Living in an Immaterial World

A few weeks ago, Amazon.com did something that rocked the whole system of private property. And all most of us did about it was kvetch. We saw it as a mere inconvenience. You buy a copy of 1984 for your Kindle, and some days later, you log back on and discover 1984 isn’t there. Since then, Amazon has explained, and apologized, and most recently cleared up the legalities between Amazon and George Orwell’s estate or whatever owns the rights to 1984, and most of those who bought it have had it restored. Most of us regard it as a mere pothole on the road of life. It’s patched now, all’s well that ends well and so on.

Given that most people buy books before reading them, rather than after, can we then conclude that those inconvenienced bibliophiles are only now reading 1984 for the first time, and only now realizing that Orwell pretty much predicted what has happened to his book? George Winston, after all, was in the business of making, and remaking, history, in the most basic sense, de-happening events that had now become inconvenient for Big Brother’s current ideology. Those of us who read the book before Amazon put it onto Kindle™, or at least some of us, are bloody spooked. Anybody who can make a book disappear from your library without any kind of notice, much less permission, can just as easily change the content of the book so that (for instance) Big Brother turns out to be the hero, and poor George Winston is just a pathetic dupe. Or rewrite the history of the Civil War to make slavery a noble cause. Or rewrite the JFK assassination to make Lee Harvey Oswald a Wahhabi Muslim and Marina Oswald a femiNazi.

How do you know that when you Google™ a news story from 2005, you won’t see George W. Bush filling sandbags and pitching in to reinforce the levees in New Orleans? Or Silvio Berlusconi inventing a new and vastly improved version of linguini bolognese? Or Governor Sanford entering a monastery?

Back in “the Sixties,” when Mr. Wired and I were active in all kinds of countercultural religion and politics, I took to clipping the papers regularly, to preserve stuff that I felt the next generation would never believe if I couldn’t produce it. (In the Talmud, BTW, you run across all sorts of weird stories to which the Rabbis themselves add a little note: “If it were not written, it would be impossible to believe this.”) I filled up most of a 4-drawer filing cabinet with high-acid-content paper (that was the flaw in my reasoning), which I only recently went through and mostly discarded, since it has mostly turned into stiff yellow snowflakes of indecipherable memory and I needed the drawer space for client files. Now, like most other people, I am at the mercy of the Mass Media and what little paper documentation the librarians have managed to preserve.

The Buddhists (with whom I have been hanging out occasionally of late) would not be seriously distressed by these developments. Nor would a client of mine from thirty-odd years ago who was trying to get discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector because, while on maneuvers in Hawaii, he sat on a beach for an evening and became Enlightened. My usual approach to these cases is to refer the client to a psychiatrist who firmly believes military service is bad for most people’s mental health, especially that of people who think killing people is wrong, and encourage Uncle Sam to discharge the client for reasons of emotional stability. It’s usually faster and cheaper than using the official regulations for Conscientious Objector discharge. This client objected to the tactic. He wasn’t crazy, he explained. The Navy was crazy. They still believed in the reality of the material universe. The real universe is an eternally-flowing mesh of causes and consequences, assumptions and reactions.

Now, causality can reach backward as easily as forward. If we need the Reconstruction to have been a Bad Thing in order to accomplish some current political goal, we can revise it without even recalling and re-publishing the encyclopedias and textbooks that will shape the next generation’s understanding of history.

Which assumes, of course, that the next generation will have an understanding of history. Yesterday, a paralegal in our office, a smart and reasonably well-educated young woman, asked me who was on the other side in World War II. While Big Brother’s right hand is busy rewriting history, his left hand has managed to make the whole idea of history irrelevant to those who would ordinarily be expected to create its next chapter. When Seward, mourning the just-deceased Lincoln, said “Now he belongs to the ages,” he meant that Lincoln would always be part of what shaped America and the world. These days, when somebody says that a particular person or thing is “history,” they mean it’s gone, disappeared, never to be seen again. Even the History Channel is mostly taken up with the exploits of ice road truckers in Alaska and myopic analyses of the DaVinci Code pitting the Freemasons against the Bavarian Illuminati.

We are just now realizing that all the gee-whiz forensic technology that lies at the foundation of any criminal prosecution in which the State has somehow not managed to persuade the defendant to plead guilty, is highly fallible, precisely because it contains nothing so physical as a smoking gun, just a bunch of digital impressions on “a media” [sic] that the next generation of forensic “scientists” won’t even be able to read.

Friends of mine with libraries as extensive as the one in the Wired residence are contemplating selling them, or donating them to schools in the Third World, or recycling them for pulp, now that the best that has been thought and said is available in digitized format through Google or whoever, on “a media” the size of a good Cuban cigar. But a good cigar is, at least, a smoke. The best that has been thought and said can be rendered unreadable through a simple electromagnetic hiccup or an “updated” digitizing format.

We have already allowed ourselves to become accustomed to the best music and drama that has been composed and performed being recorded onto one short-lived medium after another. Those of us who really cared about such stuff now have more than six generations of it in our “media rooms,” accumulated over only a mere half-century. More reasonable people just throw out the last generation when the new one reaches an affordable price. The newest generation, of course, doesn’t exactly accumulate at all. Like the Kindle books, it merely takes up residence on our current “media” until we get bored with it, and then makes way for the next batch of stuff. We never own any of it.

I think (maybe I’ve been hanging out with Buddhists too long?) that this might be okay if the generations of ideas and songs and plays that wander into and out of our minds originated among real thinkers and artists, and not just the minions of media conglomerates who “own” most of what gets “created” these days. I’ve been through distributing the books and records and pictures of my deceased parents and friends, and part of me doesn’t want to put anybody through the same process again for my stuff. But if the alternative is to let Sony, Bertelsman, and Gulf Western do my thinking and my enjoying for me while I live, and leave no thoughts or music of my own to those who come after me, then, thanks, I’ll stay in the material world a while longer, even if it means stumbling over my accumulated books and music while I live and burdening my friends and family with them afterward.

Jane Grey

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