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Not Negligible After All

In light of the big news images-1from LIGO about gravitational waves—published with the most wonderfully businesslike title, “Observation of Gravitational Waves from a Binary Black Hole Merger“— one can’t help but think of a remark of Feynman’s, recounted in Genius. He was giving a talk at a crowded conference, trying to emphasize the enormous (almost unimaginable) difference in strength between the gravitational and electromagnetic forces.

“Gravity is weak,” he said. “In fact, it’s damned weak.” (At that moment, somewhere in the back, a loudspeaker crashed to the floor.) “Weak—but not negligible.”

 

Can Libraries Make the Leap?

[First published in NYR Daily, October 26, 2015]

Of the many institutions suffering through the world’s metamorphosis from analog to digital (real to virtual, offline to online), few are as beleaguered as that bedrock of our culture, the public library. Budgets are being slashed by state and local governments. Even the best libraries are cutting staff and hours. Their information desks are seemingly superseded by Google, their encyclopedias are gathering dust. And their defining product, the one that lines their shelves, now arrives in the form of a weightless doppelgänger that doesn’t require shelves.

In the technocracy, all the world’s information comes to us on screens—desk, pocket, wrist, goggles—and no one trudges through wind and rain with library card in hand to find a single worn object. After all, when you want the text of Magna Carta, you don’t track down the original. Same with books? “Libraries are screwed,” said Eli Neiburger, a Michigan library director, in a much-quoted presentation at a Library Journal conference in 2010. “Libraries are screwed because we are invested in the codex, and the codex has become outmoded.”

Is the library as anachronistic as the record store, the telephone booth, and the Playboy centerfold? Perversely, the most popular service at some libraries has become free Internet access. People wait in line for terminals that will let them play solitaire and Minecraft, and librarians provide coffee. Other patrons stay in their cars outside just to use the Wi-Fi. No one can be happy with a situation that reduces the library to a Starbucks wannabe.

Perhaps worst of all: the “bookless library” is now a thing. You can look it up in Wikipedia.

I’m an optimist. I think the pessimists and the worriers—and this includes some librarians—are taking their eyes off the ball. The library has no future as yet another Internet node, but neither will it relax into retirement as an antiquarian warehouse. Until our digital souls depart our bodies for good and float away into the cloud, we retain part citizenship in the physical world, where we still need books, microfilm, diaries and letters, maps and manuscripts, and the experts who know how to find, organize, and share them.

In the midst of an information explosion, librarians are still the most versatile information specialists we have. And the purest. In his new book, BiblioTech, a wise and passionate manifesto, John Palfrey reminds us that the library is the last free space for the gathering and sharing of knowledge: “Our attention cannot be bought and sold in a library.” As a tradition barely a century and a half old in the United States, it gives physical form to the principle that public access to knowledge is the foundation of democracy.

The problem of libraries now—and it is a problem—involves some paradoxes, which need to be sorted out. For one thing, as Palfrey says, librarians will need to cherish their special talent as “stewards” while letting go of the instinct to be “collectors.” Knowledge in physical form needs to be handled carefully, preserved, and curated. But with digital information pouring into iPhones and Kindles in petabytes—via Twitter and Instagram and YouTube, not to mention Amazon’s self-publishing factories—libraries need to rethink old habits. They cannot collect everything, or even a small fraction of everything. “That model is already too hard to keep up,” Palfrey says. “A network of stewards can accomplish vastly more than a disconnected (even sometimes competitive) group of collectors ever can.”

The packrat instinct is hard to shed. Five years ago the Library of Congress began a project that collects every utterance on Twitter, in the name of preserving the nation’s digital heritage. That is billions weekly, sucked up for storage in secure tape archives, and the Library has yet to figure out how to make any of it available to researchers. Divorced from a human curator, the unfiltered mass of Twitter may as well be a garbage heap. Meanwhile, onward streams the continually vanishing conversation in Facebook and Snapchat and whatever next year’s channels will be, along with the email of the great and small, preserved haphazardly or not at all, to the presumed dismay of future historians. What’s an archivist to do?

There is no escaping the tension between real and virtual space, between the shelf and the cloud. “Librarians well know that the discovery of information is moving out of physical locations and into distributed spaces”—i.e. screens everywhere—says Palfrey, and this is an understatement. He recalls an afternoon in his town library in Andover, Massachusetts, when he heard a thirteen-year-old shouting into his iPhone, “Siri, what does ‘terminal velocity’ mean?” Evidently the feckless genius of the cloud had nothing to offer. Palfrey took comfort from that, knowing that any reference librarian could do better: “I realized that all will be well in the world of libraries, at least for a while.”

Alas—all too predictably—in the time it took for Palfrey’s book to reach physical form, Siri has mastered terminal velocity.
Wikipedia continues to evolve, the one great holdout from the commercial Internet, refusing to charge money or sell its users’ information, crowd-sourcing the expertise of a thousand reference librarians. It is an effective online realization of the vision of a network of stewards. Still, it is not and does not aspire to be a library.People continue to gather in libraries, with or without their laptops and pocket devices. They sit at the old wooden tables and consult real documents and cherish the quiet aura of the books that surround them. Is this merely a nostalgic dream? Palfrey is technologically savvy and looking toward the future, and the fundamental point applies: “In a digital era, spaces where people can come to study, read, and think are essential for communities and individuals to thrive. We already have too few such open, public spaces.” The library remains a sacred place for secular folk.

The toughest question for libraries may be what to do about e-books. Libraries want them, naturally—to have them and to lend them. If e-books are off limits, Palfrey says, “the essential role for libraries of providing free access to culture to those who cannot otherwise afford it is in peril.” Then again, a library that streams e-books risks rendering its brick-and-mortar space superfluous. And a library that could lend any e-book, without restriction, en masse, would be the perfect fatal competitor to bookstores and authors hoping to sell e-books for money. Something will have to give. Palfrey suggests that Congress could create “a compulsory license system to cover digital lending through libraries,” allowing for payment of fair royalties to the authors. Many countries, including most of Europe, have public lending right programs for this purpose.

Palfrey, now head of school at Phillips Academy, is a former Harvard law professor and executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. He is also founding chairman of the Digital Public Library of America, and BiblioTech serves in part as a brief for that project. The DPLA has been described in The New York Review by Robert Darnton; it began in reaction to Google’s project to digitize all the world’s books on its own terms, for its own use. The DPLA is meant to be a free and public online library, combining the resources of the largest university archives with collections from regional libraries and museums—as Palfrey says, “a national library platform for the United States—and in some respects the whole world—in the digital age.”

The tensions bedeviling every public library apply to the DPLA as well. It is “free to all” and open source and therefore unable so far to include copyrighted material; and it has to be careful of competing with the myriad small institutions that are aggregating its resources. On the one hand the DPLA is a website, http://dp.la. On the other hand, as Palfrey explains, it must serve broadly as a platform, encouraging librarians to use their expertise to link regional and national collections and create timely exhibitions. The balance will not be easy to find. Websites like to attract visitors, the more the better, and so digital services lean toward centralization.

Librarians will have to embrace these contradictions, and so will all of us who cherish libraries. A transition to the digital can’t mean shrugging off the worldly embodiments of knowledge, delicate manuscripts and fading photographs and old-fashioned books of paper and glue. To treat those as quaint objects of nostalgia is the technocrats’ folly. The masters of Internet commerce—Google, Facebook, Amazon, Apple—sometimes talk as though they’re building a new society, where knowledge is light-speed and fungible, but a marketplace is not a society.

Pepys

Let Twitter Be Twitter

[First published in New York Magazine, August 10, 2015]

Twitter is a mess—everybody says so. Twitter is mostly nonsense. You can’t find what you need on Twitter. Twitter is all haystack and no needles, all static and no signal.

By the lights of many investors Twitter is floundering. Its long-time CEO (five years is long in Internet time), Dick Costolo, jumped or was pushed in June, the board is scrambling to find a replacement, and Wall Street is sounding the alarm. The company’s revenue merely doubled last year, to $1.4 billion. Only 300 million people use Twitter every month. Apparently that isn’t enough.

Advice is flowing in torrents: “How Twitter Can Be Fixed”; “Re-imagining Twitter.” A Washington Post column explains “How to Fix Twitter, As Told via Tweets.” Twitter must pivot, must be transformed, must “reinvent itself.”

“I yearn to know where this company is headed,” writes one of its earliest and largest investors, the Internet billionaire Chris Sacca. His 8,000-word  screed, “What Twitter Can Be,” has been making the rounds for weeks. His motivation is simple: “I want this stock to be worth more. I own more of it than virtually anyone working at the company.”

What’s the problem? Twitter isn’t growing fast enough. Maybe it is reaching a plateau. Five times as many people use Facebook—something like a billion and a half active users per month, which, if you believe it, is almost a quarter of the Earth’s population. Twitter makes money from its modest amount of advertising, but it could make so much more.

It’s hard to use. It’s a textual medium, which means reading and writing. It’s intimidating. “N00bs just don’t get it,” says Wired. Vast numbers of Twitter people just lurk and never tweet. (No one considers that this may be a happy choice.) Twitter can be lonely. Sacca says, “Almost one billion users have tried Twitter and not stuck around.” No one knows, however, how many of those billion were bots, pseudonyms made up on the fly, changes of alias, and just plain fake users—created and sold by the million to make celebrities and politicians look popular.

The main case against Twitter, though—the heart-rending frustration felt by Sacca and so many others—is that it’s a mess. It is large, it contains multitudes (for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you), and no one can find what they need. “All of the news, sports, entertainment, human interest, music, branding, social justice, humor, politics, celebrities, technology, and beyond,” writes Sacca. “Twitter not only has it all, Twitter has it in real-time.” But users get lost. “Hundreds of millions of those tweets are noisy distractions. For any sample of accounts, the odds are extremely high that the most recent tweets are not the best tweets.” It’s time to abandon the idea that users can find what they want just by choosing other users to follow.

Sacca was featured on the cover of this year’s Forbes “Midas” issue. Attire: signature embroidered cowboy shirt. Motto: “When I invest, I’m in your face.” He urges “scheduling and promotion to build traffic.” Sacca-ForbesOther analysts want Twitter to add buy buttons. Some dream of smart algorithms. Some want active human editors and “thoughtfully curated follows.”

None of them trust the users.

These people threaten to destroy one of the Internet’s nicest things. Twitter is a happy accident, a fortuity, a quirk. A giant quirk, to be sure. Its inventors had no idea what they were creating (see Nick Bilton’s excellent history, Hatching Twitter). Even now no one really understands it. It’s an elephant surrounded by more than the usual number of blind men. A hundred forty characters? That makes no sense, but it creates a microblogging protocol of exceeding simplicity, with particular constraints that contribute to its power—like Haiku. (It’s just well as that Bashō never said, hey, we could juice this up by letting the poets attach selfies.)

Its investors are getting golden eggs but they want foie gras.

I am “on” Twitter (odd phrase). I’m not on Facebook; I don’t like the caged environment, with marketers and algorithms absorbing my information and distracting people with shiny objects. Twitter is a free-for-all. I love it, but I would never advise anyone else to “join,” so I may be part of the problem the owners are trying to solve.

I know I’m not a typical Twitter user. I also know there is no such creature. Reasons for using Twitter, or being on Twitter, are hard to categorize. There are a variety of models, like parallel universes, coexisting and barely aware of one another. A partial taxonomy:

  • Giant celebrities with millions of followers. @JustinBieber. @TaylorSwift. At last count @KatyPerry was number one, boasting 72,930,106. How many in these statistical mobs are sentient humans, no one can say. Lately @KatyPerry is tweeting in promotion of a fragrance. Does she perform her own tweets?katyperry If it’s a bot, they haven’t got all the bugs out.
  • Politicians. @BarackObama’s account is operated by his staff, and it says so. The newer @POTUS account seems, relatively, more real, and Obama will pass it on to his successor. Another politician with a huge and loyal Twitter following is Hugo Chávez, who tweets in Spanish. Or did. He died two years ago and still has four million followers. It is conventional wisdom now that the modern politician must use Twitter to “engage” with the public. (By the way, power tip: if you want to be retweeted by a celebrity politician, trumptweet something supportive of @realDonaldTrump.)
  • Pretty much every business and organization, pro forma. You’ve got to do it. Everyone says so.
  • Friends and relations. Twitter is routinely called a social network, but I think that’s misleading. It’s not social for me. I don’t follow most of my friends (to use the word in its old-fashioned sense) and they don’t follow me. I don’t tweet what I’m eating, and I certainly don’t tweet family news. Why would I do that in a public forum? In turn, I want to know the version of my friends they show me in private, not the version they create for the world.
  • Fast-moving political movements. Riots. Freedom fighters. Terrorists. They’ve found a channel for fast messaging, and newspapers and TV commentators sift it for nuggets.
  • Hookups, sex pictures, et al. I didn’t know Twitter was a practical way to transmit photographs of one’s genitalia until Anthony Weiner demonstrated that it isn’t, but amateur and semipro erotics are quite rampant in the Twitter universe. As in every other human communication channel.
  • Information of immediate but localized concern: “#Vancouver Police are responding to Seymour St & W Pender St for reports of 10 people fighting and using their fingers as guns.”
  • What might loosely be termed educational initiatives. Fun facts. Twitter is full of unaccredited popup mini-universities. @frenchwords_, to pick one at random, tweets a French word every day.
  • Random chatter. Many people seem to tweet fragments of thought passing between the medulla and the thalamus—their mood, their desires, their “status,” their dreams. In all the languages. They act as though their messages were private, and in a sense they are, protected by the blooming noise all around. “I dont want to get out of my bed.” “High babe love you” (retweeted by thousands, because why not?). “I need someone to go to Walmart with me. By go with me I mean I give you my keys and you drive me there.” “Super babe kskskskskssk oh deus.” “Dog-snores.” (The science-fiction writer Nick Harkaway tweets from London, “Thank God Twitter isn’t some appalling mass broadcast medium and it’s just us here.”)

None of this is how I use Twitter. I usually keep my status to myself, and I don’t know what’s “trending.” These worlds barely impinge on mine. But I breathe their air. I hear their murmurs.

Twitter for me is what the printing press was for Robert Burton in the seventeenth century: “I hear new news every day, and those ordinary rumours of war, plagues, fires, inundations, thefts, murders, massacres, meteors, comets, spectrums, prodigies, apparitions, of towns taken, cities besieged in France, Germany, Turkey, Persia, Poland, &c. daily musters and preparations, and such like, which these tempestuous times afford, battles fought, so many men slain, monomachies, shipwrecks, piracies, and sea-fights, peace, leagues, stratagems, and fresh alarms. A vast confusion of vows, wishes, actions, edicts, petitions, lawsuits, pleas, laws, proclamations, complaints, grievances are daily brought to our ears.” Some people say vast confusion like it’s a bad thing.

If you go to tech conferences, a word you hear constantly is curation. Sometimes curation is the problem and sometimes it’s the solution. This is an old concept that’s become a buzzword. Curation is what museum curators used to do: put the right stuff on display and organize it intelligently. Curators point users to what matters and keep the detritus in the basement. Wise old booksellers and librarians were curators, consulted for their knowledgeable recommendations. Newspaper editors decided what was fit to print; now the blogging hordes print everything. So experts either bemoan the loss of curation or hail the new algorithmic curators: recommendation engines, collaborative filtering.

Twitter executives are obsessed with curation or the lack thereof. In March they announced Curator, a tool “to allow media publishers to search, filter and curate Twitter content” and gain “audience engagement, participation and attention.” In May, shortly before his unceremonious departure, Costolo was talking about “migrating” Twitter from “being tech-centric, follow-based, reverse-chronologic-centric to a mix of that and curated, media-centric relevance-based content.”

They’re missing the point. Twitter—the epitome of shallowness and distraction—has already solved the curation problem. It has created a paradigm of human curation: dynamic and recursive. This is its genius.

Twitter is not about who follows you. It’s about who you follow. Personally, I follow about 150 people. Everything they tweet appears in my “timeline,” in chronological order, which means semantically jumbled. This is thought to be a problem. Sacca again: “Twitter timelines are spontaneous, but scattered and of inconsistent relevance.” He wants “consistent, focused content.” My timeline is the opposite of that.

My 150 people are a small number, almost infinitesimal, not even a millionth of all the twitterers. I stop following people all the time, even when I love and admire them, because they tweet so much I can’t keep up. Some Twitter users follow thousands—some follow millions—but obviously they aren’t reading their timelines. As far as I’m concerned, the timeline is the whole point.

Though I follow only 150, each day I see tweets from thousands, because the people I follow retweet the ones they most value. A man calling himself @TheoTypes is stuck in a train under the Hudson River. Who cares? But he tweets. “My train is stuck under the Hudson River. @NJTransit just announced that the tunnel power cables have become unstable. Train 5126.” Within a couple of hours, nineteen of his followers retweet this to their followers. A few of them retweet it to their own followers. A little cascade is under way,  a chain reaction, analogous to the kind that leads to a nuclear explosion. Virtually all Twitter chain reactions fizzle out quickly, of course. I don’t follow Theo. But somewhere in the chain of Theo’s followers’ followers’ followers is ProfB, at the University of Pennsylvania. Theo’s plight stirs something in her: “Whooo no sir … be safe!” she tweets. I don’t follow her, either, but the science-fiction writer Jack Womack does, and for whatever reason he finds this amusing or interesting, so he retweets it, and there it is, in my timeline.

I can hardly claim that this particular tweet has made me wiser or more knowledgeable or more au fait. But it’s a piece in the puzzle of how my timeline makes me happy. My timeline brings me news that may be beneath the notice of the New York Times. It brings me weird and insightful commentary. Tidings of weddings, maskings, mummeries, entertainments, jubilees, embassies, tilts and tournaments, trophies, triumphs, revels, sports, plays: then again, as in a new shifted scene, treasons, cheating tricks, robberies, enormous villanies Pepysin all kinds … Thus I daily hear, and such like. I hear Steve Martin experiment with the medium, trying out new joke forms. I used to hear Umberto Eco tweet experimental mini-essays,in English and Italian, though he seems to have gone silent (he recently described social networks as “legioni di imbecilli” but I still follow him, just in case). Joyce Carol Oates recaps True Detective epigrammatically.Samuel Pepys tweets from the grave.

My timeline is unique to me. No one else follows exactly the same shifting group of gurus, so no one assembles exactly the same set of maskings and mummeries. This is my exceedingly fine slice across the global conversation.

In the same way, when I tweet something myself, the only immediate recipients are my followers, another infinitesimal cohort in the Twitter universe. But any of my tweets is liable to be retweeted by someone or other. If  @Famous-Novelist retweets one to her hundred thousand followers, then my voice has been momentarily amplified. They don’t need to follow me; they receive a special subset of my tweets, chosen for them by @Famous-Novelist. She is a curator. I am a curator. Everyone is part of a limitless branching tree of curation, and everyone is choosing a particular tangle of branches. The whole is an interlocking library of Best Of playlists.

This is what the company is trying to muck up. They push extraneous tweets into my timeline, especially sponsored tweets, supposedly targeting my desires. Please, Twitter—don’t do that. I would prefer to pay directly. A monthly fee would be fine. A few others might join me.

Don’t send me other people’s random “favorites.” They tried that last year and caused a minor uproar. The science writer Ed Yong tweeted: “Everyone: ‘TWITTER, WHY?’ Twitter: ‘Cos monkey press lever, monkey no get snack, monkey sad.’” (By the way, “favorites” are not “likes.” Twitter’s Favorite button is another example of technology subverted by users for their own unpredictable ends. The sarcastic favorite is a thing.)

This fall Twitter plans to unveil another high-octane addition, codenamed Project Lightning, possibly to be called Moments. It is said to be centrally curated, visually driven, and packaged. In other words, everything I don’t want. “This beautiful vessel for us to surface great content,” Katie Jacobs Stanton, a Twitter vice president, told Buzzfeed.

Twitter doesn’t just want to make it easy for users to find tweets. They want to make it easier for marketers to find users. Everyone wants to know the secret of how to use Twitter to reach their million potential customers. I will tell you the secret. You can’t do it. Twitter is not a giant megaphone. There is no mouthpiece. Those 300 million people, that glistening prize, are not waiting for your message. They’re not tuning to your channels. They’re choosing their own.

Twitter wants to monetize them nonetheless. The company wants to know what they like and what they don’t, and they want to sell the knowledge. This is the FaceBook way; for that matter, it’s the Google way. Of all the Internet giants only one, Wikipedia, has created a service of immense value without monetizing its users. The venture capitalists can’t help it. Twitter has already made its creators very rich, but now it has shareholders, buying and selling, and they feel entitled to make some money, too. The company is legally obligated to them. Their interests and the customers’ interests are, famously, not always aligned. For that matter, the shareholders’ long-term interests may not be the same as their short-term interests, and nowadays the short-termers tend to prevail. Once a company goes public, as Dick Costolo said, “You’re on a 90-day cadence.”  When it reported quarterly earnings July 28, Twitter’s revenue was up 61 percent and the stock, naturally, plunged.

Reaching for more, Twitter keeps buying companies that might help: most recently, Periscope, for live streaming of video (and presumably ads), TwitPic for sharing photos (and presumably ads), ZipDial, an Indian “missed call” marketing platform, CardSpring for real-time commerce, whatever that means (something about tweets and shopping carts), and Trendrr, to “help us to build great tools for the rest of the TV ecosystem.”

They should let Twitter be Twitter. A vast confusion. A global conversation. A repository of wealth not measured in money. No thought is wasted, no joke is lost.

That Forbes Midas List yearly honors tech investors who “embody the Midas touch”—the ones looking for “the next billion-dollar score.” In twenty-first century America, have we forgotten the point of the Midas story? Look again. Midas is not to be admired but pitied. What he loves, he destroys.

robot-cello_jpg_600x1184_q85

Bot or Not?

A well-traveled branch of futuristic fiction explores worlds in which artificial creatures—the robots—live among us, sometimes even indistinguishable from us. This has been going for almost a century now. Stepford wives. Androids dreaming of electric sheep. (Next, Ex Machina?)

robot-cello_jpg_600x1184_q85

Robot & bassist, New York World’s Fair 1939

 

Well, here they come. It’s understood now that, beside what we call the “real world,” we inhabit a variety of virtual worlds. Take Twitter. Or the Twitterverse. Twittersphere. You may think it’s a stretch to call this a “world,” but in many ways it has become a toy universe, populated by millions, most of whom resemble humans and may even, in their day jobs, be humans. But increasing numbers of Twitterers don’t even pretend to be human. Or worse, do pretend, when they are actually bots. “Bot” is of course short for robot. And bots are very, very tiny, skeletal, incapable robots—usually little more than a few crude lines of computer code. The scary thing is how easily we can be fooled.

More here, at the New York Review Blog.

Statutes Definition of Time Act

Her Majesty Defines Time

I learned the hard way that after one writes a book disgruntled readers will ask, “All right—but what is [X], anyway?” (where X may be, for example, chaos or information). Apparently one has failed to provide a succinct definition of the thing in question.

I’m working now on a book about time travel. It will be available soon/later/henceforth/some time in the future (insert your own joke). I recognize an obligation to address the question, “What is time?” And this may be the most difficult of all.

So you can imagine my relief at discovering that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has settled the question legislatively. In 1880, “the Queen’s most Excellent Majesty” (Victoria, of course), by and with “the advice and consent of the Lords Spiritual and Temporal” (Time Lords!), enacted once and for all the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act. It declares itself to be “an Act to remove doubts as to the meaning of Expressions relative to Time occurring in Acts of Parliament, deeds, and other legal instruments.”

Statutes Definition of Time ActRemoving doubts about the meaning of time is an ambitious goal. Alas, it turns out that the question answered by this legislation is not What is time? but a related and simpler question, What is the time?

Answer: The time, in Great Britain, is Greenwich mean time. Oh, well. That’s a little deflating. Even this simple Act, however, failed in its hope of removing all doubts.

A few years later—to be exact, on August 19, 1898, at 8:15 PM (Greenwich mean time)—a man named Gordon was nabbed, nicked, busted, and collared by the police in Bristol for riding his bicycle without a lamp. The local law clearly stated that every person riding a bicycle (which, by the way, was defined as a “carriage”) shall carry a lamp, so lighted as to afford adequate means of signaling the approach of the bicycle, during the period between one hour after sunset and one hour before sunrise. Got it? On the evening in question, sunset in Greenwich had occurred at 7:13 PM, so Gordon was caught riding lampless a full hour and two minutes after sunset.

This did not sit well with the accused man, because the sun set ten minutes later in Bristol than in Greenwich: 7:23, not 7:13. Nonetheless, the Justices of the city of Bristol, relying on the Statutes (Definition of Time) Act, found him guilty. After all, they reasoned, everyone would benefit by having “a readily ascertained time of lighting up.”

With the help of his solicitors, Darley & Cumberland, poor Gordon appealed. The question before the Court of Appeals was described as “an astronomical one.” And the appellate court saw it his way. They ruled that “sunset” is not a “period of time” but a physical fact. Justice Channell was especially insistent:

According to the decision of the Justices, as it stands, a man on an unlighted bicycle may be looking at the sun in the heavens, and yet be liable to be convicted of the offence of not having his lamp lighted an hour after sunset.

Next question: what is “noon”?

Unknown-1

For Sale: Magna Carta. Slightly Used.

What is MagnaCarta worth? Exactly $21,321,000. We know because that’s what it fetched in a fair public auction at Sotheby’s in New York. Twenty-one million is, by far, the most ever paid for a page of text, and therein lies a paradox: Information is now cheaper than ever and also more expensive.

Mostly, of course, information is practically free, easier to store and faster to spread than our parents imagined possible. In one way, Magna Carta is already yours for the asking: you can read it any time, at the touch of a button. Unknown-1It has been preserved, photographically and digitally, in countless copies with no evident physical reality, which will nonetheless last as long as our civilization. In another way, Magna Carta is a 15-by-17-inch piece of parchment, fragile and scarce and practically unreadable. Why should that version be so valuable?

Magna Carta itself is a nice reminder of how costly it once was to store and spread information. Its very purpose was to get the king’s word down in tangible form, safeguard it, enshrine it and then get it out to the countryside. In 13th-century England this required the soaking, stretching, scraping and drying of sheepskin to make vellum, the preparation of ink from oak galls and painstaking penmanship by professional quill-wielding scribes. Then copies had to be made the same way — there was no other — for dispatch to county seats and churches, where they were read aloud.

“A lamp in the darkness, a glowing talisman of our human condition, a sacred icon of our human history.”

At that point the value of Magna Carta resided in its words: their meaning and their very real political force, beginning with King John’s greetings in 1215 to “his archbishops, bishops, abbots, earls, barons, justices, foresters, sheriffs, stewards, servants and to all his officials and loyal subjects” and continuing with a message never before heard — a setting of limits on the power of the state. It made a grant of rights and liberties to all free men, irrevocably and forever, at least in theory. The document didn’t just express that grant or represent it or certify it. The document was the grant — “given by our hand in the meadow that is called Runnymede.”

The value of the particular item sold at Sotheby’s eight centuries later is entirely different. It’s a kind of illusion. We can call it magical value as opposed to meaningful value. It’s like the value acquired by one baseball when Bobby Thomson batted it out of the Polo Grounds. A physical object becomes desirable, precious, almost holy, by common consensus, on account of a history — a story — that is attached to it. (If it turns out you’ve got the wrong baseball, the value vanishes just as magically.)

The $21 million Magna Carta is actually a copy, made in 1297. In fact, it is surely a copy of a copy, with errors and emendations introduced along the way. And yet it is also an original: issued officially and afresh in the name of King Edward I. Sotheby’s reckons that 17 “original exemplars” from the 13th century survive today, most preserved in England’s libraries and cathedrals. Hundreds more have been lost — to rats, fire and reuse as scrap paper.

Even as a copy, it’s one of a kind. “It was like someone said ‘Mona Lisa,’ ” explained the previous purchaser (Ross Perot, 1984, $1.5 million). In advance of the sale, Sotheby’s called Magna Carta “a lamp in the darkness, a glowing talisman of our human condition, a sacred icon of our human history.” Just so. It’s magic. Religious relics, like the Shroud of Turin, gleam invisibly with the same magic. On a smaller scale so do autographs, coins, rare photographs, Stradivari violins (unless you think you can recognize the tonal quality of 300-year-old wood) and clothing off the backs of celebrities, like the spare wedding dress (ivory silk taffeta) that Diana might have worn but didn’t (2005, $175,000).

The same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not.

All these artifacts share the quality that Philip K. Dick, in his 1962 novel “The Man in the High Castle,” calls historicity, which is “when a thing has history in it.” In the book, a dealer in antiquities holds up two identical Zippo lighters, one of which supposedly belonged to Franklin D. Roosevelt, and says: “One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object has ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it? … You can’t. You can’t tell which is which. There’s no ‘mystical plasmic presence,’ no ‘aura’ around it.”

Back in the real world, in 1996, Sotheby’s sold a humidor that had belonged to John F. Kennedy for $574,500. It had historicity.

Of course, more people can afford rarities — rarities are a bigger business than ever — now that being a billionaire doesn’t even guarantee a spot in the Forbes 400. Magna Carta’s buyer, David M. Rubenstein, a founder of the Carlyle Group, was No. 165 last year with a reported fortune of $2.5 billion. He plans to return the document to public view at the National Archives, which has had it on display, along with other iconic texts like the Emancipation Proclamation, the Marshall Plan and the Apollo 11 flight plan.

But the growth in the ranks of the superrich does not explain the hypertrophy in magical value. Just when digital reproduction makes it possible to create a “Rembrandt” good enough to fool the eye, the “real” Rembrandt becomes more expensive than ever. Why? Because the same free flow that makes information cheap and reproducible helps us treasure the sight of information that is not. A story gains power from its attachment, however tenuous, to a physical object. The object gains power from the story. The abstract version may flash by on a screen, but the worn parchment and the fading ink make us pause. The extreme of scarcity is intensified by the extreme of ubiquity.

First published in the New York Times Magazine, January 6, 2008.