All this spring and summer, we'll be hovering over the 20th anniversary of the World Wide Web's breakthrough into mass popularity. This week presents another possible "birthday" date for the WWW craze: it was on April 30, 1993 that CERN announced its intention to fully share its homegrown HTML and HTTP standards and supporting software with the world as free open source. It seems likely that the exploding popularity of the Mosaic browser (which we discussed last month) helped push CERN to take this step. In fact, Unix developers already assumed that WWW software was free and open by this date anyway, so CERN's announcement wasn't really a revolutionary step, though it is a notable moment.
Because the enigmatic South African novelist J. M. Coetzee's first novel Dusklands is out of print, I always figured the book must have been a weak start to a great career.
Dusklands was published in 1974, years before Coetzee started hitting his powerful stride with The Life and Times of Michael K. and Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace and Elizabeth Costello. Since I couldn't buy the book in bookstores or order a new copy online, I satisfied myself at first by reading summaries of what Dusklands appeared to be: a divided narrative constructed of two invented "found manuscripts", the first an American military psychologist's report of propaganda efforts during the Vietnam War, the second an early Dutch South African explorer's report of a journey into the unknown regions of the continent.
Eventually, as I recently waited for Coetzee's new novel The Childhood of Jesus to be released in my country, I broke down and ordered a used copy of Dusklands online. It probably wouldn't be any great Coetzee, I figured, but I wouldn't mind a small minor work, a glimpse at the uncertain youthful voice of a later genius.
Oh. My. God. Did I have it wrong.
Now that I've read this tour de force, which may be the most bleak and upsetting book J. M. Coetzee has ever written, I am wondering if perhaps it is out of print for a completely different reason than I thought. Perhaps it's because the book's disturbing violence and sense of menace is too hard for readers to handle. Imagine a combination of Joseph Conrad and Harold Pinter -- with a lot more blood and torture. But this disturbing book appears also to be at least a small masterpiece. I remained gripped and compelled by the narrative for days after reading the final pages.
There have been big headlines this week about an Internet phenomenon called Bitcoin. Bitcoin is an open source peer-to-peer virtual money system, unsupported by any government or bank or underground vault stacked with gold bars. It works on the basis of simplicity and transparency, and is backed only by the fact of its own existence. The surprising news about Bitcoin is that people are using it and it works: the peer-to-peer system manages to provide complete transactions without any of the presumed requirements for a currency platform.
Bitcoin is an experiment, obviously, in applied economics, created by ambitious techies. The existence of an extra-governmental open source currency system suggests a new way to define our relationship with governments. In this sense, it's an extraordinarily exciting idea, and certainly an idea with a big future. Does the open communication of the Internet age offer us a new capability to rethink the role, shape and substance of money in our lives?
This is an appealing idea for an age in which economics often seems like an evil science, rife with hidden hazards, drenched in corruption, besotted by noisy and near-hysterical political debate. The clean simplicity of an alternative digital currency system seems to present the eventual possibility of a global financial system reboot. The idea should catch the attention of both conservative libertarians concerned with the power of central government and progressive liberals concerned with economic justice and corporate/Wall Street corruption -- and to anybody, really, who isn't happy with the questionable economic systems and practices (remember 2008, anyone?) that still define the status quo today.
The media coverage of Bitcoin, unfortunately, has been inane. As Bitcoin experiences its first blush of fame -- it is expanding greatly as we speak -- it is being confronted by a gigantic barrage of negative media coverage, based mainly on the fact that a few people seem to have made instant profits by trading on Bitcoin, while others have lost their investment or may lose it soon, and by the ridiculous fact that the Winkelvii are involved. As if any of this mattered.
By evaluating Bitcoin as a get-rich-quick scheme (which it was never meant to be), the media can dismiss the experiment with a laugh and avoid the responsibility to take it seriously. (This is a familiar pattern in the tech field, since this was how major media outlets treated the entire Internet/World Wide Web communications revolution during the first dot-com era: they hyped it as a get-rich-quick scheme, then damned it when it failed to deliver on those terms.)
I am ignoring the inane media coverage and following Bitcoin with great interest, because I have long wished for more public experimentation with alternative economic systems. Why is there so little public awareness of the possibility of alternative economics? We live in an era of (hopefully) positive change, but our culture freaks out at the very thought of changing the basic principles of our economic structure. Hell, we're suddenly managing to accept gay marriage, which is great -- and yet the topic of alternative economics is still absolutely taboo. Our thinking about money is stuck in the dark ages.
A few months ago, we discussed the disturbing suggestion that there could ever be a rulebook for drone warfare. Most of us are horrified by the fact that remote-control killer aircraft is now a "thing", and we should be.
But we should also be horrified by the thought of non-remote-controlled killer aircraft. A big news story broke in the United States of America last week when Rand Paul staged a filibuster in the Senate to ask whether or not a military drone could ever be used to kill an American citizen on American soil. This is a good question, but it makes no sense for Rand Paul to stop there, since there doesn't seem to be a big moral distinction between the use of a drone to kill an American citizen on American soil and the use of a drone to kill a non-American citizen on non-American soil. There also doesn't seem to be a big moral distinction between the use of a drone to kill any person on any soil and the use of a different weapon to do the same thing.
It's good that the scary new phenomenon of drone warfare is causing Americans to question the foundational principles of militarism, but this inquiry won't amount to much unless we are prepared to realize the obvious truth: militarism itself is the problem, and the entire institution of war should be the target of our protest. There are small glimmers of hope that the recent debate over drone warfare is leading a few smart thinkers to ask the bigger questions about militarism, even though many others who've heard about Paul's filibuster are missing the point.
I've been trying to develop a theory on this blog -- a theory that I'm finding difficult to explain because the basic idea is so obvious that it barely merits the lofty term 'theory'. And yet it must be a theory, because its implications are important, and stand in surprising contrast to the way we tend to think about global conflicts.
I'm talking about the idea, previously described here in blog posts titled What Militarism Does To Our Brains and The Trauma Theory, that the primary cause of current and future war on our planet is current and past war. War is a self-perpetuating phenomenon, a feedback monster.
The first time that I saw Andy Clausen read poetry was in the summer of 1980, at Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. Andy was scheduled to read one night as part of a three-person bill, along with Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen. I had expected that the youngest of the three poets, then 36 years old, would be the opening act, but Allen Ginsberg and Philip Whalen let Andy close the show, symbolically passing along a poetry torch. With his deep oratorical voice, and poetry filled with extraordinary energy, insight, humor, and imagination Andy gave a reading that night which left a lasting impression. The poem that I remember most from that evening was his long poem, “An Open Letter to the Russian People,” with its explorations of the historic hypocrisies and exploitations, sometimes fatal, of both the American and Soviet governments, and its visionary insistence that artists and working people of the U.S. and U.S.S.R. could one day figure out how to put an end to the physically and psychically damaging Cold War: “No more guilt American O Russian / The Freedom to choose Peace—/ Jesus! How badly our governments behave! / Brothers & Sisters / THE GENERAL STRIKE! / NOW!”
Andy Clausen was born in a Belgium bomb shelter in 1943, and moved to Oakland, California at age three, at the end of the Second World War. After graduating from high school, he became a Golden Gloves boxer and, for a brief time, joined the Marines, which he left in 1966 after watching Allen Ginsberg on TV read his anti-Vietnam War poem, "Wichita Vortex Sutra". The line from Allen's poem that caught Andy’s attention and changed the direction of his life was the simple but poignant, humanizing question: "Has anyone looked in the eyes of the dead?"
An epiphany (from the ancient Greek epiphaneia, "manifestation, striking appearance") is an experience of sudden and striking realization. Generally the term is used to describe breakthrough scientific, religious or philosophical discoveries, but it can apply in any situation in which an enlightening realization allows a problem or situation to be understood from a new and deeper perspective. Epiphanies are studied by psychologists and other scholars, particularly those attempting to study the process of innovation.
Epiphanies are relatively rare occurrences and generally follow a process of significant thought about a problem. -- Wikipedia
In the comments following last weekend's blog post about militarism, I mentioned that I believe we'll see world peace in our lifetimes. Yes, real world peace -- not perfect, but enduring. And soon. And, yes, on planet Earth.
Why would I believe such a thing? Well, I guess any person's degree of optimism or pessimism must be rooted in that person's life experience, and I have observed many examples of sudden positive change since I was born. Here's one example that may appear trivial in light of the horrors of war, but it does provide a real illustration of the kind of rapid, sweeping cultural change I'm talking about.
It's funny that some people think presidential elections don't matter. There's little doubt that many things will change quickly if Americans make the nihilistic choice to empower Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to lead our government in 2012. Every woman's right to privacy over her health decisions will be threatened. The gains made via Obamacare against corrupt health insurance practices will be reversed. A newly aggressive and muscle-bound foreign policy (think: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) will make an unwelcome return. In fact, so many changes would occur that we the people have barely even begun to discuss all the vital things that will change if we give these two out-of-touch plutocrats a mandate to run our government according to their ideas.
Let's talk about trains.
Nicholson Baker, one of my very favorite contemporary writers, has taken to singing the protest blues. Why not? This Slate article links to his new songs about Bradley Manning, Afghanistan and the ruinous construction of a new military base in Jeju Island, South Korea. Here's a short explanation of the project in the New Yorker.
Baker is not quite as good a songwriter or singer as he is a writer, but his pastoral and arboreal musical atmospherics are pleasant to listen to, and at their best his songs may show some Peter Gabriel or John Cale influence, or possibly John Denver. Keep singing it out, Nicholson Baker.
What a great idea! Words Without Borders, which usually devotes monthly issues to diverse nations, languages, cultural groups or themes, is tackling a slippery subject with its October issue: Oil, captured in the form of fiction, drama, graphic fiction and verse from various areas of the planet.