Agrippa and the End of the World/Word
Although the young are often quicker thinkers, the old are wiser. Wisdom comes not from knowledge, but from weighing knowledge. Ideas are compared, analyzed, evaluated, and synthesized. The challenge for the young is having enough ideas to compare in the first place. That takes time and comes with age. And reading.
This morning, I finished Emily St. John Mandel’s dystopian novel, Station Eleven. Without giving much away, a SARS-like epidemic wipes out 99 percent of the population and the survivors create new lives for themselves–lives without the benefit of the Internet but where memories and fragments of the written word become ever-more important.
It so happened I soon after was rooting around in my home office and came upon a stack of 3.5 computer disks. I write these words now on a laptop computer that not only lacks a slot to read 3.5 disks but also lacks the next generation's iteration, a CD-ROM drive. And yes, there is a stack of CD-ROMs on another shelf in my office. What forgotten information is stored there? Is it worth the expense of engaging a data archaeologist to convert all the files to a USB drive? Will USB drives be extinct by the time I get around to reviewing the data?
Books, in contrast, endure. On my own shelves, I have a dozen or so that were published in the 1800s, some containing information that was written a century or several centuries earlier. Dystopian fiction often looks at a future in which even these books are lost and ideas and wisdom with them.
But the disks remind me of another publication, Agrippa (A Book of The Dead), a copy of which I saw in a glass case at the Royal Victoria and Albert Museum in London. It’s not a book in the traditional sense but rather a poem on 3.5 disk by science fiction author William Gibson with etchings in an accompanying book/disk holder by Dennis Ashbaugh.
Published in 1992, Agrippa is intended for a single reading. Sold in a limited edition, the book’s illustrations were engineered to eventually fade with exposure to light. The poem was similarly notorious because opening the file to read it set off an encryption code that made the poem unreadable once that first reading was finished … it was a kind of self-destructing book. It was years before the encryption code was finally hacked and a copy made public. It begins:
before untying the bow
that bound this book together.
A black book:
Order Extra Leaves
By Letter and Name
A Kodak album of time-burned
black construction paper
The string he tied
Has been unravelled by years
and the dry weather of trunks
Like a lady's shoestring from the First World War
Its metal ferrules eaten by oxygen
Until they resemble cigarette-ash
The poem continues for about 300 lines, a semi-autobiographical reflection on Gibson’s father and Gibson’s own life. The ideas are about memory and a public reading of the poem was meant to enter it into collective memory, with all its attendant imperfections and reinterpretations.
In some ways, Gibson and his publisher need not have gone through the trouble of encryption. Now the disks are rapidly becoming unreadable and eventually even data archaeologists are likely to have trouble recovering the fragile bits and bytes as the plastic upon which they are printed decays.
So what of all the digital information we now seem to hoard on our laptops and storage devices? Are the dystopias of the future likely to come quickly in the form of an alien invasion, a virus, a nuclear war? Or will they come slowly, as ebooks outnumber printed books, and data, over decades, is lost forever?
There will still be wisdom, but mostly the wisdom of experiences and memories, not the wisdom of the printed page.