January 28, 2023

The Age of Disposable Tissue and Words

credit: Micah Wright from Smashing Magazine's One hundred years of Propaganda

Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 was finally put on Kindle. Bradbury said he was a “library guy,” writing Fahrenheit 451 at the age of 26 in response to Hitler’s book burning, and censorship from the Soviet Union. Montag the fireman doesn’t put out fires. He starts the fires, ┬áburning books and people:

“It took some man a lifetime maybe to put some of his thoughts down, looking around at the world and life and then I come along in two minutes and boom: It’s all over…School is shortened, discipline relaxed, philosophy, history, language dropped, English and spelling gradually neglected, finally completed ignored. Life is immediate…Life becomes one big pratfall, Montag: everything bang, boff…For God’s sake, let me be!”

Dan Pallotta writes in his blog for the Harvard Business Review that he doesn’t understand anyone anymore. The internet business model has wrecked our language skills and ability to communicate. His criticism received hundreds of comments, mostly in support. One wiseguy noticed his bio as “Dan Pallotta is an expert in nonprofit sector innovation and a pioneering social entrepreneur” and commented that the bio could have been succinctly described as a doorknob to the Internet.

A young Ray Bradbury, sitting among the great books in a library, sees into the future and writes in Fahrenheit 451:

“‘People don’t talk about anything.’

‘Oh, they must.’

No, not anything. They name a lot of clothes or swimming pools mostly and say how swell: But they all say the same things and nobody says anything different from anyone else.'”

Everything has become abstract.

Maybe the Internet business model, rather than enabling freedom, is having the effect of burning our words and tissue. The Age of the Internet is turning into Bradbury’s Age of the Disposable Tissue. Google’s algorithms measure value of thought by the intellectual version of the disposable Bic razor. Books were once the fine china. Now it’s paper plates. Write what the algorithms and keywords tell you or burn with your lifetime of thoughts and observations.

A relative from West Virginia sent an email update and said he made a visit to an elderly relative in a nursing home. She must be near ninety or more in age. I don’t know. A can of Skoal chewing tobacco was on her bedside table. That little bit of information said more about her life story than every pioneering social media expert on the Internet could ever do. I would guess that she hasn’t lived an abstract life.

A character in Fahrenheit 451 tells how she loves to watch people. She wants to figure out “who they are and where they’re going.” There’s an old church in northern Michigan that I have been driving past for more than five years. The church is closed, rotting to the earth. A large sign on the door says “CLOSED” in case anyone failed to notice the first few clues in the sagging structure and peeling paint. The church looks like an old barn that’s collapsing in on itself. A sign near the door has the message “Sold out: Make me an offer.” The more I see that sign, and the church decaying, the more I want to find the owner and where he went. Did he sell out his dream, or his soul, maybe both, and become a whiskey priest? When he locked the decaying old church for the last time, did he shout out with passion, “For God’s sakes, let me be!” and drive into the cold, gray landscape, wishing an arsonist would come along and burn it? How big was his congregation? The church looks likes it can hold about a couple of dozen. It’s that small. I want to go in and look. I’m betting more than one of his congregation had some chewing tobacco in their pocket. I am guessing this whiskey priest in northern Michigan went in on Sundays muttering and cursing his rotten fate and knew the regulars would be sitting there, no more than five on a typical Sunday. Passing around and getting back the collection plate in silence- a John Deere hat from the tractor supply company. What he would get back wouldn’t buy five cans of Skoal Menthol. Sunday mornings come after Saturday nights and the church money was donated as bar money, explaining why the old bar with a cheap Budweiser sign in the window doesn’t have a “Sold out: Make me an offer” sign out front and why, just why, just a guess, we can find the whiskey priest on a bar stool alongside his two or three church regulars offering him some Skoal.

The “Sold out: Make me an offer” sign is a permanent stake in the land. Its words aren’t disposable. I ignored the sign for weeks. But the more I see it, the more I think. Unlike the Internet. I check Google Reader and see hundreds of posts from the Atlantic Monthly and others who are fighting the Google algorithms to maintain their ranking. I scan a few and delete everything else. My thoughts are with this whiskey priest in northern Michigan and his words of selling out burning in my imagination.


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