I should perhaps begin by saying that I am as big a fan of the Net and the Web and the whole expanding "information universe" as anyone you are likely to meet. I find myself online all the time, mining for data, merrily skipping from one site to the next, passing the time of day after day (and night after night) in scattershot dalliances (sampling this and sampling that in a virtual delirium of free association), deploying my trove of finds in ever more elaborate collages of discovery (or is it recovery?) of my own. And yet... and yet...
As a professional storyteller, I suffer the occasional compunction, a tug of misgiving about the whole existence of that vast cloud of data, as we've all now taken to calling it—its character, its purpose, its implications. For starters, that very word. Should such an exponentially compounding explosion of data even be likened to anything so comforting as a fluffy lamb-white "cloud"? Isn't it more like a churning volcanic eruption, a great seething spewing-forth of material - an upwelling vision so mesmerizingly beautiful in itself, granted, that we can hardly take our eyes off it (that is, perhaps, till the heat blast comes and sweeps us away)?
My misgivings, though, are more than merely linguistic. There is as well, for example, the problem of the insubstantiality of that entire digital spew, its sheer desperate impermanence. Nothing in this world, of course, has ever been completely permanent; still, it seems that across the centuries the means by which we preserve our data have been becoming less and less so with each passing iteration. ("When it comes to permanence," as my friend Blaise Aguera y Arcas, the founding force behind the photo-stitching application Photosynth, is fond of saying, "the Rosetta Stone is the Rosetta Stone—and it's been all downhill since then.")
It's not just that hardware keeps getting replaced, such that yesterday's delivery devices are superannuated to the point where one no longer has equipment capable of decoding old cassettes, floppy discs, zip drives, or even those lovely vinyl records uselessly arrayed in the cupboard below your CD player (assuming, that is, that you still have a CD player). There's also the relentless "progress" of software. When the Y2K crisis was pending, there was barely anyone left who sufficiently understood how to program COBOL—old geezers had to be pulled from retirement to worry out code deposited just a few decades earlier. And don't even get me started about my WordPerfect files from less than 10 years ago.
Which, of course, is where the cloud comes in, or so its proponents assure us. No need to worry anymore about the grossly material question of equipment. The information will live on in multiple, continually upgraded domains. And the software? Why, that too will be continually upgraded. Only the data will remain consistent, an eternal form maintained within the roiling cloud.
And yet... Why should the cloud behave any differently than every other conceptual/technical breakthrough has so far? Consider, for example, the case of my friend Erin Hogan, who some years ago posted a marvelous piece about the paintings of Barnett Newman on a website called Artkrush. The other day, she wanted to refer back to the piece, so she went to the Artkrush site, but it had ceased to be. The original "draft" of her essay is on a hard drive from three computers back. The piece had migrated to a cloud of an altogether different order, and it lives (if at all) with the Choir Eternal. Can anyone doubt that similar sorts of problems will afflict anyone wanting to go back and review a favorite Kindle title five years from now? Who knows how long Amazon itself will continue to exist before it gets superceded by the next great killer-app store? Netscape, anyone?
But it's not just that—the transience, the temporal insubstantiality of it all. There's another kind of digital insubstantiality, an essential ghostliness to the digital data cloud, that nags at me as well.
Back when I was in college, in the early 1970s, I confronted an earlier version of this misgiving: the fallacy of the slide carousel. Our art history course had arrived at Mark Rothko, and as our professor rifled through a carousel of slides tracing the arc of the great Abstract Expressionist's entire trajectory, one could indeed see the colors in those paintings slowly congealing across the first half of Rothko's career into that signature vertical pile of four and three and then just two color-saturated diaphanous cloud-forms, hovering one atop the other, and how the colors continued transmuting over the decades, how they gradually grew darker and darker, starker and starker, finally arriving by the very end at that brooding black over a knife-edge white horizon: suicide. There, that was Rothko. Which was fine as far as it went, except that I couldn't help but think how if one had instead been confronted with the canvases themselves, one would have been forced to tend to them one at a time, and presently to one uniquely (there are days, on my museum walks, when I can hardly endure more than one, such is their commanding power). The canvases, as material objects, would have objected to such cavalier rifling.
(Some years later, I had occasion to meet another artist, Robert Irwin, who for the first several decades of his career forbade any photo documentation of his work at all, on the grounds that a photograph could capture everything the work was not about and nothing that it was—which is to say, it could approximate the image but never convey its presence.)
And this is a problem, a species of category confusion, that is exponentially aggravated on the Web. At least before each new lecture, someone had to hold the slides in his hands, awkwardly, momentarily fumblingly, so as to be able to reorder them into the carousel. Yet even that minimal trace of persistent objecthood is obviated on Google Images (notwithstanding all that service's other charms and conveniences).
In a similar vein, Adam Thompson, a digital designer, once commented on the way that "people who would never dream of shoplifting a CD from a music store give no thought to downloading entire albums" off the Web. Bracketing for a moment the question of the morality or lack thereof of such behavior (culture wants to be free, etc.), the thing I want to focus on here is that throwaway phrase "give no thought." Because it seems to me exactly right. The behavior is literally not worth a thought (data always tending toward the condition of weightlessness).
The opposite of such a posture toward the world would be one in which things mattered. As in: "What's the matter?" "Why does it matter?" "This stuff really matters to me." Matter as in mater (mother, the root as well of the word "material," and hence back to substantial, the opposite of insubstantial).
Another way of trying to get at what sometimes troubles me about this endlessly proliferating profusion of discrete bits of data is to compare the experience of encountering information, say, on the Web (still the most common and efficient portal into the cloud) with that of encountering it in books. For they provide two fundamentally different sorts of experiences. Books are centripetal, whereas the Web is centrifugal. Books draw you in, whereas Web pages hurl you forth and out (by way of all those irresistible links).
The Web, as we have seen, is immaterial (opening, as it now does, into a cloud). Books, in contrast, are not just substantialthey are substantial in a particular way: They have a spine, which in turn implies a pair of outstretched arms and an enfolding embrace, or at the very least a dance.
Books force you to enter into a kind of I-Thou relationship—approaching, as the poet Rilke once parsed matters, the "more human love" that "consists in the mutual guarding, bordering and saluting of two solitudes." The Web occasions a sort of frenzy of rebound, a swirling frottage with the many (albeit one that is almost solipsistically onanistic).
As a writer of articles and books, I go to great pains to pace my argument, choosing my words exactly and layering the progression of my argument, feathering in subtle rhymes and the like. And I don't appreciate it when somebody comes divebombing in from out of the cloud for a few choice phrases and, whiz-bang, is already gone. And nor should you, as a reader of articles and books, imagine that you are engaging anywhere near the full force of my or anyone else's argument when you come careering in and out like that.
And yet... and yet... Has there ever been a greater boon to a lover of books (and often the long out-of-print titles that are the very nectar of the passion) than the Web—AbeBooks and all the other used-bookstore cooperatives? As I say, when it comes to the utopian claims of digital data, I remain stoutly, adamantly of two minds.
Two minds whipped and countersawed by the increasingly frenzied passage of time. When I contemplate the great churning cloud, I'm reminded of a passage in Walter Benjamin's Illuminations, in which the sublime Weimar-era elegist takes to anatomizing a delicate drawing by his friend the artist Paul Klee of what he infers to be the Angel of History. "His face is turned towards the past," Benjamin surmises. "Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. ... He would like to pause for a moment... to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm."
That passage, in turn, has always reminded me of a story Hermine Wittgenstein tells in her memoir about a time when her brother, the great philosopher Ludwig, was preparing to give it all up to go teach elementary school in some backwater of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Couldn't he see, she demanded, what a waste such a bizarre resolve entailed? To which he shot back, "And you remind me of someone looking through a closed window unable to explain the strange movements of a passerby; unaware that a storm is raging outside and that the person is only with great effort keeping himself on his feet."
And you, fond reader, Thou to my I, how are you experiencing the traction nowadays? What, if any, purchase do you still have on solid ground?
Lawrence Weschler, director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at New York University, is the author of many books, including Everything That Rises: A Book of Convergences and, most recently, Uncanny Valley: Adventures in the Narrative.
A hammer is a tool and by itself it can build nothing.
A song written on a page, unsung, it just a piece of paper.
Sand on the beach is just grains of sand and if there are millions and billions grains of sand, they still are just grains of sand and by comparison could easily be bits of data stored in a computer.
Things and data have no value by themselves. It is the human invention and acknowledgment of things and how we humans interact with things and other humans, that bring meaning to life, to each other and to ourselves. It has always been and always will be about human relationships.
Lawrence Weschler has way too much encyclopedic knowledge. How can he deal with the real world of mental midgets? Doesn't he get fed up with knowing so much and having such a ridiculously ginormous vocabulary? At some point he's got to realize that life ends and all his extraneous knowledge will be wiped out when he's deceased. Just eat an ice cream cone and enjoy it. Stop overanalyzing everything. People think you're a freak.
Someone can just keep on jumping into clones, transfer their consciousness to another body, and live forever. How about transferring your mind into a robot? Maybe a Cylon or Transformer? By the time I'm in my old age, I'm sure we'll have some kind of crazy tech out there to do something like this.
Why do I want to live a very long time, maybe thousands of years? I'd like to explore the universe....and right now we don't have Star Trek type spaceships to do that, so I must live long enough for that technology to come. :P
The worst thing I see about information is there's too much and too little time to sort through it all and gather what I want (latest physic's experiments, aerospace technology...etc). Now cloud based is possibly just an easier step to controlling information and filtering it out there in cyberspace. Yet I find that if the people are knowledgeable enough about CISCO and Cloud-based programming in the future, we the people may have control of those e-books that hopefully won't get destroyed and forgotten followed by the paper-back copies in the physical world like Fahrenheit 451.
Cookiees453, I would rather have science discover youth-longevity and fill my veins with nano-swarms to keep me young and healthy, rather than transferring my mind into a clunky cast of metal. I see more of society in the far future (2045) merging with our technology than jumping into clones which may have a glitch and be considered unethical. If you were to inject bio-mechanical swarms, that were programmed to continuously maintain your DNA, it would technically be merging with technology discreetly.
Put that in me and send me to Sirius in a space pod that has a quantum computer so I can instantly transfer my consciousness back to earth into an android. That way every time I go to sleep on earth I wake up back in space. Truthfully if you all haven't noticed, I don't want to be another statistic and be buried into the ground like all of us have for millions of years. I want to fulfill my evolutionary destiny and take to the stars. Now that would be that ultimate happy ending for any book we should teach our future children.
" Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Albert Einstein
Weschler, as a writer, posits a binary world composed of books ... and everything else. There are innumerable acts of creation beyond written books. Most of these will never see the light of day, let alone audiences (or interactive co-creators or whatever) if not for distribution via the Web and the Net. (The cloud is just a temporary phenomena while data memory catches up. Its drawbacks are already obvious including an end to data security absolutely.) Books may or may not survive in their current form as a particular method for sharing information. Sharing creative acts is not dependent on the outcome. There are plenty of creative forms (including many that are not considered "art," but that are artistic ranging from doodles to spreadsheets to wings of planes to landscaping on a massive scale, and millions more) that will continue to tell stories and permit those who experience them to interiorize the experience or share it.
More realistic problems include ubiquity -- data that is inescapable, therefore altering our perception as we have it; and plentitude, just too much of the stuff and no way to know what's good or bad or worth even worrying about in this fashion or susceptible to change even if we knew what needed changing. It's not the Devil you know but the one you don't who will get you with his pitchfork every time. The challenge of our times is to anticipate the future and be prepared for it, a contradiction since the future is unknowable. Where data will take us, and get us, is still to be determined, no matter how many supercomputer cycles you have to spend on the issue.
You lived a thousand of years. You amassed great things all around you and knowledge. Then in the dark of the night, a face you cannot see, sneaks into your bedroom window and hides in the shadows of your bedroom. His deep dark eyes in the darkness glow with slits watching, waiting. A slight little glair comes from the blade in his hand.
You finish you dinner and head to you bedroom. You ready yourself for bed, lie down and turn off the light.
In the quiet of the night, a slice is made. Your thousand year life now enters a eternal sleep of forever.
Why did this happen? No one knows why death comes, but it comes for all eventually.
Now, what happens to all your acquired knowledge, what value of it exists? What of tomorrow? Your essence is gone, you knowledge is gone; you possess no more actions of life.
Do you want to be immortal I ask you? Then it will be your life choices and actions and how you affect others that lives on and continues! As you live life, it will be your actions in how you are judge for you time spent on earth. And it will be you actions that will echo through out time!
@Grunt, wouldn't 1000 years of knowledge have given you the wisdom to lock and bar your windows?
What if I were to say to you that in the future, banks stored your body, that way there is an assurance you're safe, while your android body you control walks the streets and is expendable.
However the flaw now is the ability to break into the bank and just simply explode every body that thought they were safe in a "stasis-like" state. In reality, immortality is a hurdle to achieve, and the only way to minimize death is isolation from entropy, which is an impossible feet. But imagine all the years of life you could have had. The galaxies you had visited, the alien life you made friends with.
So I ask, imagine an alien meets king Solomon, just makes friends with him and leaves. Nearly 4,000 years go by before the alien returns to find his friends world has changed, but the alien had also left they're body and found a way to become energy like a 2001: A Space Odyssey David Bowman. So what was the real death? Friendship? The aliens body left behind? A mortal who was not gifted with technology and responsibility as his other? Or is it the vale of time evolving?
I'm just throwing out there that in hopefully 10,000 years time, if I could live that long, I would hope to never stay in a physical form, I would like to transcend. Because how can a thief in the night kill an omnipotent being everywhere and nowhere?
" Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind." Albert Einstein
First dear, I have no desire to be ugly or gruesome. You not need to die soon or by a slice of knife. You may simply die by walking across the street to put a letter in your mail box and be run over by a chocolate milk truck. Well, if one must die, it may as well be smothered in chocolate.
We all die, eventually and I do believe you read that in my originally comment.
The point was what the value is after that.
Actions in life brings value ever lasting!
As I read on to your comments I feel you are gargling on chocolate and have pen in hand as you comment to me, in your dying words. Oh, I do hope you are not dying now. I do look forward to your commentary tomorrow. Enjoy the chocolate and sleep!
@Cookiees453 I have ZERO doubt we will be able to transfer the contents of the mind to a computer or clone in the near future, but you never brought up conciseness.
I have near ABSOLUTE doubt they will ever be able to transfer that conciseness.
considering we still have about ZERO idea what it truly is.
Imagine you could transfer you mind to a clone. okay. so instead of transferring you mind, what about copying it.
so would you share 1 conciseness??? would you have two separate conciseness? if you say yes to the first one then they would be different concisenesses, yes?
well then they were different, then if you simply transferred you mind, it would still be a conciseness right? there for a different person, and your former conciseness would be dead.
many people including my self belive that conciseness is FAR more than the contents of our mind.
look at Carl Younge and his theroy of the collective un-conciseness. Something I find much truth behind. in my mind there is no doubt that all things are connected through collective un-conciseness. thought is energy and matter is energy. scientist have no idea if this connectin is part of another diemines hinted in string theroy, or a new branch of phycics we have not even begun to touch upon. I think it will be a VERY long way until we can pass our conciseness onto a new body or PC.
but I share you diseare and have little hope in it.
they will have longevity treatments long before clones. no reason why our brain can live in on in a robotic body. or a body that has had its aging reversed.
“The Web occasions a sort of frenzy of rebound, a swirling frottage with the many (albeit one that is almost solipsistically onanistic).”