Apropos our ongoing conversation about conservatives and copyright, here’s James Panero in the new edition of the New Criterion with some broader perspective, writing about the Internet and its impact on the “culture of the copy.” He’s actually a lot more sanguine about it than many critics. But:
… [A] great challenge still exists in the way the Internet records and stores information. A published book is a fixed and polished record of a moment in time. The Internet always operates in the present. Aside from web portals like the “Wayback Machine,” which can provide historical snapshots of webpages, the Internet has no past. With “time stamps” and footnoted “corrections,” web culture has attempted to import the rules of fixed publication, but the Internet still treats all information the same. Any information on the Internet can be updated, changed, or erased at any moment. On the plus side, the mutable quality of Internet-based information has permitted the rise of great user-maintained databases such as Wikipedia. In this way the Internet mimics scribal culture more than print culture: New readers add new insights, and the information the Internet contains is forever evolving.
On the downside, Internet-based information is infinitely more fugitive than printed matter. In order to eliminate the information in a book, each copy must be rounded up and destroyed. For Internet-based information to go down, only the data hosts need be eliminated. Unlike letters sent in the mail, emails are often poorly archived, challenging our ability to preserve important correspondence. As more and more data enters what is known as the Internet cloud and no longer sits on personal storage devices, a centralized loss could be catastrophic.
The essay is well worth reading in full. He goes over the history of the proto-Internet, public and private, an account which really was given best to the gumshoe Sportello in Pynchon’s Inherent Vice; “a network of computers, Doc. all connected by phone lines. UCLA, Isla Vista, Stanford. Say there’s a file they have up there and you don’t, they’ll send it right along at fifty thousand characters per second.”
What really gets Panero going, though, is neither the rapturous possibilities of the web nor print nostalgia, but the fact that the New York Public Library wants to demolish seven floors of stacks and replace them with “social space and computer terminals.” A step in the wrong direction, he says, because the rise of digital libraries
… argues against new public space, as Internet-based research can be done from anyplace with a connection. As the culture of the copy shifts away from print media, the preservation and accessibility of printed artifacts becomes an even more vital and pressing concern, just as the rise of print culture did not make ancient manuscripts any less important.
But it’s hard to believe the existence of books is in doubt in the medium-term, at least enough to be a “vital and pressing concern.” Even if it were, the existence of the information contained there wouldn’t be. At bottom, his complaint seems largely aesthetic–libraries are supposed to be quiet places full of dusty stacks, people hard at work, and real books, all the more worthy of preservation the more people read on their Kindles. The library as a museum of antique knowledge distribution.
From the library’s standpoint, they have to determine whether their publicly-funded purpose is to curate knowledge, or to preserve the aesthetic experience of touching paper. Panero wants them to do both, but that seems like an extension of their mission.
Reading about the Internet in The New Criterion is a bit like reading Tom Wolfe on high-frequency trading, in that they both seem to share a vague horror at technological progress but don’t tell you exactly why. His thesis is that “the Internet, with its ability to duplicate and transmit information to an infinite number of destinations, will increasingly influence the culture of the copy.” I’m not really sure what that means, but it has a certain tautological quality. The statement seems to suggest that as people become more accustomed to the duplicative powers of the Internet it will become more and more engrained in our society. From whence we once received chain emails, we now get news, movies, and music, and have gotten used to it. (If this is Panero’s “culture of the copy” it’s a small step away from the common argument from copyright advocates that kids these days have no respect for authors and creators because they’re so used to getting things they feel entitled to for free.)
But that should have led to the far more thorny question of whether or not the Internet fundamentally complicates print-era ideas about authorship. He even hints at it:
The manuscript era belonged to the scribe—the one writing out the manuscripts. The print era belonged to the author, because a book could now be set just as the author intended. The printed book, in fact, distinguished finished and completed work from drafts and papers in a way that exclusively written technology could not.
As we saw with SOPA, there are those who would like to preserve the era of the author at massive cost to the integrity of the Internet and in opposition to unstoppable technological trends. But it certainly doesn’t seem like they’re winning. To whom does the Internet era belong, James?