“How secure is our civilization’s accumulated knowledge?”
That’s the question posed in a recent essay by Richard Heinberg, one of the most consistently brilliant, reasonable, and nuanced writers about the ecological and cultural-civilizational ramifications of peak fossil fuels and economic calamity. In “Our evanescent culture and the awesome duty of librarians,” he offers a detailed discussion of the ins and outs of cultural preservation in the age of digital media, which, as he points out, have become the basket into which we citizens of industrial-technological civilization are collectively putting all of our cultural eggs, and which depend entirely on electricity for their continued viability. If the lights go out, he observes, this all vanishes instantly. And the chances of the lights going out by century’s end, not only in developing countries around the globe, where rolling brownouts and blackouts are already becoming more common, but in the industrialized nations as well, is very real.
“Ultimately,” Heinberg writes,
the entire project of digitized cultural preservation depends on one thing: electricity. As soon as the power goes off, access to the Internet goes down. CDs and DVDs become meaningless plastic disks; e-books become inscrutable and useless; digital archives become as illegible as cuneiform tablets — or more so. Altogether, digitization represents a huge bet on society’s ability to keep the lights on forever . . . . It’s ironic to think that the cave paintings of Lascaux may be far more durable than the photos from the Hubble space telescope. Altogether, if the lights were to go out now, in just a century or two the vast majority of our recently recorded knowledge would be gone or inaccessible.
This would all obviously constitute a disaster of the first order, since we denizens of industrial society have been engaged for roughly a century in the project of forgetting how to live without our electrified technology, and in the event of a blackout we would lose not only this technology but access to the digital media in which we have taken to storing so much of the very knowledge and skills that would enable us to survive. And that’s not to mention the loss in purely artistic and spiritual terms.
But there’s an ambivalence to the issue that Heinberg also notes in his essay, since, to put it bluntly, not all cultural knowledge is worth remembering. “The contemplation of electric civilization’s collapse can’t help but provoke philosophical musings,” he writes. “Perhaps cultural death is a necessary component of evolution — as is the death of individual organisms. In any case, no one can prevent culture from changing, and many aspects of our present culture arguably deserve to disappear (we each probably carry our own list around in our head of what kinds of music, advertising messages, and television shows we think the world could do without).”
And this is what leads me, perhaps not too incongruously — especially in light of the present prevalence of zombies in mass media culture — to flash on horror film auteur George Romero’s Day of the Dead (1985), the third installment in his celebrated Living Dead series, which at one point grapples provocatively with the very issue that Heinberg raises, albeit in a slightly different context.
An epitaph that nobody’s gonna bother to read
In Day of the Dead, a dozen or so humans, the only apparent survivors of the zombie apocalypse that started in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead and continued in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead, live in a vast underground military bunker while the zombies rule the outside world. In a key scene, a character with the appropriately apocalyptic name of John chides another character, a scientist, for continuing the obsessive quest to understand the zombie plague, since the bunker is already, effectively, a vast treasure trove of industrial civilization’s accumulated knowledge that nobody will ever know or care about:
Hey, you know what all they keep down here in this cave? Man, they got the books and the records of the top five hundred companies. They got the defense department budget down here, and they got the negative for all your favorite movies. They got microfilm with tax return and newspaper stories. They got immigration records and census records, and they got official accounts of all the wars and plane crashes and volcano eruptions and earthquakes and fires and floods, and all the other disasters that interrupted the flow of things in the good old U.S. of A. Now what does it matter, Sarah darling? All this filing and record keeping? Who’s ever gonna give a shit? Who’s even gonna get a chance to see it all? This is a great big, 14-mile tombstone with an epitaph on it that nobody’s gonna bother to read. And now here you come with a whole new set of charts and graphs and records. What you gonna do? Bury them down here with all the other relics of what once was?
When the other character, Sarah, responds, “What I’m doing is all there’s left to do,” John comes back with, “Shame on you. There’s plenty to do, so long as there’s you and me and maybe some other people. We could start over, start fresh, get some babies. And teach them, Sarah. Teach them never to come over here and dig these records out.”
The conversation relates back to an earlier exchange between the two characters in which John similarly criticizes the scientist’s attempts to explain and fix the apocalyptic situation. Upon being told to shut up because he has no alternative solution, he says, “Oh, I’ve got an alternative: Find us an island someplace, get juiced up, and spend what time we got left soaking up some sunshine.” When Sarah says with disdain, “You could do that, couldn’t you? With all that’s going on, you could just do that without a second thought,” he replies, “Shit, I could do that even if all this wasn’t going on.”
And obviously, this all relates back to Heinberg’s observation in his article that we can all name aspects of contemporary information culture whose loss we wouldn’t lament. Then again, as he also notes, the loss of many other things would be truly tragic. He says it so beautifully, and lays out the competing strands of the dilemma so elegantly, that I’ll quote his final paragraphs in toto:
Civilization has come at a price. Since the age of Sumer cities have been terrible for the environment, leading to deforestation, loss of topsoil, and reduced biodiversity. There have been human costs as well, in the forms of economic inequality (which hardly existed in pre-state societies) and loss of personal autonomy. These costs have grown to unprecedented levels with the advent of industrialism — civilization on crack — and have been borne not by civilization’s beneficiaries, but primarily by other species and people in poor nations and cultures. But nearly all of us who are aware of these costs like to think of this bargain-with-the-devil as having some purpose greater than a temporary increase in creature comforts, safety, and security for a minority within society. The full-time division of labor that is the hallmark of civilization has made possible science — with its enlightening revelations about everything from human origins to the composition of the cosmos. The arts and philosophy have developed to degrees of sophistication and sublimity that escape the descriptive capacity of words.
Yet so much of what we have accomplished, especially in the last few decades, currently requires for its survival the perpetuation and growth of energy production and consumption infrastructure—which exact a continued, escalating environmental and human toll. At some point, this all has to stop, or at least wind down to some more sustainable scale of pillage.
But if it does, and in the process we lose the best of what we have achieved, will it all have been for nothing?
Burn it all
Having said all of that, I’ll close by pointing out what I suspect many of my readers may have noticed as well: that even though there are veritable mountains of cultural treasures whose loss to a new dark age would be a tragedy, in light of the galling and garish nature of so much of our contemporary cultural dystopia with its digital media circus, its economic bloat, its ecological devastation, its human injustice, and so on, it’s pretty damned difficult to deny the mythically charged attraction of the “Burn it all!” solution as expressed so enticingly by Romero and others. And that’s even though we rationally recognize the full-on disaster that such a “solution” would inevitably entail in human terms.
For more about cultural preservation in the face of a new dark age, consider the following:
- John Michael Greer, “The End of the Information Age” (May 19, 2009) and “Cultural Conservers” (May 21, 2008), both published at The Archdruid Report. “I’d like to suggest,” says Greer, “that one crucial need of our present predicament is the rise of a movement of cultural conservers — individuals who choose, for one reason or another, to take personal responsibility for the preservation of some part of the modern world’s cultural heritage. That’s a tall order, not least because the crises inseparable from the decline and fall of a civilization will leave many of us scrambling for bare survival in the face of soaring death rates and increasingly harsh conditions.”
- Morris Berman, The Twilight of American Culture (2000). Berman talks movingly, in a tone that’s part businesslike and part elegiac, about the need for a class of “new monks” who will preserve and perpetuate treasured cultural knowledge not only in the midst of a future dark age brought on by industrial collapse (a theme he touches on only tangentially when he touches on it at all), but in the midst of our present cultural dark age of economic, political, educational, societal, and media-based madness, where hype and life have merged, and where the ever-expanding border of technocratic consumer culture and American imperialism encompasses a darkly dystopian reality. Importantly, he stresses that a) a new dark age is inevitable, so we’re not talking about “saving” what presently exists but preserving and planting the seeds of a future renaissance that none of us will personally see, and b) these new monastic efforts may need to take a different form than simply the writing of books and so on, since, unlike the original Dark Ages, when Western monks conducted their scribal work in an information-starved cultural environment, “This time around, we are drowning in information; hence, what is required is that it be embodied, preserved through ways of living . . . . I am not talking about putting the Great Books on CD-ROM, eventually to be buried in a time capsule, I suppose), or on the Net; these things have already been done, and they don’t amount to much, because the Great Books program is really a way of life, not a database.”
- Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451 (1953). Obviously, this novel has become a kind of Ur-text that defines the very lines along which we think and talk about the question of a new dark age. We shouldn’t forget the novel’s passionate endorsement of something like Berman’s “new monasticism” in its description of the tramps and hobos who traverse the fringes of a future totalitarian-dystopian society and preserve books whole in their memories, in the hope of one being able to recite them and write them down again when books are no longer outlawed. We also shouldn’t forget one character’s important and insightful declaration about the relative value of books themselves: “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical about them at all. The magic is only with what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment.”
Macmillan, the publishing giant, has just made available an absolutely wonderful new video interview with Ray Bradbury as a marketing adjunct for the release of the new graphic novel adaptation of his Fahrenheit 451, for which he wrote the introduction.
(See “Graphic novel of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ sparks Bradbury’s approval,” USA Today, Aug. 3. You can also read and/or listen to the NPR story about this publishing event; air date: one week ago.)
There’s a long version of the video (13 minutes) and a short one (just under two minutes). I recommend the long one. Ray is a very old man now — he’ll reach 89 later this month, two days before I reach 39 — and he suffered a stroke in the late 90s, and these are both evident as he speaks. But danged if he’s not still the same fiery, passionate, brilliant, charming guy who’s been ranting about his epic loves and hates for over 50 years now, and the long video displays this in vivid detail.
- Ray’s retelling of the stories, which he’s told a thousand times (without their ever growing old), about his boyhood love of Buck Rogers and Tarzan comics, and of his fateful meeting with Mr. Electrico at a carnival, which earned him the talismanic admonition to “Live forever!
- His morning “theater of the mind” (which he has also talked about for decades), in which characters and metaphors zoom through his head when he first wakes up, after which he channels them into his stories.
- His thoughts on the creative process of collaborating with filmmakers, graphic novelists, play directors, etc. He says Truffaut ruined F451 in the original film adaptation by, among other things, ruining the character of Clarisse McLellan.
- His account of finally overcoming his fear of flying some years ago when he convinced Disney to fly him home from the opening of Epcot Center — a feat he accomplished by demanding that Disney “pour three double martinis” down him first, after which he says they “poured me into the plane.”
- His update about the status of the planned new film adaptation of F451. He says the script is ready and director Frank Darabont is “a good friend,” so he’s convinced the film will happen. But he points out that Mel Gibson, who backed out a few years ago to make The Passion of the Christ, still owns the rights and is refusing to fund the project. Bradbury points out that Gibson is “a very rich man,” since he made $500 million from “his Jesus movie.” Ray describes the current situation, in which he and Darabont have to go looking for money, as “stupid,” even as he expresses optimism about the final outcome.
- His assertion that America’s problems will all work themselves out if we devote ourselves to figuring out how to teach reading effectively to early-aged children.
- His all-encompassing life prescription to “do what you love and love what you do.”
- His assertion, still vibrant in full force after many decades, that the human race’s future is among the stars, and that we absolutely must return to the moon, and then colonize Mars, and then move outward and onward.
This guy is a force of nature. His very persona and personage have become for me inextricably intertwined with his work, to the point where each reinforces the other, in the same same way that it is with Lovecraft, Ligotti, Nietzsche, and a number of my other literary lights. God bless ya, Ray.
It’s been awhile since a conversation at the Shocklines message boards elicited a response from me that I wanted to preserve here at The Teeming Brain, but just yesterday it happened again and resulted in my writing an article-length piece that briefly traced my personal, lifelong evolution and growth as a reader.
The inimitable Des Lewis started the conversation (which, be advised, will at some not-distant point slip away into Shocklines’ unreachable past) almost a week ago by asking people if they as readers prefer the more dense “baroque” prose of a previous era or the stripped-down and streamlined functional prose of modern popular writing. He kicked off the conversation by quoting a passage from George Steiner about novelist Lawrence Durrell’s baroque style. Steiner uses the opportunity to talk about the wider issue of English prose’s evolution away from ornate styles under the influence of Hemingway.
Here’s the passage, followed by my response to the conversation it kicked off:
But this does not mean that this jeweled and coruscated style springs full-armed from Durrell’s personal gift. He stands in a great tradition of baroque prose. In the seventeenth century, Sir Thomas Browne built sentences into lofty arches and made words ring like sonorous bells. Robert Burton, in his Anatomy of Melancholy, used the same principal device as Durrell: richness through accumulation, the marshaling of nouns and epithets into great catalogues among which the eye roves in antiquarian delight. The feverish, clarion-sounding prose of De Quincey is a direct ancestor to that of Justine. And more recently, there is the example of Conrad. In the later parts of Lord Jim and throughout The Rescue, Conrad uses words with the sumptuous exuberance of a jeweler showing off his rarest stones. Here also, language falls upon the reader’s senses like brocade.
This baroque ideal of narrative style is, at present, in disfavor. The modern ear has been trained to the harsh, impoverished cadence and vocabulary of Hemingway. Reacting against the excesses of Victorian manner, the modern writer has made a cult of simplicity. He refines common speech but preserves its essential drabness. When comparing a page from the Alexandria novels to the practice of Hemingway or C. P. Snow or Graham Greene, one is setting a gold-spun and jeweled Byzantine mosaic next to a black-and-white photograph. One cannot judge the one by the other. But that does not signify that Durrell is a decadent show-off or that his conception of English prose is erroneous. We may be grateful that Hemingway and his innumerable imitators have made the language colder and more astringent and that they have brought back into fiction the virtue of plain force. But they have done so at a price. Contemporary English usage is incredibly thin and unimaginative. The style of politics and factual communication verges on the illiterate. Having far fewer words at our reach than had the educated man of the seventeenth and even of the late nineteenth century, we say less or say it with a blurred vagueness. Indeed, the twentieth century has seen a great retreat from the power of the word. The main energies of the mind seem directed toward other modes of ‘language,’ toward the notation of music and the symbol-world of mathematics. Whether in its advertisements, its comic-books, or its television, our culture lives by the picture rather than the word. Hence a writer like Durrell, with his Shakespearean and Joycean delight in the sheer abundance and sensuous variety of speech, may strike one as mannered or precious. But the fault lies with our impoverished sensibility.”
— George Steiner, “Lawrence Durrell I: The Baroque Novel” (from Critical Essays on Lawrence Durrell)
And now my response, which came after quite a few people had already weighed in with their thoughts and opinions:
I’m with those who say they favor baroque prose more when reading some types of literature and a more streamlined prose when reading other types of literature. I love the baroque stuff when reading horror fiction, especially of a gothic or gothic-related sort. Poe wouldn’t be Poe, nor Lovecraft Lovecraft, nor Ligotti Ligotti, nor Campbell Campbell, without the lushness of the prose style. The same can be said of Blackwood, Machen, Mary Shelley, and more. Then again, Fritz Leiber was no slouch himself, nor is Peter Straub, nor is Stephen King, and they opt for the more modernized, streamlined style. Read the rest of this entry
The current issue of the Atlantic Monthly (July/August) has an interesting cover story by Nicholas Carr — “Is Google Making Us Stupid? What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains” — about the effects of the Internet revolution on human cognition. I bought the issue at the airport last weekend while waiting for my flight to Mo*Con III and found it to be quite a worthy read, especially since the author’s description of some of the changes he has noticed in his own mental life under the spell of perpetual Internet usage parallel certain effects that I’ve been noticing in myself for the past several years.
Over the past few years I’ve had an uncomfortable sense that someone, or something, has been tinkering with my brain, remapping the neural circuitry, reprogramming the memory. My mind isn’t going — so far as I can tell — but it’s changing. I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. Immersing myself in a book or a lengthy article used to be easy. My mind would get caught up in the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I’d spend hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That’s rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration often starts to drift after two or three pages. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel as if I’m always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.
I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online, searching and surfing and sometimes adding to the great databases of the Internet. The Web has been a godsend to me as a writer. Research that once required days in the stacks or periodical rooms of libraries can now be done in minutes. A few Google searches, some quick clicks on hyperlinks, and I’ve got the telltale fact or pithy quote I was after. Even when I’m not working, I’m as likely as not to be foraging in the Web’s info-thickets — reading and writing e-mails, scanning headlines and blog posts, watching videos and listening to podcasts, or just tripping from link to link to link. (Unlike footnotes, to which they’re sometimes likened, hyperlinks don’t merely point to related works; they propel you toward them.)
For me, as for others, the Net is becoming a universal medium, the conduit for most of the information that flows through my eyes and ears and into my mind. The advantages of having immediate access to such an incredibly rich store of information are many, and they’ve been widely described and duly applauded. “The perfect recall of silicon memory,” Wired’s Clive Thompson has written, “can be an enormous boon to thinking.” But that boon comes at a price. As the media theorist Marshall McLuhan pointed out in the 1960s, media are not just passive channels of information. They supply the stuff of thought, but they also shape the process of thought. And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.
Carr goes on to offer a concise and fascinating history of the effects of new communications technologies on human cultures and societies, going all the way back to Plato’s low view of the development of writing itself (since he, Plato, feared dependence on the written word would siphon away people’s mental abilities), to the invention of the printing press, to Nietzsche’s admission that acquiring a typewriter had changed the character of his writing. Carr finishes by advising that we should be skeptical of his very skepticism about the Internet, since all revolutions in communication technologies have been met with similar Luddite-esque condemnations. That said, he still holds out the possibility that he’s right, and that something valuable, namely, our ability and even our desire to think and reflect deeply and to have our selves and societies formed and informed by this mental and moral depth, is currently under assault and in danger of being lost:
Perhaps those who dismiss critics of the Internet as Luddites or nostalgists will be proved correct, and from our hyperactive, data-stoked minds will spring a golden age of intellectual discovery and universal wisdom. Then again, the Net isn’t the alphabet, and although it may replace the printing press, it produces something altogether different. The kind of deep reading that a sequence of printed pages promotes is valuable not just for the knowledge we acquire from the author’s words but for the intellectual vibrations those words set off within our own minds. In the quiet spaces opened up by the sustained, undistracted reading of a book, or by any other act of contemplation, for that matter, we make our own associations, draw our own inferences and analogies, foster our own ideas. Deep reading, as Maryanne Wolf argues, is indistinguishable from deep thinking. If we lose those quiet spaces, or fill them up with “content,” we will sacrifice something important not only in our selves but in our culture.
Any longtime reader of The Teeming Brain will know that I exult in finding such thoughts and feeling expressed so well, and also in expressing them myself. From Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, to Theodore Roszak’s Where the Wasteland Ends, to Daniel Boorstin’s The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, to dystopian fictional visions like Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and, most recently, Paolo Bacigalupi’s Pump Six and Other Stories (for which I wrote a glowing review for the new issue of Dead Reckonings), I am fascinated by the exploration of the changes that modern mass and digital communications technologies are wreaking upon our civilizations and cultures.
Like Carr, my fascination has a personal aspect. Ever since I was an undergraduate student majoring in communication and minoring in philosophy at the University of Missouri, where I was introduced to culture and media criticism and the high intellectual tradition of the West (and also the East), I have been obsessed with understanding the personal effects of the technology and mass media cocoon into which I was born, and which has grown astonishingly more comprehensive and complex in just my lifetime, which hasn’t yet reached its 40th year. Most recently I have noticed that my entry into the Internet world, which occurred definitively in 1996, has produced a progressive change in my attention span and concentrative abilities exactly like the one Carr describes.
Lately I have been taking steps to remedy that. I have reduced my online time (although not my total computer usage time). I have deliberately sought out a few long works of fiction to read. Interestingly, my ability to read in long-form has been impacted almost exclusively in the realm of fiction. I am able to read nonfiction just fine. But I have noticed a growing impatience with long fictional works over the years that is attributable, when I reflect on it and trace it, to the very phenomenon Carr describes. Presently I’m pleased to report that I am in process of successfully rehabilitating myself.
Lest anybody think that these fears are new, I’ll give the last word to Bradbury himself. About a year ago (May 30, 2007), L.A. Weekly published a fine article about him titled “Ray Bradbury: Fahrenheit 451 Misinterpreted” that featured a present-day Bradbury arguing that his most famous novel is not really about censorship, as has long been received opinion by the general public and literary establishment, but is instead about the insidious and pernicious effects of television on society. Bradbury is convinced — and so am I — that present-day trends in television and American society confirm the book’s warning.
The author of the article wisely delved into Bradbury’s history and discovered a letter Bradbury wrote in 1951 to Richard Matheson that covered the same territory. The words of the then-thirty-something Bradbury about the effects of radio on people’s ability to think, concentrate, and read serve as a fascinating touchstone to Carr’s Atlantic article, written 57 years later, about the effects of the Internet on the same activities:
As early as 1951, Bradbury presaged his fears about TV, in a letter about the dangers of radio, written to fantasy and science-fiction writer Richard Matheson. Bradbury wrote that “Radio has contributed to our ‘growing lack of attention.’… This sort of hopscotching existence makes it almost impossible for people, myself included, to sit down and get into a novel again. We have become a short story reading people, or, worse than that, a QUICK reading people.”
If Bradbury was right then, and if Carr is right now, then we have been living through the intellectual fall of our civilization for more than half a century, and have been dressing it up and passing it off to ourselves en masse as a wonderful, liberating cultural advance. This bears much reflection and meditation — if, that is, we’re still able to do it.