August 4, 2010
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The Temperance Pledge

When Judy Malloy asked me the Commencement Speech Question in our recent interview, she was likely expecting a few phrases and gentle reassurance. But this is not a time for gentle advice to people who want to make art, or for people who want to save the world.

We’re in big trouble. Millions of gallons of oil spill into the sea and onto the sands, and it’s old news. Millions of people are out of work, and it’s now becoming clear that many of these people will never have a real job again, and these are not injured or old or crazy ignorant unemployable people but good and hard-working folks whose work has vanished. Half the political elite, meanwhile, has gone nuts. Even the policy experts can’t keep up with the literature of their own specialty.

Everybody who thinks is behind in their reading. If you meet someone who can keep up, you have probably met someone who is no longer trying, someone who has decided that they don’t need to know because they know they’re right.

I think we ought to be working on new tools for reading and writing while we still have time to work. A lot of people who could do this work seem instead to have decided to interrogate the nature of language. The $47,870 directory added a new work this week. They're up to 154 works now. The new one is called Essay and it is written by JudsoN. It begins thus (for me; I believe it changes every time you read it):

The digital vector commodifies. Arts dissolve no non-smoking area, and sense insults! Beliefs engender experimentally. Is it not true that the labours metaphorically drown push, in turn, political agendas correspond to a virtual neo-foreground?

I don’t follow this. I can’t check secondary sources because the author’s pseudonym and the title are Google-resistant. I can’t ask the author, because I don’t know who wrote it. There might be meaning in the code, but I don’t see the code. There might be meaning in the generated source, but aside from it being pointlessly invalid HTML, I don't know what that point might be.

This retreat from meaning may inform our understanding of language and communication and identity, and perhaps this is indeed an exploration of "the construction of authority, the evolution of narrative space, linguistic integrity, and conceptualizing systems in general", as Springgun editor Mark Rockwsold writes. Maybe.

I might be missing the point and doing the author an injustice.

I think we might be better off if we occasionally meant what we said. That’s hard work, I know. From the interview:

Acquire whatever skills you need to create what you have in mind. Do not rely on vague ideas of collaboration or appropriation to supply what you currently lack. Be prepared to learn new things: computer programming, figure drawing, medieval Italian, narratology, or the intellectual life of Victorian parlor maids.

Master your computer, and know how to use your tools well. Look for new tools and techniques that can improve your work or open new creative opportunities. But don't let the dazzle of fresh software displace your own work; use new tools to make new things, not merely for the sake of using new software. Don't let the accident of having purchased a particular brand of computer limit your horizons; computers are not very expensive, and professionals frequently use two or three computers. Avoid the politics of Open Source or Web standards or DRM or Apple v. Google v. Microsoft. Capitalism is not your fault and these are not your battles. A writer who pledges to use only Open Source is the modern equivalent of the early 20th century writer who took the Temperance Pledge.

Wrapping yourself in the flag of Open Source Virtue ain’t gonna get you into heaven anymore.