I am writing this on lined A4 paper with a black ballpoint pen. I’m listening to the Henry Cow album, Unrest. Later I’ll type up what I’ve written onto a laptop and upload it to the internet. It will be where you are reading it now.
Back around the time Henry Cow were recording that album, I remember reading Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. It was the thinnest of the crop of dystopian books the twentieth century was famous for. It envisaged a world in which the job of a fireman (and the firefighters in the book are men) was to burn books, not put out fires. Having no books, and no real sense of history, characters in the novel believe this had always been the way. A few brave, dissident souls took it upon themselves to commit works of literature to memory.
Life could be in the process of imitating fiction. This might seem an odd thing to say: since the advent of the internet there have been numerous projects aimed at converting literature into digital form. It is a simple matter, too, to print out books: books which were once rare can be created on demand. Much the same applies to music: the range of music available to anyone who wants to listen to it is more eclectic than ever.
So what’s the problem? It is this: solid artifacts are exactly that. Books and recorded music that are uploaded to the internet are merely information. I often hear people comment on how this change affects photography. Photos these days tend to be computer files rather than solid objects. People take and share more photos than ever but they remain ephemeral, unprinted. Where are the photos of today’s older children taken when they were small? It may be that, in a digital world, as in the world of Ray Bradbury’s novel, people live in the present, with only a vague grasp of the past. History, where it is preserved, becomes an unreliable mash of data. As I’ve said elsewhere on this blog, the internet would have been a gift to the pigs in Animal Farm. No need to creep out in the night to change the principles of animalism. Simply edit the farm website. Living in the present, for an individual, is often good for one’s wellbeing. For a society, it spells disaster.
Like it or not, the world has handed over much of its literature, images and music to the internet or, more specifically, to the corporations that run it. There is a wonderful aspect to this: the knowledge and creativity of the world is easily accessible via a communal, global exocortex or“brain extension”. It may be that we are living through a period of burgeoning free expression not unlike the 1960s. It may not be obvious, as a life lived online is a quiet life. It may only be obvious in retrospect, when it’s over. Then, when those who remember look back, they might do so with the same cynicism people apply to the 1960s: yes it appeared to be a time of freedom but it was always about commercialism. The 1960s was as much about entrepreneurs as it was about free spirits.
To return to Ray Bradbury. There are no book-burning firemen today (or are there?) but there doesn’t need to be. Whole folders of digitised books can be deleted by the twitch of a finger on a mousepad. For now, I can still listen to Henry Cow’s excellent album. I can access a whole diversity of literature, ideas and music simply by searching the internet for it.
A time might come -and it may not be far off- when the corporations which host this rich diversity simply decide to stop doing so. It’s the way things are going. Everything but the most commercially viable internet content could simply cease to exist or, more likely (they need our participation to harvest our data, after all) be consigned to a digital slow lane that consigns it to obscurity. In the meantime, the mainstream of the internet will be reduced to the bland, beige uniformity of commercial FM radio.
At least I don’t have to commit books to memory. All I need to do is not throw them away. And I think I better keep listening to Henry Cow while I still can…