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Digital Barbarism

A Writer’s ManifestoMark Helprin

I am all for your using machines, but do not let them use you.





1  The Acceleration of Tranquility

Civilization and Velocity

2  Death on a Red Horse

The First Targets of the Barbarians Are Copyright and the Individual Voice

3  Notes on Virginia

Reclaiming Jefferson and Taking Care of Macaulay

4  The Espresso Book Machine

Using Machines to Hold Machines in Check

5  Property as a Coefficient of Liberty

Property is Not Antithetical to Virtue

6  Convergence

Wait as Long as You Want, It Will Not Come

7  Parthian Shot

Calling Barbarism for What It Is


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About the Author

Other Books by Mark Helprin



About the Publisher



Even were this book to begin in medias res, which, as an essay-memoir, it does not, a reader might benefit from a brief guide to the terrain it covers. This is especially so because of the chapter titles, which until the chapter is read and despite their subtitles, are for the most part opaque. In a conventional policy book you will not likely find a chapter entitled “Death on a Red Horse,” or one, the last, called “Parthian Shot,” which refers to an archery maneuver the ancient Parthians accomplished while retiring at full speed on their horses.

But in this book you will. That it is partly a memoir is not least in service of a principle it espouses—that man need not model himself, the way he lives, and by derivation even his arguments, after machines. In its complexity, mystery, intelligence, and beauty, humanity is unexcelled as a masterwork of God and nature. Why then must its qualities be filtered from argument and cleansed from reason as if they were pollutants?

We believe our nature to be, in the literal sense, primitive, lacking in grace and precision, unedifying, something always to be conquered and overcome. But think of the most complex and extraordinary machines mankind has yet devised, take ten of them, and combine their virtues. This tenfold construction—in terms of exactitude, critical timing, coordination, variety, miniaturization, adaptability, calculation, sensory function, integration, and balletic precision down to the atomic level—is neither a billionth as complex nor a billionth as wondrous as the very least among us. The most afflicted, deformed, and unconscious are yet miraculous by virtue of the human nature that, in imitation of the machine, we mistakenly strive to exclude from our deliberations.

It is both strange and unnecessary that we do so, given that the strongest expositions and appeals in history have come from the likes of Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, Montaigne, Lincoln, et al., who made use in them of the astonishments, beauties, and even the imperfections of our mortal nature. Thus, memoir to illustrate argument, so as not to rank the works that we have made above the work that we are.

Necessitated by that, and by a life (my own) spent writing fiction, is an obliqueness uncommon in modern nonfiction, a trust that the reader can, according to Shakespeare’s exhortation, “by indirections find directions out.” In my view, a reader is not something that pops up in a game of Whack-a-Mole,™ repeatedly to be hit over the head. If you are not Ann Coulter (the love child of two cellophane noodles), or Al Franken (the love child of a bratwurst), you need not be compelled to write like them.

When I was younger I would sometimes write speeches for politicians—except in two cases when the agreement was broken, always from deep anonymity and always without any compensation except a chance to view the horrible workings of government up close in the short space of time between my entry and my dismissal. It was difficult, in fact impossible, to convince most politicians that substance and style, strengthening one another ineffably, are inextricable and organic. With no further addition, the substance of something that is beautifully conveyed magically increases; and something that is conveyed beautifully shines all the more if it is of great substance. Although one always knows when it is there, the superior conjunction of these two elements is invisible. Thus the attraction, other than its encouragement of civilized reticence, of the oblique. And thus its powers.

What follows is an affirmation of human nature versus that of the machine, via a defense of copyright, the rights of authorship, and the indispensability of the individual voice. Of late, these have come under sustained attack. A movement that, whatever its ideological origins, finds its most congenial home and support in the geek city states of Silicon Valley, has successfully channeled and combined the parochial interests both of giant corporations and legions of resentful adolescents who believe that they have a natural right to whatever they want. It is known informally as the “Creative Commons,” and the charitable mask it presents, selfless people contributing their work—software, music, writing—to the common weal, is merely the cover (not much bigger than a postage stamp) for a well organized effort to cut away at intellectual property rights until they disappear.

Its driving force, its Concord and Lexington, was the clash between youth who suddenly found that they could freely obtain all the music by which more than any other group they live, and the record industry, which attempted to stand athwart the flood of new technology and shout stop. The young people and their tools won, and the record industry has been transformed and diminished. In the face of a movement energized by victory in its first battle and enabled by technology that develops almost faster than anyone can assimilate it without altering his mental processes, intellectual property rights do not anymore enjoy the presumption either that they are justified or that they will endure.

That their decline or disappearance would benefit Google, large swaths of the academy, and “content sharers” is without question. But, as in a crowd looting a supermarket, or a junkie taking a hit, the surge of well being would be only temporary, with deprivation following

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