Writing In Digital Clay

by Lizard lizard@mrlizard.com

In Sumer, which you'd know if you didn't go to a public school, writing was accomplished by pressing a stylus into a flat sheet of soft clay. When the work was done, the clay was baked and hardened, and the writing became permanent. While history makes no record, it can be presumed that Sumerian writers took advantage of the plasticity of their medium to erase errors during the writing process, leaving behind a single finished work. Until the baking process, writing was fluid....the work was shaped throughout creation, with ideas entered and discarded until it was just right.

Then came papyrus, and vellum, and paper, and this ability was lost. If you erred, you erred, and you had to start over or just smudge it. The medium carried the history of the message -- crossed out, blurred, blotted, every twitch and misstep recorded. To create a perfect copy, you had to begin anew.

And now...we once again write in clay, pressing styluses of electrons into sheets of magnets, a million times more plastic than the media of old. Our words exist floating in a fragile pattern of true and false suspended in potentiality. As I write this, this document does not yet exist. I have not yet saved it, much less printed it. In an instant, the power could fade, and these words would be lost forever. Or, contrarily, I could save it, and post it, and it will be copied and mirrored and archived and duplicated and become immortal. A single remaining copy, anywhere in the world, can become a million copies in the gigahertz beat of a silicon heart.

Or it could vanish without a trace. It has no existence as atoms, just as patterns of ephemeral energy. Permenance or nonexistence, no middle ground.

The other casualty, if you wish to call it that, of the digital clay merely continues a path begun by Gutenberg..the loss of the concept of the unique manuscript. Prior to the press, each copy of a book was unique -- different widths of line in each stroke, a mispelling in one copy that could be found in no other, etc. Post Gutenberg, there would be editions, but within each edition, all was identical -- a family of clones. There was still, though, a difference between the handwritten, or even typed, manuscript delivered to the printer and the bound edition delivered to the customer.

No more. When I complete my next opus regarding the trials and travails of transforming robots, the file I post will be the file I filled -- or at least an identical copy in an identical format. Should I lose my local copy, I can prevail upon my friends to provide me with their copies, and there is no meaningful way to distinguish theirs from the one I originally created. The original manuscript of a book is covered with the soul of the writer cast in ink;the final copy of an electronic work reveals only itself. The chaos of creation is gone.

Some would claim that this leads to a loss of individuality, that we live in a mass produced world of corporate-created identity. But such a claim is antonymic[1]. The lower the cost of creation, the more people can create. The more different creations there are, the more we can individuate ourselves by the differences in our collections of creations -- and, of course, by the things we create. When books were rare, most people had no books, or only one, and that one was almost always the Bible. Now, not only do we all have unique libraries of thousands of books, but even books such as the Bible exist in countless specialized editions. Likewise, the web has made everyone an author, pundit, critic, and sage, with the capacity to speak to the planet -- and to have the planet speak back.

Let me try this another way. Take a pile of pebbles. Each is unique and totally individual. Try to build something with them. The limits of the pebble becomes apparent -- all you can build, really, is a mound of pebbles. Each mound is, well, sort of unique, but not really. At the end, it's just a mound.

Now take Lego bricks. Identical, shaped, molded, each one the same as the one before it or the one after it -- but you can fit them together in far more ways than you can fit together pebbles. The sameness of the lower-level components produces more variety in the higher level constructions.

Chaos and order are a yin-yang mandelbrot set. Each envelopes the other in infinite recursive detail. The sameness of mass production (order) leads to much greater complexity of combinations of consumption (chaos), which leads to a more precise form of self-definition (order) leading to a more fragmented society (chaos) but the ease with which those fragments can respond to changing conditions and reshape themselves makes for a more stable society overall(order).

[1]As far as I can tell, I made this word up. Start using it. If enough people use a word, it becomes a word. Dictionaries do not define language, they merely document it.

Lizard publishes his writings on his Journal of Applied Misanthropy page at http://www.mrlizard.com.