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‘May Your BlackBerry Rot in Hell’

Digital Barbarism

By Mark Helprin
Harpercollins, 2009

In 2007, visionary American novelist (and sometime political hack) Mark Helprin wrote a quick piece in the New York Times calling for the observance and strengthening of copyright protections in the age of the Internet download. The piece garnered an enormous amount of response (mostly negative, from downloaders, and mostly either mean or incoherent or both), and Digital Barbarism is Helprin’s extended restatement and response. In the book, as in the article, he decries the unethical laziness of those who think all ‘content’ should be free. He crafts a multi-pronged argument to demonstrate two things: first, having the tools to take something you want doesn’t give you the right to do so, and second, doing so will always come back to bite you in the end (because inevitably somebody will have the tools to take something of yours).

As most readers will agree, Helprin has written incredible novels, such as Refiner’s Fire, A Soldier of the Great War, Freddie and Fredericka, and his Winter’s Tale is a sprawling, incandescent wonder of a book, a true sui generis masterpiece of 20th century literature. So it’s all the more ironic that in Digital Barbarism he’s written a book nobody would want to steal.

Some of us are at home on the hardscrabble courts of polemic. Alan Dershowitz, Gerald Posner, Christopher Hitchens … such writers have no trouble shifting from the quill pen to the megaphone, nor are they slow to abandon Marquess of Queensbury rules to further their cause. Helprin undoubtedly believes in his cause – his bafflement at the presumption of his pillaging digital barbarians has curdled to ire, and it flows freely:

The assault on copyright is … based on the infantile presumption that a feeling of justice and indignation gives one a right to the work, property, and time (those are very often significantly equivalent) of others, and that this, whether harbored at the ready or expressed in action, is noble and fair.

It is neither. It is, rather, a cowardly self-indulgence and a depredation of the public interest as much as it is destructive to the interest of the individual, for in truth these are in many respects one and the same: that is, the public interest is served when the rights of the individual come first rather than vice versa. When individual rights are pre-eminent, everyone is served. Whereas community can be only an idea, concept, construct, or fiction, the individual actually exists in flesh and blood. One can claim to love the collective or the community, but it is the sterile, sick love of one who can love nothing, or, rather, no one. Love that is not echoed in a human heart is apt to petrify into tyranny, and so often in history a devotion to the abstraction of man has been a blind for hideous oppression.

The problem with this one tirade, found early in Digital Barbarism and singled out almost at random from a vast company of similar tirades, is the central problem of the book as a whole: it’s a parade of some of the damn silliest nonsense any great writer has foisted on the reading public in quite some time. This is worse than Arthur Conan Doyle effusing about spiritualism, because Helprin is a better writer than Doyle ever was; no, this is like opening a book and finding Wallace Stegner blabbering on and on about UFOs.

Friable rants like this one almost defy point-by-point deconstruction. All of it is so weird and wrong-headed and teeteringly interconnected that picking at any one part of it threatens to bring the whole mess down on your head. What are we to make of all those half-assed echoes of La Rochfoucald, all that stuff about everybody’s best interests being served by selfishness? What can we infer from that stuff about communities not really existing, about love for any community or collective being sick and sterile? Didn’t you run into Helprin at the movies the other night? Doesn’t my niece play soccer with his kids? Doesn’t he have running tap water and push-button electricity and a vigilant, underpaid police force? No knocking individual interests and the pursuit thereof – this country was founded in part on just those kinds of interests – but when somebody starts equating love of community mutatis mutandis with suborning tyranny, it’s hard to listen to anything else he might have to say.

And Helprin has much, much more to say. Digital Barbarism is a fairly slim book (would that it were slimmer! Would that the 1000-word Times Op-Ed piece it should have been was abandoned for a book contract!), but it’s packed to the attic with yelling.

The issue here is property, which Helprin, in his best Founding Fathers mode, urges us to see as sacrosanct. Property is product, anything you work to create – which certainly includes words. Helprin confronts the world of the Internet we all know so well, and it horrifies him. In that world, seeing a picture you like is followed instantly, without thought, by saving that picture to your own computer; seeing mention of a movie or TV show is followed instantly by downloading. Music, videos, books – the Internet is an open bazaar, and almost none of the tables have tenders (or effective ones, anyway). The technology for interchangeably sharing these things has blossomed with time-lapse speed, and the technology for stealing these things (often the same technology, minus ethics) has come along for the ride. Torrent-sites offering entire seasons of pirated HBO shows or full-color new release comics wander over this digital landscape, setting up temporary caravansaries, supplying a few thousand discrete followers, then packing up their tents and moving on one step ahead of what passes for law on the Internet.

Helprin wants this all to stop. He urges us to recall that there is no product without people:

Property is to be defended proudly rather than disavowed with shame. Even if for some it is only a matter of luck or birth, for the vast majority it is the store of sacrifice, time, effort, and even, sometimes, love. It is, despite the privileged inexperience of some who do not understand, an all-too-accurate index of liberty and life. To trifle with it is to trifle with someone’s existence, and as anyone who tries will find out, this is not so easy. Nor has it ever been. Nor should it ever be.

But again, you can’t read even an innocent little paragraph of this book without encountering serious problems, like the fact that it is easy to trifle with someone’s existence (at least to the extent that trifling with their property counts), now more than ever, and that this very ease is what prompted Helprin to write his book in the first place. You get the strong impression that shopworn devices (tellingly, speechmaker devices) like that ‘nor has it ever been, full stop, nor should it ever be’ are doing more than their fair share of the work here, that they’re maybe there in place of work.

Helprin spends his book warning us that the End Times will claim us if we don’t restore our vigilance along the walls of What’s Mine Is Mine, but the heart of polemic is focus, and he so often loses his that you start to wonder if he ever had it in the first place. Odd tics and preoccupations, invisible at 1,000 words, become hideously magnified at book-length. One of them from the above excerpt – that key word ‘privileged’ – will crop up much more often, as we’ll see, but in the meantime, Helprin’s writing here displays all the typical weaknesses of tirade-lit. He’s too angry to check his own preconceived notions, and he certainly doesn’t expect you to check them:

As often happens with new technologies, digital technology being a rich example, its stewards become so intoxicated with the adventure they are living that they forget that mechanism must adjust to man rather than vice versa. Much of the alienation and failure of the electronic age is due to the fact that its enthusiasts lack education in the humanities, and, like Soviet planners, value the design they have come to worship over the people they claim to serve. They tend to overlook and ignore human needs and preferences, which seldom run parallel to the powers and tendencies of machines, because in their careless mania they have been easily educated out of them, never having been well educated in them.

© Jim Harrison

For my part, I don’t concede at all the “alienation and failure of the electronic age,” and I don’t know many intelligent people who would. I Skype friends in real-time who live on the other side of the world; I get very good advice from Craigslist discussion board members on a wide variety of questions, often in minutes, often from people who’ve read my question and are responding with genuine interest; I get and send dozens of emails every day, and if Helprin doesn’t do exactly the same thing, I’ll pour ketchup all over my copy of Digital Barbarism and eat it for lunch. And what’s that gripe about ‘the mechanism must adjust to man rather than vice versa’? Doesn’t that cross the border from ‘eccentric’ to ‘daft’? Has our author never run for an important phone call in another room (in the Dark Ages before cell phones)? Has he never waited for toast to pop up? When he goes to work, does he walk down the middle of the street, or does he adjust to the multi-ton machines that tend to use that space?

It’s not that he can’t be charismatic – even in as angry a book as this, Helprin can’t resist sprinkling the invective with lighter notes, as when he refers to his old college classmate Al Gore as “that sprightly lummox” (he assures is that since graduation nobody’s spoken to Gore, because “no one has been able to interrupt him”), but these moments are swamped by long, exasperated, exasperating quasi-sociological homilies that leave the reader gasping and tooth-gnashing. Brace yourself for an example:

For, contrary to modern educational theories, discipline fosters not subservience but independence, as independence requires great strength to uphold. The differences in the quality and depth of political discourse between earlier and the most recent presidents is due to many factors, but not least that the earlier citizenry was primed to deliberate rather than merely to react. It came prepared to receive intelligently something of the nature of Lincoln’s First Inaugural, or Washington’s Farewell. It expected virtually nothing on the instant, it took time, and it looked hard. That is not to say all Americans were models of dignity and concentration, but by and large they were quite different from what we are now. In the year of my father’s birth, the murder rate, absent any gun laws, was one-eighth of what the last few decades have taught us to accept as normal. Human nature was no different, but the forms of culture that channeled it and the means of understanding were. Rather than a massive comparison, suffice it to say that although today not everyone is like Paris Hilton, and in the nineteenth century not everyone was like Emily Dickinson, each of these is far more characteristic of her age than would be the other, and that this is self-evident along with all that it implies.

No advocacy is well-served by argument this sloppy. Almost nothing in that paragraph is true in any commonly accepted sense of the word. Simple warped dichotomies like “discipline fosters independence” might work well on the speaker’s platform, but in the real world they mock the countless millions who’ve had their lives crushed under totalitarian regimes (not to mention those who’ve had their spirits flattened by repressive school systems). Characterizing the early citizens of this country – or any country – as calmer, more deliberative souls turns a blind eye toward the mob violence that was far more common in Revolutionary days than in the present. We’re told that distant citizenry ‘took time and looked hard’ at things, but those people were no less prone to fads and manias than any other, and it serves no good purpose to say otherwise – except to make some tired anti-generational point about how way back in olden times, people paid attention and thought things through. What else can Helprin have in mind when he solemnly informs us that in his grandfather’s day, the murder rate was one-eighth what it is today? Statistics may bear the statement out, but they bear others out as well – like eight times the public lynchings in grandaddy’s day, or eight times (more like two hundred times, but we’ll let it go) the number of deaths from simple infections. There’s no correlation whatsoever between a rise in the murder rate and a rise in Internet piracy, and Helprin knows it. This is stump-speaking plain and simple.

But it’s that final point, that bizarre pairing of Paris Hilton and Emily Dickinson, that most neatly summarizes the polemical side of Digital Barbarism and its problems; sententiously claiming profundity by stating the obvious is an old mountebank’s trick – the bestseller lists today are full of ‘self-help’ gurus who’ve built their careers on it – but dammit, faithful and loving readers expect better from Helprin. Of course Paris Hilton is “more characteristic” of her age than Emily Dickinson would be, and vice versa – but the “all that it implies” defies explanation on any level beyond the “you know what I’m saying” slurrings of the drinking parlor. What does it imply, exactly? That neurasthenic young girls in the 19th century became immortal poets, whereas in the 20th century they become tabloid disgraces? And if that is the implication, could anything be dumber to maintain? I make no claims for the native intelligence of Paris Hilton, but if we time-traveled to 19th century Amherst and put a pile of money on the kitchen table and an army of TV cameras on the front lawn, I couldn’t vouch for Emily Dickinson either. And there’s another very real possibility that Helprin willfully ignores, which is that the Paris Hiltons and the Emily Dickinsons of the world are and always have been apples and oranges, and that drawing any kind of parallel between them is dirty pool. The popular fad among Hiltonesque debutantes in 19th century Boston was the wearing of entire taxidermied birds as hats, and I’m sure earnest young Dickinsonian poets are busily scribbling verses in Amherst as we speak.

If it seems like all this wanders far afield from the subject of digital piracy, it does: Helprin’s book does, often and at length. The purpose of his digressions seems dismayingly clear – I think he’s meaning to imply that in a better, earlier age, people would have had the character to refrain from such piracy (the fact that in most of those earlier ages, Americans of all types engaged in actual, over-the-bounding-main, avast-ye-scurvy-dogs piracy doesn’t seem to deter him). The argument, such as it is, goes something like this: these things online, these books and videos and articles and songs, are the product of somebody’s hard work, and they make their living off that hard work, and when did we become a nation so depraved that we would steal such products without a second thought? If our grandparents were presented with the technology to do such stealing, the argument goes, they’d have refused it uniformly. I get the impression that when Helprin is making this argument – and perhaps even when he’s thinking it – he’s envisioning granddaddy nicking fruit from a sidewalk stand and then running away, and he’s rightly thinking his sainted granddaddy would never have done such a thing. But the analogy is faulty, as are all the analogies in Digital Barbarism. In order to put the past to an accurate test, imagine this: that granddaddy and grandma, and all of their contemporaries, didn’t need to nick-and-run. Imagine that they only needed to snap their fingers to make, say, three or four pieces of fruit from that stand suddenly appear in their kitchen.

If Helprin really believes people in earlier times would have resisted such a temptation, he’s living in a fantasy world all by himself.

Helprin’s ethically feral cyberthieves notwithstanding, most of us would agree that systematic Internet pirating is deeply unethical. Of course copyright should be respected and protected, and yes, it must be frustrating beyond all measure for creative types like Helprin (or Metallica) to see a digital black market aswarm with free copies of their hard work. A century ago, the staid and contemplative American citizenry Helprin esteems so highly were busy gobbling up pirated editions of popular English and European best sellers, much to the chagrin of their authors (one of whom, fresh off the boat and perusing the goods in a Boston bookshop, exclaimed, “Good Heavens! I’m everywhere, and yet I’m poor!”). Writers, celebrities, and activists got active, and the international copyright Helprin champions came into being.

Digital piracy is more complex. The central problem is that the technology of digital representation is still comparatively young, and many of its most proficient pirates know that technology as well as its own pioneers do – indeed, the pirates are the pioneers, more often than not. Sites that merely host files – or fragments of files – claim they aren’t technically doing anything illegal, and their millions of customers are insulated from prosecution by their very numbers. Since money and reputations are directly involved, there’s no doubt that technology – and legislation – will narrow the gap; it’s impossible to conceive that in twenty years a book like Digital Barbarism won’t look stilted and alarmist, like the 1930s pamphlets issuing dire warnings that car travel in excess of 30 mph would prove fatal to the human body. As more and more creative content moves onto the Web, more and more creative people will turn their energies to tightening the net around their hard work, and an outraged jeremiad like Helprin’s will look antiquated and unnecessary.

Nor is it necessary now, at least not this book. Once those twenty years have elapsed, people won’t look back and say “Helprin led the charge” – mainly because Digital Barbarism is so confused and angry it scarcely knows its own mind (it’s a mark of Helprin’s native readability that the thing survives that Paris Hilton/Emily Dickinsion insanity – it might have sunk a more considered monograph). If readers do look back at this book at all (instead of kindly forgetting it), it’s possible they’ll mine it for entirely different things … autobiography, perhaps. Helprin would no doubt say this is a very personal book, meaning he takes the whole subject of Internet piracy personally. That may be, but there’s also a persistent note struck throughout the book that’s personal in a much less glamorous way.

At one point Helprin describes watching a group of young surfers pouring out of their expensive jeep, shouldering their expensive surfboards and running happily down to the waves. At the first mention of surfing, the reader can see where Helprin’s mind is going, but I didn’t put all those “expensive”s in his description – he did, and it starts to change the image a bit. He mentions, ostensibly offhand, that when he was young he – and others “not born to be rich” – never knew the world of surfing, never experienced that carefree life. The reader is involuntarily reminded of that earlier quote about the “privileged inexperience” of digital pirates (the ones who come by their inexperience as a “matter of birth”), the odd implication that there’s an element of class involved Internet theft. Those surfers clearly bother Helprin – they crop up over and over in Digital Barbarism, and not just because they’re living the central metaphor, skimming along the surface, effortlessly leeching off a great power they don’t understand and don’t want to understand. No, it’s also because they’re rich enough to enjoy doing it. Despite its ultra-modern subject matter, this book is exorcising some very old demons for its author:

Take the new way of making an appointment. Instead of, “Shall we have dinner on Monday?” “Okay, what about Sakura, one-thirty?” “Dinner at one-thirty? In the morning?” “I like to eat late.” “Okay, see you then,” which takes place in nine seconds and one phone call, the text-message approach would take at least four messages, each typed in even more time than required by the entire voice transaction, over a period of hours or days, “from my BlackBerry.” Excuse me? From your BlackBerry? I don’t think the purpose of this declaration is to explain the brevity of your message, as you could probably type War and Peace with one thumb tied behind your BMW. I think its purpose is an ad from BlackBerry to let me know that you have a BlackBerry. May your BlackBerry rot in hell.

This is decidedly awkward stuff, and there’s lots of it here. Helprin does nothing to throw any additional light on the vexed question of Internet piracy – if anything, his harping on the good old days lowers the wattage a bit. Those of us who’ve loved his novels can only hope he returns to them without delay.

Also: the book’s opening quote, the one pretentiously untranslated from the Hebrew? It contains a typo. Perhaps an online dictionary should have been consulted?

Esther Schell is a freelance writer working in the IT industry. She buys all of her music CDs in the local giant-chain music store, even though she could download all of them instantly for free. This is her first piece for Open Letters.

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