To the worker ants of science

The heroic effort known as the Internet was the work of patient, hardworking men and women. Where are the statues to them? Plus: Garrison Keillor responds to his readers.

Published March 21, 2007 11:00AM (EDT)

Helped a friend move into a new old house last week, just like we used to do back in college except there was no case of beer and no radio blasting. Hauled in 50 boxes one by one and felt like an ant carrying grains of sand to build up the anthill. The tedium of it was blissful. Though I did remember those helpless ants of my childhood, when my great shadow fell on them and they looked up and shook their minuscule fists and then whump it was all over.

It was a lovely violent boyhood back during the Cold War. We boys ran around on the playground machine-gunning each other, and we discussed nuclear holocaust, especially if girls were around. "Your hair will catch on fire, and then your eyeballs will melt and run down your cheeks," we said in authoritative tones learned from newscasters. "And then your intestines will explode."

We lounged around under the elms, drinking Hires root beer, imagining how the communists would sneak a bomber through our radar and drop the big one and eyeballs would melt and the president would go underground and squadrons of B-52s would go roaring over the North Pole and turn the Soviet Union into a glassy desert. We were 10 or 11 years old. We were militants. It was intensely pleasurable.

Nowadays we boys would've had video games with which to obliterate the enemy, and we could've gone online and speculated about bursting eyeballs. We could've lived in dark rooms like vampire bats and produced bat blogs and linked to distant bat colonies.


Anyway, I got over it. These days I am indifferent to militance and more inspired by the worker ants of science. The patient accumulation of data, the dry formulation of theory, the countless little defeats, then the big leap forward that changes the world. I don't have the mind for it but I appreciate those who do, such as John W. Backus, who died this week at 82, the man who led the team at IBM that created the programming language Fortran in the early '50s, a giant step toward harnessing the computer and making it work. While the militants of his day stewed over the danger of rock 'n' roll and Reds in the State Department, Mr. Backus' team of young math nerds toiled away in Manhattan and took small, decisive steps toward the future.

In my grandfather's day, Edison toiled to design a machine for managers to dictate letters into and then events led in another direction: Caruso sang into it and Jimmy Rodgers and King Oliver and the recording business burst forth into the 20th century and the hybrid genius of America bloomed and blew the seeds of jazz and blues and rock 'n' roll around the world.

In my own lifetime, scientists at MIT and UCLA and the RAND Corp. proposed the interconnection of giant computers, which would enable scattered communities of scholars to share data and which, about 20 years ago, burst forth and blossomed as the global information system we know as the Internet, which enables you to quickly transmit photographs of Lulu and Gimpy or access every light-bulb joke known to man or disseminate angry blogs excoriating your enemies.

You drift around the Internet and find the right-wing kulturkampf bubbling along, the snapping turtles chewing on the same old sticks, oblivious to the real world, and you think of how this medium that has served angry militants so well was the work of committees of patient, hardworking, anonymous ants hauling grains of data up the slippery slopes. This was an enormous heroic enterprise, carried out in the dark by men and women motivated by the pleasure of problem-solving. There are thousands of statues of lousy generals and blowhard statesmen and enormous temples erected for the worship of presidents, and not much recognition of people such as Mr. Backus who did the work that actually made life better.

So what? Who wants to be a statue anyway? I would rather haul boxes and shelve books and wash the wine glasses than have pigeons sit ululating on my shoulders. We insects learn to appreciate the complex systems and paraphernalia that go to make up the American home. We come to appreciate materialism. These books, the pots and baskets, the souvenirs of Japan and Italy, the photographs of northern lakes, the well-worn armchair, the lamp, the portraits in silver frames, are symbols of the fundamental goodness of life. Militance and paranoia shall not prevail against it.

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Garrison Keillor responds to his readers: The readership gave me a good whack upside the head over last week's column, hundreds of them in fact. The column was meant to be witty, but two sentences about gay people aroused some readers to a high pitch of indignation, and I now know the meaning of the word "scorched." Oh well. You shouldn't write a column if you're afraid to be compared to weasels, sociopaths, Ann Coulter or Vlad the Impaler.

I live in a small world -- the world of entertainment, musicians, writers -- in which gayness is as common as having brown eyes. Ever since I was in college, gay men and women have been friends, bosses, associates, heroes, adversaries, and in that small world, we talk openly and we kid each other a lot. But in the larger world, gayness is controversial. In almost every state, gay marriage would be voted down if put on a ballot. Gay men and women have been targeted by the right wing and so gay people feel besieged to some degree and rightly so. In the small world I live in, they are accepted and cherished as individuals. My column spoke as we would speak in my small world and it was read by people in the larger world and thus the misunderstanding. And for that, I am sorry. Gay people who set out to be parents can be just as good parents as anybody else, and they know that, and so do I.

A man stood outside the theater where I did a show Saturday night and handed out angry pamphlets calling on the audience to protest my homophobia. A gay writer friend was at the show and got a big kick out of the pamphlets and had me autograph some for his partner and his partner's mother. I asked him what I had done wrong and he said, "You mentioned us." I looked at him quizzically. He said, "I'll handle gay parenting and you stick to the Norwegians." It's a deal.

(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)

© 2007 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

By Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor is the author of the Lake Wobegon novel "Liberty" (Viking) and the creator and host of the nationally syndicated radio show "A Prairie Home Companion," broadcast on more than 500 public radio stations nationwide. For more columns by Keillor, visit his column archive.

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