“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him”—Zen saying
I have finished reading another double-speaking panegyric to ‘progress’. It was by an extremely eloquent man of letters and some kind of esoteric spiritual adept, a guru of ambiguity—who shall remain nameless out of sheer contempt—trying to convince himself, and us, that as the new ‘reading’ technology gets ‘better and better,’ we will have to man up and accept the fact that books are going the way of horse-n’-buggy whip manufacturing. It was a long article and it took enough time to read to allow for waves of nausea to slowly well up and wash over me.
The formula is by now very familiar and reads like Self-Help therapy: first there is the long required lament over loss (libraries, books), then the wondrous breakthrough to acceptance and “letting goooooo…” Breathe out… relaaaax….
As I read lines like “what makes knowledge so precious is its precariousness, not the surety of our control over it,” and his suggestion that maybe without books we will become more “inward,” I find myself speaking sarcastic things to him within myself like, “You poor man…” and pitying the poor “students” who must pay 100k for four years of this kind of tripe all over the land, the kind which says we should be glad to go back to memory and oral tradition, to different kinds of acquisition of knowledge.
“The companies will have their way, of course; as the filmmaker Chris Marker once put it, I bow to the economic miracle.”
Expect no serious resistance-organizing from this man, despite some token bleats about respect for user-rights and improvements in the technology.
He waxes perversely eloquent:
“Picture a library, in flames, overlooking the city in ruins below—the Library of Alexandria under Caesar’s assault all over again. Books by the thousands audibly crinkle as they incinerate, disappearing for all time, never to be read again and, in a generation or two, never to be remembered. They are all irreplaceable; their loss is exactly incalculable. They are now good only to fuel the fire. As bystanders, we’re consumed by horror. We imagine ourselves as the books, the books as ourselves. Everything is lost with them. Right?
Or, on the other hand, might we instead laugh and cheer? It wouldn’t be the first time at a book-burning. Why not? Isn’t there also comedy—a divine comedy—in what freedom would follow the immolation of civilization’s material memory? We have only ourselves again, ourselves and our God. Perhaps these flames might go by the name of progress. I confess to feeling the allure of the burning library. Maybe we all do, a little…all ‘having’ remains no less a preparation for loss.”
Barf. Then he goes on to quote—as an educated man must to justify his pay or as a token of seriousness—William Blake:
￼”He who binds to himself a joy / Doth the winged life destroy. / He who kisses the joy as it flies / Lives in eternity’s sunrise.”
Double-barf. By now I am furious at his artful, fashionable and fatalistic Zen which says go, go, go with the flow; meaning, of course, accept, accept, accept what the powers are stealing, even if it is parts of our very selves. Despite acknowledging the Orwellian possibilities, it never seems to sufficiently faze this devotee of divine progress that it is not the ravings of a Luddite to deplore the loss of a sense of privacy and unwatched reflection that books, just yesterday, secured for us. I say ‘just yesterday’ because even today one can hardly buy a book without the powers and marketers knowing just what we are reading, i.e., if they want to know, thanks to the ubiquitous bar code which is swiped every time we want to so much as blow our noses. Tomorrow it will be practically impossible to read in complete privacy. Eyes are everywhere, watching or not. They can watch and know, which is the point.
￼Technology of this kind which is growing exponentially annually, the technocrats remind us, is supposedly inevitable, here to stay, and they spend gazillions attempting to convince us we cannot do without it, though even in my own youth I did quite well, thank you. An army of “intellectuals” is conscripted to sell us our invisible chains. Bill Joy said with palpable angst and dissonance that we must in the end accept such technology, and we are made to believe we need it; but, he reminds us, “the future does not need us”.
A book is such a simple idea, whatever its complex production and distribution from the beginning. But for me it is indistinguishable from the idea of solitude, and privacy. C.S. Lewis warned of a choice which is before us involving no less than “the abolition of man”. For, in addition to everything else, man is that being who prefers not to be watched, followed, tracked, marketed. But in the new total surveillance and commodity state, “You must come to love your servitude,” Aldous Huxley said.
How shall we get around that?
Google does not seem to have asked anyone’s permission to map the whole world, right down to our back yards, from spy satellites or what have you; nor did they ask permission to download every book in the world, even mine, the sons of bitches. Every street and home and book in the world. Nor do they intend to explain. They ‘own’ us, you see. And if students, scholars and thinkers do not overcome their relaxed fatalism and organize moral resistance, then we have done it to ourselves.
In sum: As long as Kindle-like devices remain only supplemental I will be grateful, but if the above scholar’s dream comes true, I am worried. Let’s hope it is, rather, an hallucination as we say Hell No and buy real books.