Two years ago, author Mark Helprin published an article advocating for perpetual copyright, which was received with much derision from Cyberspace communities around the world. Lessig even went as far as starting a wiki to allow readers to respond to it, and the result was a comprehensive thrashing of the ideas contained in the article.
Lesser beings would have taken such overwhelming negative response by cyber-communities meekly. Perhaps those many thousands of people expressing an opinion against the article were even a little bit justified in their criticisms? Not according to Mark Helprin, a man who seems unencumbered by the crippling shackles of self-doubt. If the internet responded negatively to Helprin’s wise words, then the internet must be wrong, and he set out to write a book to set the record straight called, wait for it, Digital Barbarianism. I have not read the book, and do not intend to until I can get a free copy, or find it in a library, but from early reviews, it seems like it is a humdinger. Lessig’s review is particularly scathing. However, to me the biggest indictment against Helprin’s book comes from the fact that it was eagerly awaited by Andrew Keen. If Keen calls you an intellectual giant, and tries to suggest that your book is part of a dying breed of written works, then you are really on the wrong side of history.
Several things bother me about what I have read about Digital Barbarianism. Obviously, the title is a non-too-subtle slight against digital culture, those of us engaged in online environments are the barbarians at the gates, and real creators and civilised people must stand up against the onslaught of the unwashed masses, upstarts, amateurs and misguided young kids. I have read several excerpts, and Helprin comes across as a grumpy old man who is not actually defending copyright, but attacking youth. Take this paragraph:
“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?”
I hate hanging trousers just as much as the next middle-aged guy, but come on, this paragraph presents a caricature of digital culture of mind-blowing proportions. Not all bloggers are beer-drinking teenagers, just like not all teenagers are dufuses. It seems like Helprin has this idea of his opponents as a horde of illiterate 15 year-old kids who cannot write in anything but text-speak. He seems completely unaware of the potential, and the realities, of the modern webscape. Helprin is guilty of not looking at the wealth of creativity that has been unleashed by digital technologies. It is not all one-liners and poorly written blogs. Besides, why do these technophobes always have to imply that the Web does not produce Mozarts or Raphaels? Mozart and Raphael were unique, and we have not produced their likes in centuries. Perhaps his criticisms are misplaced?
It is quite telling that Helprin wrote an accompanying advertising piece in the Wall Street Journal entitled Copyright Critics Rationalize Theft, with the byline “Writers, composers, designers and other content creators need to fight back”. This is one of those ideas that really drives me into a frothing rage. For the umpteenth time, the act of creation is not only performed by those with a book deal, or those who have managed to get their art displayed in a gallery. Creation is much richer and varied than what the likes of Helprin consider to be culture. This view is one of outdated models of top-down, elitist culture where only a few are considered to be blessed with the gifts of the gods and muses, while the rest of us are forever destined to be nothing but mere consumers of what is handed down to us. There is a revolution in creativity taking place, and the likes of Helprin seem to resent all of these upstarts making claims to producing cultural works. To them the army of amateurs is a bad thing, we should go back to this idealised past where only the few were able to partake in the act of creation. According to them, all of what the masses produces is trash, and must be treated accordingly. I beg to differ. Sure, 90% of the internet is crud, but as Theodore Sturgeon famously postulated, 90% of everything is crud.
I believe that Helprin is part of the wider rebellion from the old elite against new technologies and new business models. He writes:
“But copyright, the rampart of the mythical city, is besieged by a widespread movement antagonistic to authorial right and the legitimacy of intellectual property. So-called public interest groups serve the new information super powers, the Standard Oils of our age, whose interests would be advanced if they did not have to bother with permissions and payments for what they call “content.” The Creative Commons organization, for example, is richly financed by Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, Mozilla, Sun, the Hewlett Foundation, and others of type.”
We are being barraged with catapult shrapnel from the gates. The old models will not die out easily, and they are fighting back against the barbarians. As a proud member of the semi-literate barbarati, I call on my fellow plunderers to storm the gate and demonstrate that the tired models are crumbling. “Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more!”