Tucked away deep in the heart of McGill University’s student ghetto near the corner of Milton and Aylmer in downtown Montreal, is The Word, a secondhand bookstore of semi-legendary local stature. Blackwell’s in Oxford may be more impressive in scale and scope, but it has all the backing of one of the world’s finest universities. Housman’s Radical Bookshop near King’s Cross Station in London may have a more dramatic history, but it’s more of a political collective than a true bookstore. Nicholas Hoare here in Canada may have been a slicker operation, but like so many other independent bookstores it wasn’t, in the end, sustainable in this era of Indigo, Amazon, and Kindle. Yet for the moment, through all the fireworks of creative destruction, The Word continues to stock a truly mind-boggling array of used classic texts from the various canons of world literature for very reasonable prices. It is a book lover’s bookstore, understated, antiquarian, fusty and traditional. You can’t even pay with a credit card.
I can think of no more intrinsically revolutionary place in the world.
We live in an age of simulation. Electronics and computers have, by this point, succeeded in insinuating themselves into every single aspect of our lives, thereby transforming them completely. We don’t have to go to the library or the bookstore if we want to read a book. We can download it instantly from our desk. We don’t have to buy a record to hear music we love, or wait till a certain time of day to watch a TV show we’re engrossed in. We don’t have to go to bars or look through the classified ads of newspapers to find potential lovers. There’s a handy app for that. In fact, depending on your individual tastes, quirks and proclivities, there’s actually quite a few. Life can be, and for some people already is, conducted from bed.
And we celebrate it. The culture of convenience. The culture of comfort. Above all else, the culture of the new.
We fetishize technological advance to a degree that we’re unable to consider it rationally. We don’t stop to think about the implications of a new app, a new social network, a new website, a new gadget. We immediately assume that because it is newer, it must therefore be better. Like the adrenalin rush that seizes us when we finally get our hands on the latest Iphone, our overwhelming need for the fix clouds our rational senses. It’s the same kind of demented fixation that drug addicts experience when their minds zero in on their next hit. Nothing matters but acquisition. It wears off, sure. But there’s always another one coming along. This crazed compulsion to innovate, to rush headlong into the twenty-first century, doesn’t just seize individuals, it can seize whole institutions, even whole societies. It’s the impulse that drives an ancient school to throw out its meticulously collected library in two years, or a government to set fire to its paper records because everything is going digital now. The work and meticulous effort of centuries obliterated in minutes to satiate the ever-hungry idol of ‘progress.’
It’s the culture of waste, planned obsolescence and creative destruction that Aldous Huxley so presciently predicted in Brave New World. In his dystopia, where Henry Ford is worshipped as a prophet, waste isn’t just celebrated, it’s considered a quasi-religious duty. Children have forgotten the old sports that required nothing but a ball or a bat. They must play new, expensive games that demand mountains of disposable materiel each time they’re played. Even human aging has been outlawed. Artificially incubated humans are given sixty years of perpetual youth and pleasure, then die and are unceremoniously cremated for energy. Sex, drugs and unquestioning deference. Less brutal a world than Orwell’s, yet far more seductive and alluring. And in many ways closer to being realized today. A dead-souled world of pure pleasure, driven only by the technocratic will to control.
Our technocracy is head-quartered, for the most part, in Southern California. They don’t call themselves technocrats; they have much sexier buzzwords for themselves. But technocrat is the accurate term. Their discourse is private, and none of their decisions are regulated by any outside body. Some governments pretend to try, but 60-something bureaucrats are, and will forever be, hopelessly ill-equipped even to understand most of the companies and products they presume to ‘regulate.’ It is impossible to regulate something that you don’t even understand. And the technocrats of silicon-valley, fifty-somethings at the absolute outside, will always understand it better than the humanities-majors of the world’s governments. How could they? The language that these technologies are created with is fundamentally exclusive and elite. And it is so by design, not by accident. Hyper-specialized programming languages aside, it is impossible to read technical, or even non-technical documents from any of these firms unless one is a long-standing initiate in the Eleusinian mysteries of computer programming and web development. Thus, they are a law unto themselves. And the fountains of money they earn allow them to smooth over any other inconvenient bumps along the road to ‘progress.’
Us, the ordinary users, are mere data clusters, to be harvested for what we provide that is profitable while using the service that lures us in. Like flies into a pitcher plant, we don’t realize what’s being taken from us as we lick up the honey. Why would we? It’s ever so delicious and convenient.
And the inescapable, undeniable fact of our modern digital existence is that when we’re hunched over our laptops surveying our screens, in humble obeisance at a billion little altars all around the world, everything we do is quantifiable, and as such, easily measured, analyzed, and even predicted. The all-seeing algorithms are still a lot slower than we are at the moment, prone to amusing mistakes, but they’re closing in.
The best way to be free of them? Walk away.
It’s still possible. Though it may not be forever. As a good general rule of thumb, assume that if you’re doing it on a device that can be connected to the internet, then it isn’t private. But thankfully, most of the rest of human technology allows you to be.
Want to be sure the NSA doesn’t know what you’ve been reading or thinking? Read a book. Or buy a physical newspaper.
Want to support a musician you like so that he or she doesn’t have to moonlight as a barista anymore? Turn off the streaming service and go buy their vinyl record. And a turntable. Records can’t be wiped out in a computer crash, and turntables will only ever need electricity to play them.
Want to have a private conversation with a friend? Arrange to meet them in person. It’s hard to spy on two people on a park bench without being noticed. It’s incredibly easy to spy on a Facebook chat. Or a Skype call.
See how the branding has started to infiltrate our very language? It’s not that long until everything is trademarked. The hashtag will be ready in advance long before anyone bothers to dream up the thought.
This isn’t to say that computers aren’t useful, and that they don’t have a place in our future. If I was advocating that it would make me a luddite; a word that gets thrown around a lot these days by idiots as a sort of generalized slur aimed at people who even vaguely question our technocratic utopian future. The Luddites were a group of nineteenth century English religious fanatics who smashed up factories in the early decades of the industrial revolution to take a stand against the machines that were driving them out of work. It’s easy to sneer at their backward provinciality. But then you remember that many of their children would lose their limbs, eyes or lives to machines in those factories at ages like six or seven, and if you have a spark of a human soul, you learn to at least use the word with a bit of sympathy. They weren’t wrong. They just lost.
We’ll probably lose too. Humanity’s techno-dystopia probably isn’t stoppable. But we can disengage from it as individuals when and where we can. It’s easy to be a revolutionary in the digital age. Just don’t throw out your books just yet, and read them from time to time. If you really want to, buy a typewriter. That was the German secret service’s response to the NSA hacking revelations. If something really needs to be secret these days, put it on paper.
And maybe put a sticker over your laptop’s webcam. You already would have by now if you knew how easy it is to hack.