Even though there was a lot of action and side issues in this novel, especially religion, as noted by Josh, the main theme that continues to pick up speed throughout the novel is that of language. Software and hardware, programs and programmers, viruses and counter-viruses.
If intelligence and freedom (the nam-shub of Enki) is simply one programed language, and slavery (babel/meta-virus/me's) is just another type of programed language I do not see that it matters much. That being, in this reading as well as in all our readings, we are getting a heavy dose of materialism and different versions of the strong AI thesis. the example in this story is tantamount to saying that one computer is alive or intelligent because it has different, i.e. better programming than the other. So if my calculator is programmed with the nam-shub of Enki and your calculator only has the "B-metavirus" then my calculator is intelligent and yours is not. Hmmm...
Of course Stevenson does not differentiate the medium or rather the physical instantiation that may or may not be necessary, i.e. a biological brain, but I do not know that it matters for him.
I was looking on the web today at DNA, and most sites have it described as the instructions, or genetic code for life in general or the specific individual. It is the "language of life" it seems. What is language? And just how important is it not only to life but for life? Stevenson seems to be saying that all life is nothing but an appropriate software program running on sufficiently complicated and fast enough computer, i.e. hardware (like the brain). The sum is not only greater than the parts it is almost entirely different. This is and has been bothering me as we delve into what is life and what is intelligence this semester. And if most of these writers and thinkers are correct humanity is "nothing" but a complicated machine.
But I do not believe that "life" can come from non-life. That is, it takes like to create like, not unlike. I do not see how taking a bunch of inanimate, i.e. lifeless objects (what ever kind you like) and putting them together will give you life. This is the very problem that materialists since the time of Lucretius have had to deal with. If "atoms" for example are the basic building blocks of life and they are simply the smallest inanimate chunks of matter, then how can putting them together in any arrangement make them other than inanimate?
Perhaps it really is possible to "create" or program intelligence, but if it is then I may argue that you can have intelligence with out having life. Since we can have life with out intelligence, is it the case that it is possible that it goes the other way too?
Program all you want, but my calculator will always be just a calculator.