Portals to strange philosophies

Jaron Lanier writes in You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto against the utopian desire for achieving an abstract broader sort collective knowledge. Why? Because that knowledge would be fragmentary, and because it would denude the distinctive voices, perspectives, and spirit of the individual in favor of a bland “consensus” perspective, akin to the ways that the most alienating aspects of foreign cultures are reduced or destroyed by the empires that incorporate them:

An impenetrable tone deafness rules Silicon Valley when it comes to the idea of authorship. This was as clear as ever when John Updike and Kevin Kelly exchanged words on the question of authorship in 2006. Kevin suggested that it was not just a good thing, but a “moral imperative” that all the world’s books would soon become effectively “one book” once they were scanned, searchable, and remixable in the universal computational cloud.

The approach to digital culture I abhor would indeed turn all the world’s books into one book, just as Kevin suggested. … If the books in the cloud are accessed via user interfaces that encourage mashups of fragments that obscure the context and authorship of each fragment, there will be only one book. This is what happens today with a lot of content; often you don’t know where a quoted fragment from a news story came from, who wrote a comment, or who shot a video. A continuation of the present trend will make us like various medieval religious empires, or like North Korea, a society with a single book. …

The one collective book will absolutely not be the same thing as the library of books by individuals it is bankrupting. Some believe it will be better; others, including me, believe it will be disastrously worse. As the famous line goes from Inherit the Wind: “The Bible is a book … but it is not the only book.” …

One of the first printed books that wasn’t a bible was 1499’s Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, or “Poliphili’s Strife of Love in a Dream,” an illustrated, erotic, occult adventure through fantastic architectural settings. What is most interesting about this book, which looks and reads like a virtual reality fantasy, is that something fundamental about its approach to life—its intelligence, its worldview—is alien to the Church and the Bible.

It’s easy to imagine an alternate history in which everything that was printed on early presses went through the Church and was conceived as an extension of the Bible. “Strife of Love” might have existed in this alternate world, and might have been quite similar. But the “slight” modifications would have consisted of trimming the alien bits. The book would no longer have been as strange. And that tiny shift, even if it had been minuscule in terms of word count, would have been tragic.

This is what happened when elements of indigenous cultures were preserved but de-alienated by missionaries. We know a little about what Aztec or Inca music sounded like, for instance, but the bits that were trimmed to make the music fit into the European idea of church song were the most precious bits. The alien bits are where the flavor is found. They are the portals to strange philosophies. What a loss to not know how New World music would have sounded alien to us! Some melodies and rhythms survived, but the whole is lost.

I thought of Valya Balkanska’s “Izlel ye Delyo Haydutin” as an example of something strange-sounding to Western ears, but that is probably just a pale echo of whatever songs and sounds mankind offered up in the millennia before recorded histories.

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