[Various noises accumulating in what passes for my mind]
Reading an article about how best to save the older digital “versions” of whatever you’ve been working on, it suddenly came to me that the digital world has, in a sense, reinvented (or resurrected) something close to oral tradition.
Literature, after all, arose from oral tales that expanded and switched emphasis depending on the teller and the audience. It’s unlikely that Homer ever sang the Iliad in exactly the same form every Saturday evening, or that those who inherited the task for repeating his work didn’t slip in their own new tales, excise old ones, or forget a few dozen lines after their second bottle of retsina.
Once the oral tales were written down, they became, to one extent or another, frozen in place and time. Copyist errors crept in, of course, but usually minor (“What the hell’s an ‘amphora’? I’ll try ‘camphor holder.’ Damned Greeks.”) The printing press, though it too introduced typesetting errors, further solidified the tales. An author might release a few different editions during her or his lifetime, but at death, there lay the final Definitive Version, “what the author wanted.”
Digital publishing, by contrast, allows the author (or others, if sneaky) to change a story on the fly, if and when they choose. Versions can abound, be edited, emended, tossed about, caught, dropped, “corrected,” rejected with each iteration. It works too (moreso, actually) with music, something Bob Dylan exemplifies, reimagining his material each time he appears on stage (which can also be recorded on the spot). There is no Definitive Version of “Tangled up in Blue.”
* * *
Linda and I read the daily comic strips online, as we did every morning the paper. It felt weird at first, not thumbing through the floppy sheets of a print to get to the back pages. But now, by subscribing directly from the comics distributors, we get exactly the strips we want, without having to evert our eyes to skip over such egregious crap as “Tank McNamara.” Too many of our favorites are repeats of older strips whose authors have retired (“Calvin and Hobbes”) or died (“Cul de Sac”), but many of the continuing ones (“Overboard”) or more recent additions (“Brewster Rockit”) are equally excellent.
What has changed in the last year or so, since the slavering idiocy of the Frump years (I will not type that man’s name) and the age of climate collapse, has been a subtle creep of social and political commentary into strips that previously dealt only with pratfalls and universal human foibles. Covid, initially ignored by almost all the “funnies,” has quietly slipped into strips that once were constrained to the haw-haw minutia of home life.
Is this a good thing – a righteous admission of the spreading mire of current reality – or another indication that even the simplest joys in life are no longer quietly comfortable?
* * *
The constant upheavals about the side effects of specific drugs serves to erect important signposts, but what I don’t see noted is that the entire history of rampant pill-taking goes back no further 60-70 years. There have been herbal remedies since the dawn of time, and concocted elixirs for the last few centuries, but the assumption that we should all wake each morning to downing multiple concoctions of oddly shaped capsules and pastel chemical blobs is a true change in direction. So, even if we manage to comprehend the side effects of each and every drug on the market, we still won’t know the overall side effect of the embedded legal, medically supported, pill-popping regime.
Universal chemical-ingestion is as revolutionary a development as the social media, yet it has been accepted as right and inevitable without serious examination. Is it necessary to saving and extending life – and should saving and extending life be our major concern?
* * *
The failure, so far, of SETI to detect evidence of alien intelligence has left us scratching our collective heads: Why haven’t we heard from anybody else in the universe?
Here are a few possible reasons I can think of:
⁃ The intelligent others aren’t using the “broadcast” channels or mechanisms we in our limited wisdom expect them to. (Maybe instead they’re, say, blowing up used planets in a Morse-code-like sequence?)
⁃ We’re tuning in too early or too late for the time frame when these others are choose to broadcast. To me it seems unlikely that any one alien group would keep their broadcast up for centuries or millennia – and we’ve been listening for less than 60 years.
⁃ Different forms of life may think entirely differently from us – or not “think” in any way we can imagine.
⁃ We’re assuming that any intelligent lifeform will want to make contact with any other such – but what if they don’t? Maybe most are happy by their lonesome.
⁃ Something or someone interferes with or intercepts their broadcasts – a more advanced is civilization putting the clamps on all us cosmic upstarts.
⁃ And finally, the eternal religious explanation: God limited all of intelligent creation to the third planet of a second-rate sun on the edge of an undistinguished galaxy. Where we have now quite possibly fucked up our only chance of continuation.
* * *
What if life is an error?
I don’t mean my life or your life or even human life. What if the existence of self-developing, self-replicating beings is a monumentally ill side-effect of evolution?
Humans are mammals, mammals are animals, animals are a sub-set of living entities, and when you look at what life – all life – is up to, it ain’t pretty. Intelligent design? There’s neither intelligence nor design to any end beyond reproduction. We exist only to create others to keep existence going.
Would the universe likely be better off then it was just stars and inanimate rock? Hard to say… even stars and galaxies grow old and eat their young.
* * *
I woke the other morning (as too often) with a sense of panic, so I spent time thinking about the possible coming end of civilization. Then the panic just flipped over—if humanity’s going to crap out, what the hell do I have to worry about? My duties, my failures? Ha!
The absurdity of existence can be kind of cuddly.