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The Internet as the Toy With a Tin Ear
Posted on Apr 23, 2012
By Lewis Lapham, Lapham's Quarterly
The Internet equips the fear of freedom with even more expansive and far-seeing means of surveillance than were available to Tomás de Torquemada or Joseph Goebbels, provides our own national security agencies with databanks that sift the email traffic for words earmarked as subversive, among them “collective bargaining,” “occupy,” and “rally.”
The hope and exercise of freedom relies, in 2012 as in 1939, on what Breytenbach understood as the keeping of “the word alive, or uncontaminated, or at least to allow it to have a meaning, to be a conduit of awareness.” The force and power of the words themselves, not their packaging or purchase price. Which is why when listening to New York publishers these days tell sad stories about the death of books in print, I don’t find myself moved to tears. They confuse the container with the thing contained, as did the fifteenth-century illuminati who saw in Gutenberg’s printing press the mark and presence of the Devil. Filippo de Strata, a Benedictine monk and a copier of manuscripts, deplored the triumph of wickedness:
The humanist scholars across Europe discerned the collapse of civilization, the apocalypse apparent to Niccolò Perotti, teacher of poetry and rhetoric at the University of Bologna, who was appalled by “a new kind of writing which was recently brought to us from Germany… Anyone is free to print whatever they wish… for the sake of entertainment, what would best be forgotten, or, better still, erased from all books.”
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The more relevant questions are political and epistemological. What counts as a claim to knowledge? How do we know what we think we know? Which inputs prop up even one of the seven pillars of wisdom? Without a human language holding a common store of human value, how do we compose a society governed by a human form of politics?
The History of the Ultimate Toy
Every age is an age of information, its worth and meaning always subject to change without much notice. Whether shaped as ideograph or mathematical equation, as gesture, encrypted code, or flower arrangement, the means of communication are as restless as the movement of the sea, as numberless as the expressions that drift across the surface of the human face.
The written word emerges from the spoken word, the radar screen from signal fires, compositions for full orchestra and choir from the tapping of a solitary drum. The various currencies of glyph and sign trade in concert and in competition with one another. Books will perhaps become more expensive and less often seen, but clearly they are not soon destined to vanish from the earth. Bowker’s Global Books in Print accounts for the publication of 316,480 new titles in 2010, up from 247,777 in 1998. In the United States in 2010, 751,729,000 books were sold, the revenue stream of $11.67 billion defying the trend of economic downturn and the voyaging into cyberspace. The book remains, and likely will remain, the primary store of human energy and hope.
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