Keith Hart on Mon, 1 Apr 2002 22:33:13 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] <nettime> The social life of paper

Malcolm Gladwell's reviews are a treasure (, quite often,
as Felix says, better than the books themselves. My favourite is the one on
caffeine, with its stunning conclusion about Trotsky and the coffee houses
of Vienna.

I have in mind to write a novel, The New Don Quixote. In it the Don thinks
he lives in the future, when it is rather the present. He is at war against
survivals of a past that ought to be moribund. Like paper. It is worse than
that. Humanity is still in the grip of institutions designed by small urban
elites to ensure the longevity of agrarian civilizations: territorial
states, warfare, landed property, patrimonial bureaucracy, cities,
impersonal money, long-distance trade, work as an ideal, slavery, racism,
world religion and the family. The rise of the centralized state and the
office as dominant social forms since the late nineteenth century has been
responsible for a wholsesale rejection of the principles with which the
middle classes launched their original assault on the old regime. Now it
becomes possible again, with the aid of decentralised digital technologies,
to imagine a world beyond agrarian civilization. But institutions like the
IMF (the prime case used to establish the tenacity of paper) ensure that
world society today is more unequal than any agrarian civilization of the
last 5,000 years. The Don makes bonfires of paper in futile protest against
a past that refuses to die. Windmills of the mind.

The social form that sustains paper in a digital age is of course the
office. What would be the use of these piles if workers were itinerant? I
have tried to carry on a sort of academic life while moving frequently. The
first thing that goes is a printer, too heavy. I send documents I need
printed by email to the nearest computer with a printer. Then I had to
learn to prefer to read onscreen, since I couldn't carry all that junk. I
seem to have spent most of my life being told that my eyes will wear out if
I watch too much TV, spend too long in front of a computer screen. The pros
and cons of the comparison between electronic and paper versions go both
ways. I had to make the former work. You can tell that paper is political
because it is so closely tied to the award of favours -- jobs, grants and
the likes. Every petty organization has its own forms. Signatures are
required for reference letters, sent not just by fax (a retro machine if
ever), but in the post please (assuming that you have instant access to an
office system). It works against the mobile freelance worker and in favour
of a feudal job setup, with employees nailed to the ground in return for a
guarantee of subsistence.

Of course we are primitives, like the first digging stick operators of a
neolithic revolution whose consequences for society's future are
overshadowed by the exigency of present imperatives. We scratch away and
the academics and the journalists celebrate an eternal psychology of wage

Keith Hart

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