easily hold human drivers constant over time.
Finally, on the primacy of secrets… I guess I’d be at risk of the Magician’s wrath if I talked too much about them here. But the closest you’ll get to a direct explanation can be found here, in which one character describes the difference between Ares & Athena: Ares is bull-headed and ultimately hamstrung by his blind commitment to his own strength, whereas Athena is known for her cleverness and for her shield. Woe to those who forsake their own shield. And if you want a more direct explanation about the importance of secrets, I refer you to fellow Stephenson fan Peter Thiel’s chapter on secrets in Zero to One.
One last parting thought on Cryptonomicon: there are dozens of insights regarding economics inside, but the best by far is a quote from the engineer Goto Dengo:
“Gold is the corpse of value”.