Three Years Late: A Lengthy Review of Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism, Part 1

I rarely read books soon after they are published. Mark Helprin's Digital Barbarism had been sitting on my shelf for at least two years, recommended to me by my mother, before I finally picked it up. Helprin's Winter's Tale was one of the most delicious novels I've ever encountered, mostly because his writing is simply beautiful; thus, I hoped for good things from this manifesto. I did indeed find it to be enlightening in some ways, but in others it disappointed me; I'll attempt to tease apart the facets of my reaction in a series of posts.

The Acceleration of Tranquility

Helprin begins by introducing us to two characters, one living in 2028 and the other in 1908, and asks you to consider which example draws your attraction, which life you would rather live.  This was all a little ironic because I'm also reading Kaku's Physics of the Future, which makes many of the same predictions for the future, but more on that at a later point.

I think that Helprin, knowingly or not, sets the reader up to like the second character and lifestyle with implications of infidelity with the first, among other things.  Setting aside the inherent bias of the setup, I still side with author in his favor for the second, slower life, which is unsurprising given my generally retrogrouch attitude.  He goes on to explore the benefits of each: medicine is an obvious example in favor of the 2028 life, the ease of achieving rest and contemplation for the second.

An aside: if these the ideas sound at least vaguely interesting to you, please read the first chapter of the actual book, which my summary cannot do justice.

His thesis, at least as I perceive it, is that the pace of life is speeding up beyond the pace that is healthy for man, but that we cannot simply throw out technology because it does too much good to be cast away.  To me, the most insightful paragraph of the entire book was his proposition on how to move forward, given knowledge of both ways of life:
Requisite, I believe, for correcting the first paradigm until it approximates the second, and bringing to the second (without jeopardizing it) the excitements and benefits of the first, are the discipline, values, and clarity of vision that tend to flourish as we grapple with necessity and austerity, and tend to disappear when by virtue of our ingenuity we float free of them.
Disciple, values, and clarity of thought.  It's really quite simple: values are the foundational ideas from which we form our lives.  Clarity of thought turn values into blueprints, or unambiguous plans. Disciple allows us to actually build our lives from those blueprints.

While the majority of Helprin's book covers other material, this was its profound point.  The questions this point leads to are: What should our values be?  And then, how do we learn to achieve clarity of thought and discipline?  Knowledge of their necessity helps, but like all virtues, acquiring them is like catching a fish with your bare hands.

Continue to Part 2

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