stop nostalgicizing print media
Farewell Encyclopaedia Britannica
(& Good Riddance You Worthless Piece of Shit):
stop nostalgicizing print media
accept the new model of human relationships
embrace the spidergoat
Many of my writer/reader friends have been lamenting the demise of the print Encyclopaedia Britannica. Though most of them proudly consider themselves liberal, their inclination toward nostalgia over progressive ideals baffles me. The end of the print era signals the greatest step forward for the world of literature and art since the printing press, and we should be embracing it. The end of the print encyclopedia in particular should be hailed as crucial by the people who truly care about the written word as well as those who care about progressive issues concerning the environment and social justice. Three primary reasons why electronic literature is better than print are that it  is better for the environment,  can remain constantly current and  allows greater access to all, ensuring the growth and spread of democratic and egalitarian principles. The first two reasons are so obvious I will not spend any time trying to explain them. The third arises from the fact that the encyclopedia is inherently classist, racist and sexist. Its bourgeois, Euro-/Western centric, patriarchal worldview has long served to indoctrinate literate students into the thinking processes of those who hold such views. The expensive and permanent nature of print has served this thinking process well; the almost completely free and fluid nature of digital publishing is changing this way of thinking.
But fuck that; let me tell you a story:
CYBERFRIENDS ARE PEOPLE TOO
When I was 16 I fell in love for the first time. Like many first love stories, it involved intense hormonal flourishes ending in heartbreak. The overwhelming ache of moments spent apart, driven away by the electric pulse of touch—flesh to flesh, tongue to tongue (muscle to muscle)—vibrations in the line of the eye, primordial contact and the human word. Rising action explodes at climax but no resolution until twenty five years later, other loves had come and gone, but that first was still with me, in my writing—in stories, poems and songs—a phantom of the past that shaped my many experiences, especially those involving women throughout my life. I had mythologized this 16-yr-old model of my adolescent lust/love—a memory and an imagined possibility—I was sure I’d seen a goddess go. Then, I received a Facebook friend request from this specter of my past, and she became a part of my life again, not in a physical presence but treading on the cyberground. This presence is not more real than the mythologized one, nor is it less real than the physical. The physical world, often referred to by us as the real, is just one manifestation of actual human experience. The imaginary worlds of myth and cyber are equally actual. The space of the mind, of the physical world and the cyber world are all actual spaces, in the same way imaginary numbers are actual numbers in mathematics—no less real than real numbers—and my current relationship with this woman is as actual as the two that preceded it. Those who argue that social networking friendships that take place only in the cyber realm are somehow less actual than those that take place in the physical realm are living in a mindspace of the past, when geography was the primary determining factor in the development of friendships. This past is being mythologized, as the past always is, to create an illusion that it was somehow better.
Books, a component of contemporary human experience equally important as friendship, are also benefiting from the rise of the new cyber world, and it’s time to leave the idea of the book as belonging only to the physical in the past. Like friendship, a new life for the book has arrived, one that is no less actual and no less vital, and that is eliminating the need for geography to determine its role in our lives. Anyone who is interested in evolution and progress should welcome this with exuberance, not whine about how great the past was. Childhood ends in the physical world and moves into one’s mindspace, where it belongs; the cyberspace of our current experience is where the future is taking hold, and writers must be at the forefront. Of course, many already are and have been for awhile, but other artists tend to be ahead in innovation—the visual artists leading the way, followed closely by the musicians and the performers. Why are writers always so far behind? It’s this allegiance to the past, the mythology—the mindspace experience that the physical experience of reading and writing conjures—an allegiance that must be dissolved.
When I was a kid we had a set of encyclopedias—I don’t remember which ones but definitely not Britannica—and I used them often, not just for school but for personal enrichment. It was not lost on me though that there was an inequality in the coverage these books offered. I’ll use continents as an example: not just in my household encyclopedias, but in reference and textbooks of all kinds, Europe receives more coverage than any other continent despite being fifth largest, usually with the Americas (the third and fourth largest) coming in next, followed by Asia (the largest) and Africa (second), always last. The first book I consciously remember noticing this in was a high school geography textbook. Since I have no memory of taking geography in high school, I’m assuming it was someone else’s, very likely my younger sister’s—I think I was concerned about what she was being taught and I decided to survey her textbooks (in the manner of James Loewen, though I would not read Lies My Teacher Told Me for at least another decade). This textbook dedicated more pages to European geography than Asian and African combined; this was a GEOGRAPHY book, for chrissake! There is only one reason Europe could be given more coverage in an educational text than the first and second largest continents: racism.
STATISTICAL BRACKETED PARAGRAPH (you can skip it)
[After writing the first draft of this piece, I realized I should review the print Encyclopaedia Britannica in order to support what I’m saying, so I dragged my ass down to the library and surveyed the most recent print edition available, dated 2005. I looked up Asia, Africa and Europe and was afraid, at first, that I would have to abandon my argument; the coverage for the first, second and fifth largest continents were as follows: Asia, 112 pages; Africa, 83 pages, Europe, 67 pages. Alas, I was wrong, or so I thought, and would have to admit some progress has been made. But being, like all human beings, unwilling to admit my mistake so quickly, I decided to extend my survey to not only the entries for the continents themselves, but also the entries following each continent entry expounding on some aspect of the continent. “Europe,” with its meager 67 pages, was immediately followed by the entries “European History and Culture” (137 pages), “History of European Overseas Expansion and Empire” (34 pages), and “Ancient European Religions” (39 pages). That’s a total of 177 pages covering Europe. “Asia” was followed by just one more Asian-themed article, “Asian Peoples and Culture” (37 pages), for a total of 149 pages, and “Africa” was followed by an article titled “African Arts” (46 pages); that’s a total of 129 pages—137 if you count an 8-page insert titled “African American Literature,” presumably inserted instead of being on pages that are part of the actual page count because it’s not really under the category of Africa, and it’s not considered, by the editors of Britannica at least, an American topic and so doesn’t belong with that entry either. So this brings the final page count to Europe 177, Asia 149, Africa 129/137.]
Of course, it’s not just page count that reflects a text’s viewpoint; look at the word choices. Choose any entry and ask yourself, if you never have, who wrote this and how does that person’s identity affect what is written? While students may be taught to read texts critically, it is seldom taught that they should approach an encyclopedia in this way; instead, these informational texts are presented as fact, objective and unbiased. We should know better. Don’t we know better? Is the myth of unbiased reportage so ingrained in us that we don’t question everything? For example, in this paragraph I ask the question “who wrote this and how does that person’s identity affect what is written?” in reference to a supposed text in which word choice reflects a biased opinion masquerading as an unbiased fact. If I am to have any credibility in this argument, I should now present examples to support this claim; however, even my examples would be suspect no matter how solid and well-researched my argument because my word choices reflect my bias, and any examples I choose would represent not all the facts, but a small sample which best reflects my thinking and supports my argument. All arguments are basically worthless in this way; facts are always well-chosen, and the encyclopedia contains carefully chosen facts. Of course, what is or isn’t a fact can also be a matter of bias. The word fact is derived from a word meaning ‘event’ or ‘occurrence’—something that has happened—but we know no two people will recount the same event in the same way. The word encyclopedia came into English as a mistranslation, through Latin scholars incorrectly interpreting Greek.
ANOTHER BRACKETED PARAGRAPH
[Here is where I should offer some sort of supporting evidence of word choice as representative of racist, sexist or classist rhetoric, but I’ll leave that to you, Dear Reader. Instead, I’d like to admit that, after going to the library to look through some actual print editions of the encyclopedia, I understand, to some extent, the power of nostalgia as an influencer of beliefs. I enjoyed the experience of looking through the books. Pulling a book off the shelf, shuffling through the pages to find what I was looking for, being distracted by other entries—this is my experience, the experience of my youth, and I will always love the book as object. But the purpose of object has to change now: the book as object can remain just as the vinyl record, or the film projector, but the substance of object is being transported to a new medium, and new generations will build their own nostalgia around it. As for me, what I remember most about my encyclopedias, which I used both as informational and plagiarism source when I was in school, are the pictures. These served another purpose, especially the picture of the painting Ariadne by Asher Brown Durand: this was in the 80s, and as a teenage boy, you got your T&A wherever you could then. There was no internet, and trying to make out shapes through squiggly lines on cable channels your parents weren’t going to pay for only took you so far, so a large part of my sexual growth involved a reclining Greek Goddess in the pages of a printed text, an experience any kid is unlikely to have in the digital age. But then, there are other goddesses beside the Greek, and they’ve been given new life in the cyber realm.]
DON’T FEAR THE SPIDERGOAT
More of the past: when I was 12, my friends and I decided to build a robot. We drew sketches, diagrams, figured out how to give him a voice—tape, à la 2XL, except with regular cassettes, of course, not 8-track—this was ’82, not the lame-ass 70s. We even figured out how to give him emotions, the essential component of differentiation between mere machines and the robots of SF that we loved—you know, R2 and 3PO, V.I.N.CENT and OLD B.O.B. We never got around to creating our robot, but twenty years later I saw a show on Discovery, or maybe the Science Channel—one of those—about real-life robots, and there was this one robot that gave museum tours to children that was programmed to have emotional reactions to human interactions. It couldn’t actually feel emotions, but it displayed emotional responses in its voice and its digital screenface. If the children were paying attention to it, it acted happy. If it was being ignored, it acted sad. I told a friend about this and his reaction was fear: “That’s scary,” he said. I don’t understand this thinking. This museum tour guide didn’t have real emotions, but it is a necessary step toward creating robots someday which actually will feel emotions, whose responses to interactions with humans will arise from processes similar to the chemical reactions which cause our responses. Why do some people fear this? These new life forms that we will create will be an integral part of our society—we love to watch movies and tv shows and read books about how they will turn against us and overthrow us becoming our masters. Good shit. But let’s stop confusing fiction with reality. Whenever new technology is created there are those who fear it (I suspect not a majority but a vocal minority) and believe it is a sign of our end. What these people are saying about the digital media today is no different than what was said about Gutenberg’s printing press seven centuries ago: This will be the end of literacy! What it actually was and is the end of is control of literacy—and therefore information—by only the elite few who have the means of access. The same must’ve been said of writing itself when it was first invented. The idea that Others would be able to access information—the lifeblood of the conscious mind—is a threat to those who already possess the access. When William Tyndale used the printing press to publish the first massmarketable English version of the New Testament, the Church confiscated as many copies as they could and burned them. They had warned him not to translate the most important book of Medieval society into English—they believed that it would lead to more people wanting to learn how to read. They were right, and they were so afraid of this possiblilty they burned the books and so pissed off at Tyndale that they threw him into the fire as well. The well-read men of the Church knew then what we all know now: those who can read can interpret what they read; if you can read for yourself, you can think for yourself. The printing press put this power into the hands of those who previously could not afford it. Of course, the printing press itself was still not available to most, and up until the 20th century control of print media has stayed in the hands of those who can afford it. Digital publishing and the internet has changed this.
And so have spidergoats.
When I mention this marvel of modern technology to people, the usual reaction is shock and fear. The belief that we should not be “playing God” by creating new lifeforms through genetic engineering is rooted in the same fears that give rise to book and people burning. (I imagine the same fears must’ve been present at the invention of the wheel: “We’ll get there too fast!” the slow might’ve said; the fast might’ve said, “Now the slow guys will be able to move just as fast as us!”) Those who nostalgiasize and romanticize the days when a spider was a spider and a goat was a goat are appalled at the thought of scientists splicing the genes of these two very different animals to create a hybrid that looks like a goat but can be milked for a web; this web can then be used to create the strongest fabrics yet invented—the possibilities are many, but the most fascinating and useful will be the creation of a bulletproof material, many times stronger than Kevlar but lighter, the benefits of which should be obvious to anyone who has a loved one fighting overseas. I have yet to hear an argument against this experiment that doesn’t use the Hollywood model of genetics as support. If Hollywood’s understanding of genetic engineering is your education in the subject, you need to read up on the actual field of genetic engineering. There are plenty of books and articles on the subject, and thanks to digital publishing they are more readily available to you than ever before. You can start with the online edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica; it has a pretty good article on the subject, but you will have to buy a subscription, and it has three contributors, which does ensure that it’s not just one person’s point of view, but it is only three people’s point of view.
While the online Britannica has made some progress toward a more balanced worldview, it is still a gateway to knowledge held by gatekeepers for the elite. Wikipedia is one solution to this problem. With a policy of access for everyone, it has the potential to become the single most important storehouse of information in the history of the human race, offering insight and knowledge on everything that is important to everyone, not what just matters to an elite few. It removes the need for us to rely on others to decide what facts are important and ensures that knowledge is universal, and equally valued. Wikipedia’s article on genetic engineering is also good, and it’s free. Plus, it has many contributors, which helps to decrease bias. And if you want, you can contribute too.
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more essays by Ed Go on the web:
"My Hypocrisy" [Poets on the Great Recession, Jan. 10, 2012]
"Why We Hate the Cops" [Ed Go's Blog, Oct. 28, 2011]
"Ed Go's brief commentary on the future of poetry" [Other Rooms, summer 2011]