JULY 31, 2021
SOMETIMES MY FRIEND James seems to know everything about everything. To quote novelist Georges Simenon’s fictional detective Commissioner Maigret, he “knows everything, a real gazette.” Most likely you too have run across at least one such person. Jeopardy!’s Alex Trebek made showcasing them his life’s work. Not every contestant was champion Ken Jennings, who holds the record for all-time game-show winnings. But even James or Jennings will not know everything about everything, which is why recurrent projects throughout history have attempted to render all knowledge readily accessible in one place — right from the archives to you, zap!
The notion of an archive is as old as written texts. Nineveh and Babylon had libraries. Ptolemy created the Library of Alexandria to contain all knowledge. Things went well until they didn’t. The Library’s grandeur gradually dwindled through periodic razing, religious interference, and lack of funds (sound familiar?), only to be reinstated, at least in name, in 2002. San Francisco’s Internet Archive is directly inspired by Ptolemy’s enterprise.
Peter B. Kaufman’s rigorous and eloquent new book, The New Enlightenment and the Fight to Free Knowledge, traces the history of this dream of open access to knowledge. It “begins with torture and ends with a vision of another violent civil war. There’s some gun violence, some beheadings, tanks rolling over people, something for everyone.” A recurring problem is the concentration of power. “Archive,” as Kaufman points out, derives from “rule” or “govern,” in the “archon,” the seat of power. Governance and trading require knowledge, so in that sense all economies have been information economies, with all the associated pitfalls. Thus, release of closely guarded information into the public commons is a source of mortal danger to those in power.
Kaufman’s “Monsterverse” is “the unbridled business interests in knowledge censorship and control.” Control of information has its place, but what is actually dangerous to know, and who decides? A blueprint for an atomic bomb, perhaps, or a manual for a 3D-printed AR-15? To visualize a taxonomy of information control, ask Cicero’s question, Cui bono? Who stands to profit? Kaufman refers to a fascinating sequence of events that led citizens to cede ownership of broadcast media to corporations. The Silicon Valley notion that all information should be free led to the surveillance economy, trained AI in human behavior, and took bread out of the mouths of creatives. Yet John Gilmore (co-founder of Electronic Frontier Foundation and a contributor to the GNU Project, as was Kaufman) notes that “Free Software” actually means “software that comes with freedom — not software that has a price of 0.”
The New Enlightenment begins with an homage to 16th-century scholar William Tyndale. Owning, translating, printing, and distributing the Bible were forbidden in his day, and Tyndale vowed to break the stranglehold of Rome by translating the Bible into English and distributing it widely through the new invention of the printing press. By working from source languages, Tyndale corrected the meanings of key words. Exomologeo became “acknowledge” instead of “confess”; metanoeo became changing one’s mind instead of “penance” (typically involving the payment of money). Kaufman compares Tyndale’s efforts, for which he was imprisoned, strangled, and burned at the stake at the age of 42, with the threats and persecution that, in 2013, led hacktivist Aaron Swartz to suicide at the age of 26.
In 1710, the Statute of Queen Anne recognized authors’ rights by creating copyright laws. In the age of nearly instantaneous global dissemination of information, Kaufman proposes to address the “disruption” of copyright in the digital realm by revisiting worldwide copyright regulations and creating an international intellectual property standard and governance. Ownership and access, internationally, would fall into the public domain, enabling digital creators to thrive from their work; the internet would ultimately revert to the commons, the original purpose of trademarks, service marks, and copyright.
Kaufman cites Richard Stallman’s vision of the potential of the World Wide Web as the inspiration for his book. Stallman’s work included the 1999 free-as-in-freedom software operating system GNU, as well as a direct, attributed precursor to Wikipedia. Stallman’s inspiration, in turn, was Diderot’s Encyclopédie — which, with its 22 million words, 72,000 articles, and 18,000 pages, was the “manifesto of the enlightenment.” The Encyclopédie’s chapter on “Reason” reads: “No proposition can be accepted as divine revelation if it contradicts what is known to us, either by immediate intuition […] or by obvious deduction of reason […] It would be ridiculous to give preference to such revelation.” Its chapter on the slave trade states that the practice “violates all religion, morals, natural law, and human rights.”
Despite a history of caveats, the author maintains a positive attitude in The New Enlightenment, bless him. Meanwhile, the alternative future grows grimmer every day. An open-access, verifiable, digital knowledge base would potentially enable a major flowering of the human mind. Kaufman proposes a dynamic system, updatable and correctable as new facts are uncovered, a next-generation Wikipedia.
Footnotes and citations, Kaufman suggests, are key to enabling fact-checking. Anyone who has interacted with Wikipedia is aware of the wild inaccuracies that can crop up via its open-source policy. Citations and footnotes, as crucial as they are, are not fail-safe and do not necessarily guarantee factual accuracy, since they can perpetuate misconceptions.
Applying high verification standards to print is a daunting enterprise, but applying them to still and moving images is more complex yet. Kaufman states that Netflix alone constitutes 15 percent of internet traffic worldwide; by 2022, video streaming will make up 82 percent of global internet traffic. In the 1800s, my great-grandfather wrote a math primer for Kansas public schools, using images to teach arithmetic — apples, oranges. Edison thought moving images would be the ultimate educational tool, and today many get their education from YouTube. Kaufman envisions a new social contract for this new image-dense, networked world.
This would necessitate a green approach as well, as Jaron Lanier points out in his 2013 book, Who Owns the Future? Unless you have psychic powers, the information required for a market advantage is energy-demanding. All those devices, plugged into the wall. Live market statistics, blockchain, NFT — energy hogs, all.
Most people are disposed to learn via image, sound, and gesture, yet attribution becomes trickier as image rendering becomes more sophisticated. Picture streaming a holographic lexicon of James Joyce’s Ulysses or Vietnamese poetry, of Diné legends, of a B. B. King performance, of Buckminster Fuller’s riffs, of a live broadcast of a polymathic MC’s freestyling, of your mother explaining the birds and the bees. Footnotes and sources, please? Or attribution in cinematography or directorial choices in Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing or Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev or Akira Kurosawa’s Ran?
How much of who I am, of what I think and feel, originates with me, and how much is from elsewhere? Paul McCartney speaks of his weird experience composing “Yesterday,” as if he were remembering an old song when he was actually writing a new one. The tune and the lyrics tickled his inner ear as if they were a memory. The reverse is more typical, when you think you’re doing something new but it actually comes from a memory. Sometimes inventions are created simultaneously in different unconnected locations, a convergent evolution of ideas and memes. Whose dream are we dreaming?
While access to crucial databases is essential, it cannot be the case that “knowing everything,” even assuming that is possible, has anything to do with really understanding. Yet we aim to be “a real gazette” either by memorization or by constantly checking our mobile devices. How do you reserve enough attention to live your embodied life? Walking down a city street, taking a bus or subway, sitting in a meeting, most people are looking at their devices, checking inputs and information. As Fran Lebowitz says, “Pretend it’s a city, open your eyes.” I had a strange experience once at Jeu de Paume in Paris. I was the only one in a crowd viewing Monet’s Water Lilies directly through my own eyes. No one else had any hesitation about standing in front of me as they prioritized their digital devices. From Giverny’s pond to Monet’s visual cortex, thence to memory, to his hand, to the canvas (to your iPhone?), to you.
Understanding is holistic, synesthetic, body-based, a reality that has emerged in stark relief during the pandemic. Early engineers at the Jet Propulsion Lab and Silicon Valley programmers looked to access a greater scope of knowledge, to transform their understanding, by taking psychedelics; they saw this as a means to realize Timothy Leary’s motto, “Think for yourself and question authority,” which sounds like a pretty good motto for next-generation Wikis. Leary liked to quote the UN’s 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which Kaufman does as well: “Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”
The late Genesis P-Orridge’s installation at the Rubin Museum in New York concerns just that. Touching of Hands (2016), a life-sized bronze cast of the artist’s forearm and hand, was, in pre-COVID-19 days, meant to be touched, gripped, by the viewer/experiencer. Accompanying the sculpture is a quotation from Brion Gysin that true wisdom can only be passed on by the touching of hands. “The secret protects itself,” said the Sufis of their psychological system. To know, you had to already know. Important things in life need to be lived to be understood. Doing is the secret to making — whether you’re constructing a Stradivarius or becoming a chef or enacting a Hopi kachina ceremony.
Since understanding is, in its deepest nature, a readily accessible dynamic archive of experience itself, encoded in the body, we need a legacy to preserve it, since the Library of Alexandria that is our life experience dies with our bodies. Cultural knowledge dies with the language, with the memes of a culture. Genocide is efficient at eradicating whole living repositories of knowledge.
A reconstructed power structure that facilitated verifiable information would be not just revolutionary, but evolutionary. A comprehensive knowledge base coupled with access to meaningful experience would enable a sphere of collective human intelligence, called a “noosphere” by the biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky. Vernadsky’s 1924 paper was also the first to use the term “biosphere” to refer to an integrated system of life that blankets the earth and acts as a geologic force. Vernadsky and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin foresaw the noosphere as the critical next cultural step, after the biosphere and the accelerated proliferation of technologies, the “technosphere.” It’s impressive that, even after the horrors of World War I, Vernadsky thought that this vision could be accomplished. I wonder what he would have concluded had he lived through World War II and the nuclear age.
How to stop an unstoppable juggernaut of extinction? Against all well-referenced odds, Kaufman sustains a resolute optimism. He invokes the legendary cognitive dissonant John Perry Barlow, a prolific experience-generator. Barlow embodied Kaufman’s description of information: a life form always on the move. No container was large enough to hold him, no boundaries too daunting to cross, no far-out too distant. Barlow’s favorite portrait of himself was one in which he’s outfitted in black with black wings, the angel/devil Lord of Disorder, or the Lord of Information in Cyberspace. While bits of information are subject to the second law of thermodynamics, Kaufman’s vision of a dynamic database maintains the integrity of information; as it degrades, it is constantly revised and upgraded. Its wise maintenance staff and sanitation engineers will have the exalted vocation of ensuring that the imp of the perverse, namely entropy, doesn’t corrupt the world’s mightiest dynamic database.
Barlow was a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, though possibly his greatest anthem was the “Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace,” which defined a zeitgeist. The manifesto begins by addressing Kaufman’s Monsterverse:
Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather. […] [I]ncreasingly hostile and colonial measures place us in the same position as those previous lovers of freedom and self-determination who had to reject the authorities of distant, uninformed powers. […] We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before.
Kaufman’s passionate proposal, should the economic and political will to execute it be summoned, could help to build this new home of mind, a.k.a. the noosphere. Farfetched and utopian, says this skeptic, but the alternative stares us down every day, a tragically boring reductio ad nauseam of violence and lies.