Nothing is “free”

When words costed, care was given. But now, for many, “free” texting has become the dominant form of communication — even, for many, more common than speech. Once that began, after words became “free,” because text became “free”: words quickly became “cheap” — in every sense of the word.

When written mistakes became “typos,” and keyboard designers created “Backspace,” and software engineers created “spellcheck”: when white-out died at the market, with it died so much attention-to-detail that only the concern about a time-consuming mistake had kept alive ever since writing had become cheap enough to teach among cheap minds — long after a diseased and impoverished man named Beethoven had to jot onto random tablecloths the ideas that struck him out in public and away from his small supply of expensive “paper.”

When Johannes Gutenberg’s booksmithing revolutionized the world through the mass-production of written words: more than a century would pass before Arthur Schopenhauer interrupted the status quo by warning — in a book — of books’ potential to numb minds by tempting readers into too much vicarious thought, as books began interrupting a reader’s every waking idea with the ideas of some other person.[1] Yet far more than a millennium had passed since Socrates hollered, to any in Athens who would listen (and plenty who would not), that an affinity for the written word would bring about massive memory-loss among people.[2]

Long before crowds had perfected the addiction of chasing away introspection with the same hurried and harsh gossip that swamped and stranded the last of the finest bards;

long before the shortcut of promises excused friends to hide eyes;

long before fear and sadness tempted the family to disguise limps;

long before gluttony and anger usured lovers to ignore breath;

…long before, the light politely blinded the newborn.[3]

Notes

1. “The largest library in disorder is not so useful as a smaller but orderly one; in the same way the greatest amount of knowledge, if it has not been worked out in one’s own mind, is of less value than a much smaller amount that has been fully considered. . . . Thinking must be kindled like a fire by a draught and sustained by some kind of interest in the subject. . . . The difference between the effect that thinking for oneself and that reading has on the mind is incredibly great; hence it is continually developing that original difference in minds which induces one person to think and another to read. Reading forces thoughts upon the mind which are as foreign and heterogeneous to the bent and mood in which it may be for the moment, as the seal is to the wax on which it stamps its imprint. The mind thus suffers total compulsion from without; it has first this and first that to think about, for which it has at the time neither instinct nor liking.” Schopenhauer, Thinking for oneself.

2. “Behold, the written word!,” proclaimed its peddler: “This will make us wiser, and give us better memories — memory and wit,” said he. “O inventor,” came the reply, “the parent of an art can hardly judge well their own invention — not the benefits, much less the costs. And this tool of yours will create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories; they will instead trust the external written characters — and not remember for themselves. You have discovered an aid not for memory but only for reminiscence, and you give your disciples not truth, but only the semblance of truth; they will be hearers of many things, and will have learned nothing; they will appear to be omniscient but will generally know nothing; they will be tiresome company, having the show of wisdom without the reality.” Plato, Phaedrus.

3. “Many complain about nature, because our allotted span of life is so short, and because this stretch of time that is given to us runs its course so quickly, so rapidly — so much so that, with very few exceptions, life leaves the rest of us dying just when we re getting ready to live. . . . It’s not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it’s been given to us in generous measure for accomplishing the greatest things, if the whole of it is well invested.

“But when life is squandered through soft and careless living, and when it’s spent on no worthwhile pursuit, death finally presses and we realize that the life which we didn’t notice passing has passed away. So it is: the life we are given is not short — until we make it so; we are not ill-provided life: rather, we are wasteful of life.

“Just as impressive and princely wealth is squandered in an instant when it passes into the hands of a poor manager, but wealth however modest grows through careful deployment if it is entrusted to a responsible guardian, just so our lifetime offers ample scope to the person who maps it out well.

“Therefore, I cannot doubt the truth: Scant is the part of life in which we live. All the rest of existence is not living — but merely time. ” Seneca, The shortness of life.

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