Against the virtual life

In the new Summer issue of the Claremont Review of Books (subscribe here), the master essayist Joseph Epstein reviews Mark Helprin’s Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto. “Ostensibly a book about copyright,” Epstein writes, the work is in fact “a diatribe, harangue, lecture, attack, onslaught, denunciation, polemic, broadside, fulmination, condemnation, no-holds barred, kick-butt censure of the current, let us call it the digital, age.” Helprin is wary of the impact of digital technology on modern life. In Epstein’s words:

Without gainsaying the rich new possibilities that digital technology has made available, Helprin makes the case that this same technology inculcates a frenetic habit of mind, quick on the trigger yet slow to appreciate subtlety and dazzlingly blind to beauty. “The character of the machine is that of speed, power, compression, instantaneousness, immense capacity, indifference, and automaticity,” he writes. The other side of this debased coin is that the machine does not understand tradition, appreciate stability, enjoy quality, but instead “[hungers] for denser floods of data” and fosters a mentality in which “images have gradually displaced words.”

Helprin wrote Digital Barbarism after his 2007 column in defense of copyright was met with 750,000 angry responses on the Web. Helprin’s column ran originally in the CRB here and subsequently in the New York Times here. When it provoked such a massively hostile reception, Helprin realized that “forces greater than the matter of the validity of copyright were at issue.” .
The enemies of copyright want all works to be in the public domain, easily accessible on the Internet. Helprin makes the case that “copyright is a form of property — intellectual property — and that sustaining it is important for stimulating individuality, originality, and creativity of a kind without which life will quickly lapse into a bland collectivity that will make us all much the poorer — and not merely in the economic realm.”
Helprin’s case against the impact of digital technology on modern life has precursors in literary history. I think, for example, of Joseph Wood Krutch’s 1929 book The Modern Temper. Krutch argued that because scientific thought had denied human nobility, tragedy had become obsolete. Krutch lamented that the form of tragedy was therefore lost to modern art.
Admiring Helprin’s performance, Epstein steps back to assess its validity: “When one allows for Helprin’s hyperbole, his ripping tirades, his penchant for amusing over-statement, and allows further for the possibility that he believes he is guilty of none of the foregoing, the truth quotient, it strikes me, remains damnably high.”

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