Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism

Digital Barbarism, A Writer's Manifesto is a new book by American novelist Mark Helprin, that exuberantly and passionately defends the notion of copyright against the 'new barbarians' of the digital age.

The book arose from the extraordinarily negative reaction he received from his 2007 op-ed piece in the New York Times which proposed an extension of the term of copyright beyond the current 70 years after the death of the author. Within a week the article had received 750,000 angry comments. He was shocked by the 'breathtaking sense of entitlement' demonstrated by the commenters, and 'appalled by the breadth, speed, and illogic of their responses'.

Helprin writes beautifully and angrily, like a poet on heat. I found myself re-reading paragraphs over and over, savouring the rhythm and balance of the phrasing, and the frequently electric similes and metaphors.

Here's a few examples:

'The saving graces and the fragile institutions of humanity depend upon our humanity itself , which in turn depends absolutely on the discipline or rejection of certain appetites. We have many a resolution that separates us from the other animals, many a custom, practice, tradition, and taboo, and if we do away with these in the pursuit of power, the worship of reason, or the imitation of time-and-space-flouting divinity, we will become a portion for foxes'. (p.16)

'The entries in the bloggy-type wikis are often so quick, careless, and primitive that they are analogous to spitting on the street. Their authors write the way Popeye speaks, though with less polish. This is because there is no investment, risk, or accountability, and thus no matching labor or probity.' (p. 65).

'It would be one thing if such a [digital] revolution produced Mozarts, Einsteins, or Raphaels, but it doesn't. It produces mouth-breathing morons in backwards baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom see daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world won't end; women who have lizard tatoos winding from the navel to the nape of the neck; beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for eight hours at a stretch; and an entire race of females, now entering middle age, that speaks in North American Chipmunk and seldom makes a statement without, like, a question at the end?' (p.57).

That last quote, however, is telling. Helprin writes from the top of the mountain, distant from the realities and dynamics and sheer ordinariness of contemporary society. There is a strong whiff of elitism, and a palpable disdain for the cut-and-thrust of young lives lived in our technology-infused culture.

He has nothing to say, for instance, about the power of publishing and music conglomerates, and their copyright wars against innocent, innocuous and quite reasonable consumption. He vigorously defends their rights as owners, but stops well short of critiquing their frequently appalling behaviour.

Having no sympathy for the young or their technologies, Helprin's arguments in the end descend to eccentricity and quaintness, the mad rantings of an old notable whose comfortable world is long gone.

This is a pity, as the book is stimulating, immensely literate, highly enjoyable and well worth reading. One thing is for sure though: anybody under 30 won't touch it with a barge pole!

1 comment:

Copycense said...

We have published what we feel is a vigorous dissent to Helprin's views, based upon the editorials he has had published in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. We invite your readers to review it.