Book Review: Digital Barbarism by Mark Helprin

by on August 2, 2009 · 16 comments

Last month, Digital Barbarism book coverNational Review magazine published a review that I penned of Mark Helprin’s new book, Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto.  Helprin’s book is both a passionate defense of copyright law as well as a mini-autobiography.  Helprin is one of the great novelists and essayists of the past half-century, and his book A Soldier of a Great War is one of my all-time favorite novels.  I cannot in strong enough words encourage you to read that book; it is profoundly moving. (I almost named my son after the lead character in the book!)

Thus, I was quite excited when I learned that Helprin had penned a defense of copyright and I jumped at the chance to review it when the folks at National Review asked me to do so.  Alas, as you will see in my review, I was terribly disappointed.  I wish Helprin would have stuck with the very reasonable tone he adopted in this excellent podcast interview he did recently with John J. Miller of National Review Online. Unfortunately, he went a different direction in the book, as I make clear in my review:


National Review
July 20, 2009
“Man, Machine, and Copyright” a review of Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto, by Mark Helprin
by Adam Thierer

It would be difficult to think of anyone more ideally suited to pen a passionate defense of copyright law than novelist Mark Helprin.  Helprin has written several of the finest works of modern literature, including his masterpiece, A Soldier of the Great War, a narrative of transcendent beauty. In Digital Barbarism, Helprin sets out to use his formidable gift for the written word to repel the “cyber mob” that has attacked copyright law and called for its curtailment, or even abolition.

Unfortunately, while Helprin occasionally rises to great heights in his defense of copyright, he too often sinks to lamentable lows — by resorting to the same unbecoming rhetorical tactics used by the mob he seeks to condemn. Indeed, his book is filled with gratuitous vitriol and neo-Luddite ramblings about the Internet and Information Age that severely detract from his defense of copyright. This is a shame, because, in places, Digital Barbarism makes a fine case against those critics who wrongly view copyright as an impediment to the creation and diffusion of content. “The availability of information is not and will not be restrained by the copyright system any more than it is or will be restrained by the delivery systems that make it possible,” Helprin argues. Why, he asks, “must ‘content’ be free” when everything else — access to the Internet, digital devices, etc. — costs good money? He notes that the movement that advocates “free,” universal access to all copyrighted material in the name of “openness” and “the public good” would, ironically, “destroy the dream it advocates”:

By insistence upon unhindered access without regard for rights and incentives that have been carefully balanced over centuries, the hurried new order will diminish the substance over which it demands sovereignty. It will have its access, but, as time passes, to less and less, and eventually perhaps to almost nothing, the means having grossly overpowered the ends. The past may be brilliantly cataloged and made accessible as never before, but at the cost of making the culture of the present relatively barren. Though it may never be entirely extinguished, it can be made as eerily quiet as if without the beat of a single heart.

The power of Helprin’s defense of copyright is that it is grounded in both this sort of utilitarian rationale and a Lockean, natural-rights-based conception of man’s moral right to the fruit of his mental labor. But there are many thorny issues Helprin fails to address in setting forth his dual defense of copyright.

To begin with, things just aren’t as black-and-white as he makes them out to be. There’s a certain inherent messiness to “intellectual property,” at least when compared with tangible property. As an abstract concept, it’s easy enough to defend. In practice, however, it often proves exceedingly challenging to delimit and enforce, since intangible creations cannot be enclosed the same way our back yards can.

This does not mean, however, that the opposite approach — a collectivized “commons” for intellectual creations — is more sensible. That intangible property is harder to enclose and protect doesn’t mean the law shouldn’t seek to do so. “Copyright is important because it is one of the guarantors of the rights of authorship,” Helprin argues, “and the rights of authorship are important because without them the individual voice would be subsumed in an indistinguishable and instantly malleable mass.”

American copyright law has generally cast this right in utilitarian terms, ever since the Founders gave Congress the power under Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution “to promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” But how much “limited time” is enough time to incentivize creativity and invention? Under the first Copyright Act, enacted by Congress in 1790, the term of protection was just 14 years plus a right to renew for an additional 14 if the author was still alive.

There are many legitimately difficult questions about the enforceability of copyright in an age of ubiquitous digital connectivity and instantaneous information flows. I came to appreciate these challenges several years ago after transferring my entire 30-year CD collection to a portable music player that was smaller than a box of cards. How can copyright coexist with the giant copying machine represented by the combination of personal computers, digital devices, and the Internet? What sorts of restrictions on devices and networks are required to ensure that we continue to reward intellectual creativity without destroying the forms of technological innovation? How should copyright law define “fair use” in a culture that increasingly enables collaboration and encourages “remixing”? Will we need to create new “compulsory licensing” schemes — already in place for radio and television — to ensure that creators are compensated through mandatory fees embedded in digital devices or our monthly broadband bills?

These are challenging questions that deserve a fair hearing. But Helprin rarely bothers with these details because he’s too busy trading jabs with “the mob.” Unfortunately, his manifesto goes off the rails as his defense of copyright quickly morphs into an indictment of the Internet and all things digital.

At times, Helprin seems to be channeling the ghost of the late social critic Neil Postman, who, in his 1992 anti-technology screed, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology, heaped contempt upon the unfolding Information Age. Recently, Internet critics such as Lee Siegel (Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob) and Andrew Keen (The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet Is Killing Our Culture) have continued this tradition of deep techno-skepticism. With Digital Barbarism, Helprin joins this cause, arguing that we are witnessing “the decline of culture,” the “mechanization of the soul,” our “intellectual and spiritual destruction,” and the rise of a movement of “wacked-out muppets led by little professors in glasses” that “threatens in a decade or two to dissolve the accomplishments of millennia, reordering the ways in which we think, write, and communicate.”

And Helprin is just getting started. While he claims that he is “not decrying the digital revolution per se,” it often sounds that way. He speaks repeatedly about the “surrender” of human nature to “the machine revolution” and the corresponding need to “control the machine.”

Much of Helprin’s Internet ire seems to originate with the anonymous “blogging-ants” who have attacked his earlier essays in defense of copyright-term extension. Digital Barbarism becomes his chance for payback. “It would be one thing if [the digital] revolution produced Mozarts, Einsteins, or Raphaels,” Helprin says, “but it doesn’t. . . . It produces mouth-breathing morons in backward baseball caps and pants that fall down; Slurpee-sucking geeks who seldom seek daylight; pretentious and earnest hipsters who want you to wear bamboo socks so the world won’t end . . . beer-drinking dufuses who pay to watch noisy cars driving around in a circle for eight hours at a stretch,” and so on.

Unfortunately for Helprin, would-be rappers, basement-dwelling geeks, enviro-hippies, and NASCAR fans all predate the rise of the Internet, so one wonders if he has fingered the right culprit for civilization’s supposed decline. The fundamental problem with Digital Barbarism is that the cultural decay Helprin laments cannot be so easily tied to the battle over copyright. Indeed, most of what Helprin condemns in modern culture has come about during a time when copyright’s protections — at least as defined by law — have been expanded considerably in both length of term and breadth of coverage.

Moreover, he is simply too quick to proclaim the decline of modern civilization by looking only to the baser elements of the blogosphere. The Internet is a cultural and intellectual bazaar where one can find both the best and the worst of humanity on display at any given moment. True, “brutishness and barbarism” can be found on many cyber-corners, but not all of its corners. And, contrary to Helprin’s assertion that blogging “begins the mad race to the bottom,” one could just as easily cite countless instances of the healthy, unprecedented conversations that blogs have enabled about a diverse array of topics. Finally, even if one concedes, for the sake of argument, that blogging produces more cultural trash than treasure, would greatly enhanced copyright protection really turn things around?

There are strong moral and utilitarian arguments for protecting copyright and, during his calmer moments, Helprin articulates some of them quite effectively. He is surely right that “theft is ugly,” and that far too many people (especially in academia) are turning a blind eye to the injustices of the widespread copyright infringement taking place online today. There’s a lot of good sense buried underneath the angry rhetoric of this book; it’s regrettable — and surprising — that someone of Mark Helprin’s literary prowess didn’t make a better effort to persuade his readers.


Additional Reading about Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto:

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