Digital Barbarism

The seesaw of Mark Helprin’s title and subtitle, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto has a colon as fulcrum, the title encapsulating what he sees as the nature and tone of the age, the subtitle embodying his reaction and resistance. For Helprin, the weightier becomes the digital zeitgeist of immediacy, collaborative endeavor, and reliance on the image, the more necessary become the humanistic qualities of leisurely organic growth, individual effort, and memory, especially memory of words. All these qualities are to be based on knowledge of and respect for the slowly accumulating achievements of the human past, and all, according to the author, are kicking hopelessly in the air in this cultural moment.

Helprin begins with two illustrative vignettes, the first imagining the life of a Californian of 2028, the “director of a small firm that supplies algorithms for the detection of damage in and the restoration of molecular memories in organic computation.” This man’s work is performed exclusively through the management of data links. Outside work, his relationship with his wife is temporarily fraught: during their last amatory encounter he had imposed upon her body in virtual sex not the appearance of a porn star but that of a former girlfriend. He jets out to see her in Alaska, where she is now on vacation, taking with him a “slim leather-bound portfolio” by means of which he can access everything ever printed or logged, including a remark about Descartes he half-remembers having made and wants to use again. This man’s life, although exciting and physically easy, is frenetic, sometimes alarmingly so. There can, however, be no going back to the days of his father and grandfather. It would be career suicide not to be on the technological cutting edge, and it would also be personally desolating, so hooked is he on the constant buzz of his technological existence.

Counterposed to this picture is one of an English politician of 1908, on vacation by Lake Como. A letter from the prime minister will take eight days to reach him and an hour and three-quarters to answer, including the making of a fair copy. This answer will incorporate an observation about Descartes the politician had once made that at first he could not recall. He was able to remember it, though, because his education trained him to remember words not only in his own language but also in Latin, Greek, French, and German. The politician’s experience of making love (as it can justly be called in this case) to his wife must wait some hours after the sight of her that first arouses his desire. For Helprin, the life of the past Englishman is infinitely preferable to that of the imagined future Californian. The politician knows the meaning of patience and tranquillity. He can “savor” the world in which he lives.

The seed of Digital Barbarism was an article Helprin wrote for The New York Times about copyright, which he approves of and would like to see modestly extended. Helprin wonders why a man who creates a flour mill or a newspaper is able to will the fruit of his labors to his heirs, all due taxes having been paid, whereas a man whose life has been spent creating a number of copyrights is not able to do so, the fruit of his labors accruing to the government seventy years after his death. Despite the irresponsible title given the article by a New York Times editor, “A Great Idea Lives Forever: Shouldn’t Its Copyright?” Helprin says that he does not dissent from the words of the Constitution, that Congress has the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries” (“The italics are mine,” he notes, “the capitalization James Madison’s.”). He merely disagrees about how long the “limited times” should be and advocates slight extension of copyright on the grounds of inconsistency, there being, he claims, no essential difference between real property and intellectual property.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the seed of Helprin’s book was to be found in the reaction to his article, which clearly took him aback and hurt him: The online version was seen by three-quarters of a million readers, and elicited many comments, all critical and many vituperative (such as “Screw you, Helprin!”). Electronic communication, writes the author, is sheltered or even anonymous. Nobody takes a blogger to task in the way one may be taken to task in face-to-face altercation....

(The entire section is 1875 words.)