Keith Hart on Tue, 2 Apr 2002 03:36:27 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <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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