“It now appears that books in the form so beloved by Uncle Alex and me, hinged in unlocked boxes, packed with leaves speckled by ink, are obsolescent. My grandchildren are already doing much of their reading from words projected on the face of a video screen. Please, please, please wait just a minute.
At the time of their invention books were devices as crassly practical for storing or transmitting language, albeit fabricated from scarcely modified substances found in forest and field and animals as the latest Silicon Valley miracles. But by accident, not by cunning calculation, books, because of their weight and texture and because of their sweetly token resistance to manipulation, involve our hands and eyes and then our minds and souls in a spiritual adventure I would be very sorry for my grandchildren not to know about.”
– Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Timequake
Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s Timequake is largely concerned with the loss of the imagination, the loss of story telling, the loss of free will. To back up a bit, before Guttenberg transformed handmade manuscripts with movable type, books were largely cared for by monks and not meant for common people. Information, as it remains today, was power. Teach a blacksmith to read, suddenly he doesn’t need the pope’s interpretation, he can think for himself. Enter Martin Luther and his 95 theses. This is revolution. Thus, out went blind Homer’s oral tradition and in came the written word. The Magna Carta, the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, the Emancipation Proclamation. These are all direct results of the written word becoming law. This major paradigm shift took millennia to transition. What once took centuries now takes nanoseconds, whatever those are. Now you can google The Odyssey (1,550,000 results) in 0.18 seconds. Today books are becoming commonplace, overlooked, cumbersome, even impractical in a world in which atom-sized microprocessors hold the entire Library of Congress in your telephone/computer/stereo/address book/movie theater, ad nauseum. How we are communicating is changing. Changing so quickly that before Kurt Vonnegut Jr. passed from the earth in April of 2007, he felt we were missing something, he felt it necessary to tell us to “Please, please, please wait just a minute.”
Digital and analog. Cause and effect. Origin and outcome. Inevitability and free will. Moirai and Erinyes. Look at the big picture and get a sense of the generic. Zoom in and focus on details. Go too far and the grain (pixels, what have you) blurs beyond recognition. Get too wide and we’re in danger of missing the nitty-gritty. There is a sense of contradiction inherent in any magazine these days. What once was set by hand is now placed by a cursor. What once was inked and pressed on wood and metal is now plated via pdf. The outcome is the same: the HESO you hold in your hands, which tells you via meticulously placed type, at the top of every page to check out http://hesomagazine.com.
I have a fat manilla envelope full of stationary from the many hotels, hostels and inns I’ve stayed in over the years. Envelopes and clean white leaves of paper pressed with letterhead, logos and contact information. Largely a collection of souvenirs to commemorate my various travels, as well as to confuse hell out of anyone I write a letter to from say, Barcelona using stationary from Jakarta, they have always represented potential to me. It’s come to the point that, besides packs of fresh boxer briefs and white Fruit of the Loom tank tops, this is one of the only things my mother can give me for Christmas which she knows will tickle me pink.
We don’t write anymore (except Stephen King), we post, we tweet, we update our status. Letters passe, email is the mode du jour. Greeting cards are getting scarce, e-cards are simply too easy. What happens when the newspapers go so bankrupt as to finally disappear? Will bloggers do their own research? Will we breathe easier with all the excess trees growing untouched throughout the world or will the Japanese buy them all up for disposable chopstick production?
Will we forget how to read and write? English (26 letters, 10 numerals and 8 or so punctuation marks) is relatively easy, but what about Gaelic and Welsh, Estonian and Finnish? Japanese people regularly confide that due to the exponential growth and use of mobile phones and computers, they are losing their ability to quickly and correctly write complicated characters. In the face of gradually becoming unable to fluently write an admittedly difficult system, those I’ve talked with seem largely apathetic. The term Shoganai (“Nothing can be done”) is often heard in this context. Despite all this, Asō Tarō’s- the current Japanese prime minister- recent (and largely blogged on) gaffes reading Japanese characters on his teleprompter during press conferences is at least indirectly responsible for a boom in sales of study guides.
The world is still largely analog, that is to say related to nature. Digital as it may seem, there are still holes in the net. It is from this imperfection that life forms, that originality comes, that the divine breeds. In the world of electronics the “on” circuit is a closed loop. Turn on the light and the loop closes, flip the switch off to break the cycle. Closed is to running current as open is to stasis. From the looking glass we perceive a reverse image. From the negative a positive. From nothing something, from something nothing.
Without the analog we lose all context of who we are, where we came. We become emotionless numbers on a grid, switches for the puppet masters to flick on and off. Without perception of the surreal, reality becomes meaningless, empty 1s and 0s floating in a vacuum, bereft of true value.
Find a mythology relative to the times in which we live. If none exists relevant to your life, make one up. Don’t accept what the screen and its talking heads pour into your eyes.
I have long believed that humanity’s greatest quality is adaptability. And yet the changes in our current modus operandi are constant and quickening. How do we keep up with the Joneses and their cloneses? How do we properly perceive whatever it is that is going on around us? String theory? Through the many simulacra we invent to connect us, to keep us close? In one sense it’s a good thing: you need to know what’s happening in the derivatives market to understand what may happen to the price of rice in China. But do we really need 300 satellite channels of the same garbage – Now available in HD!- or realtime updates of what outfit such and such celebrity had on when they checked into rehab, again? Or do we, at a certain level, trust that paper and ink still have value, start writing letters again, sending poetry to faraway loves, pull out that yellow legal pad, ala Vonnegut, and finally write your novel the old fashioned way, illegibly?
In Timequake, the whole of humanity loses free will for 10 years, what Vonnegut Jr. terms the “rerun”. He goes on, “There was absolutely nothing you could say during the rerun if you hadn’t said it the first time.” The thought that still nags me to this day, more than 10 years after I first read the book, and two years since Mr. Vonnegut has passed into the ether, what I always wanted to ask him was, “Did they realize it while it was happening, or only after, or even at all?” Like most important things that happen in realtime, I don’t think they did.
I trust your responses to this missive will be written in Esperanto and sent via carrier pigeon.