Immortality Projects in the Internet Era: The Rise of Volunteerism, the Demise of Consumerism, and the Democratization of Cultural Progress
A year or so ago a colleague suggested that I submit an article to an excellent magazine to which he regularly contributes. I responded along the lines of,
“Why would I want to do that?! The magazine has no free online presence. At most, my article would be read by a few thousand subscribers and then utterly lost to posterity. Meanwhile, the trees cut to produce the paper would add to my ecological footprint. No thanks!”
As the author of two books and two anthologies ushered into print by respectable publishers over the course of a decade (1991 – 2001), I have been responding in a similar vein when asked whether I plan to write another book:
“Why would I want to do that?! At most my book would be read by a few tens of thousands of individuals over perhaps a decade; I’m not famous enough for a publisher to produce an audio version; and I wouldn’t be allowed to keep updating the content. Besides, the publishing industry has crashed; there is no money anymore for my class of writer, so I might as well keep creating, posting online, and updating my own stuff for free.”
Ten years ago, all I could do on my computer was type, save, and print a text document. That was a marvel, of course, compared to the IBM Selectric typewriter on which I composed my first book (published in 1984). Today I still type in text, but now I convert that text into html and upload it into one of my websites, or I convert it to pdf and link it into the Internet. Or I might post the text as a blog, as I plan to do here.
I enjoy creating audio, too, using the recording, editing, and music-making software that comes with my Apple computer. I convert the final product to an mp3 file and upload it onto a commercial podcasting site, for which I pay a small monthly fee.
Best of all is the opportunity to create and publish in video format. Not only is video the richest, most emotionally compelling and artistic mode for communication, but the final product enters an arena that is as close to immortal as anything humans have yet devised — and it costs me nothing, thanks to YouTube.
YouTube as Today’s Best Bet for Immortality
I’m not sure whether Google is God, but I darn well know that YouTube is my ticket to eternity. And Google is godly enough to have provisioned YouTube with the best indexing-and-finding system yet imaginable.
If a video truly has merit, if it offers something unique, and if I have done a satisfactory job of embellishing it with a text description and keyword tags, then ultimately it will be found; it will be appreciated. That may happen long after I am dead. But it won’t moulder in some descendant’s basement and be tossed into the trash during a move. It won’t stand idle on library shelves, where my four books now repose. (And I’m not convinced there will still be bricks-and-mortar libraries in a hundred years.)
Note: Just this moment I discovered a website that lists all the libraries in the world where each of my books resides, in order of distance from anywhere in the world. My 1997 book, Green Space Green Time: The Way of Science stands in 698 libraries, the furthest being Botswana.
As to most digital forms of legacy projects, long life and accessibility is, at present, far from assured. Consider: If my husband and I were to die today, within a year or two our websites would go down, for lack of payment to the server and for nonrenewal of domain names. Within a few months, all three of our podcast channels would vanish, archives and all — again, for lack of payment.
YouTube not only freely accepts all my videos. It requires zero upkeep on my part. At this moment, it is by far the best bet for immortality.
Google Scholar is also as close to immortal as anything gets. But it is decidedly undemocratic. It preserves and makes available only scholarly texts, and then, if there is a copyright issue, only in bits and pieces. Portions of two of my four books are preserved on Google Scholar.
Bottomline: if you haven’t attracted the attention of a real publisher, Google Scholar is unlikely to be interested in your immortality project — however dear it may be to you.
Immortality Projects to the Rescue
Ernest Becker, in his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Denial of Death (1973), popularized the notion of “immortality projects” — portraying them as the offspring of our human awareness of death and our consequent attempts to overcome it. When Becker was alive and writing, people (other than brilliant scholars like himself) had few opportunities for immortality projects other than producing offspring or excelling in business, arts, politics, or war. With the Internet, all that has changed — and that is great news for our species and our world, as well as for aspiring individuals.
Consider these shifting opportunities for leaving a lasting legacy:
1. GENETIC LEGACY: Opportunities for leaving a genetic legacy have vastly improved in the developed countries, thanks to the virtual elimination of famine, malnourishment, unsanitary public water supplies, and plagues, and by turning childhood death from a fact of life that nearly all parents experienced into a rare and shocking event. Whether our genetic legacy will be something we can be proud of is another question.
Youth are launched into a complex and often unfriendly world in which they must find their own way. No longer does the eldest son simply inherit the farm or the hardware business. No longer is the second son, while barely a teen, apprenticed out to a shoemaker in the next village. No longer do young women expect that marriage will come soon, last until death, and adequately provision themselves and their children with life’s basic necessities.
In just my lifetime, industrial and manufacturing vocations for securing a spot in the middle class have collapsed, and even a college degree no longer guarantees a living wage and a fulfilling career. And marriage for young women? Dream on. Young men no longer need marry to obtain legal, emotionally nurturing, and recurrent sex. Thus, what began in the 1970s as a welcome and exhilarating choice for women like me, has now become a near necessity: virtually all young women now need to scramble for a living wage and fulfilling career — no less than the young men.
Meanwhile, our stone-age instincts all too easily succumb to the escalating temptations of modern life, notably the “supernormal stimuli” of addictive foods, psychoactive substances, gaming, gambling, and internet porn. Hence, good people do not necessarily die delighted in their offspring.
2. MEMETIC LEGACY: Opportunities for passing forward a memetic legacy, no matter how lowly one’s family of birth, have long been improving. In the USA, public funding of primary education blossomed in the early 1800s. In 1883 American business tycoon Andrew Carnegie began funding free public libraries in the USA, Canada, and elsewhere, so that even the poorest kids and adults could self-educate with Great Books. The 1930s ushered in compulsory secondary education. In 1944, the G.I. bill made it possible for working class war veterans to attend college, thanks to public funding of tuition support.
In my lifetime, the cultural release of blacks and women to compete equally as generators of valuable ideas and arts (“memes”), as well as businesses, will surely go down in history as a great leap forward for our species. I am a grateful beneficiary of this cultural shift.
Finally, opportunities for creating a worthy memetic legacy (I’m not talking about “celebrities” and psycho-killers who briefly secure facetime on what is sometimes called “news”) have taken another great leap forward — and beginning only about ten years ago. Thanks to the Internet, no longer does one need to acquire a graduate pedigree, an impressive resume, or a famous mentor in order to get a hearing in the intellectual marketplace of ideas. For the first time, virtually anyone with the intellect and the drive can (a) self-educate and (b) self-express.
That is what I mean by the democratization of idea generation and exchange.
The Growth of Volunteerism
We’ve all seen it. We’ve all marveled at it. We’ve all benefited from it. And yet it goes largely unheralded.
Some obscure individual gets a great idea, launches it via a blog or video and the thing “goes viral.”
Here’s my favorite example. His name is John Boswell, and I first heard about this newly graduated econ major in September 2009. He had just posted a video on YouTube that emerged from a combination of his musical talent, his veneration of Carl Sagan, his delight in the cosmos, and his tinkering with some fun new software.
Just three-and-a-half minutes long, this music video (titled “A Glorious Dawn”) garnered a million views in just one month. (As I write, in December 2011, it is now up to 7 million views.) More important, a scan of the comments reveals that the video is still powerfully affecting — even to the point of tears — viewers young and old. (Check out one of my blogposts to read some of the over-the-top comments that were posted on the video’s YouTube page.) Or listen to me and my husband jam about it on our podcast episode titled “Symphony of Science.”
I’ve kept in touch with John Boswell by email. He continues to post more music videos in this genre — still for free. He’s got a donation button at the bottom his webpage, symphonyofscience.com, and I have donated twice. Somehow he keeps himself alive financially.
Boswell is an example of volunteerism unaltered by fame. Here is a passion to produce something that matters, that uplifts, that just might inspire a 12-year-old to pursue a career in science and maybe even to discover something that will astonish the next generation of 12-year-olds.
Call it a yearning to be noticed and respected. Call it a desire to make a difference. Call it an immortality project. Call it what you will. But you need only dabble on YouTube to get a sense that, right here, people of little or no stature are posting results of intense avocational pursuits that ultimately (in many cases) will serve the world.
YouTube’s free outlet for creative sharing has made it possible for just about anyone to launch into the world their memetic legacies. All one need do is acquire some basic geek skills (which is no more difficult than breathing for our youth), hone a fascination, and persevere in self-education and exploration of their topic of choice.
When the video is finished, it is uploaded and the waiting and watching begins. Alert your Facebook “friends” to your new video, and the “views” start to rise. As soon as one person posts an appreciative comment, you get a dopamine hit. What remains and grows is a sense of accomplishment and the warm feeling of knowing you are valued and respected.
An avocation is thus nurtured. More projects will follow. Gone are the wasted hours, the boredom, the existential angst, the fear that “I am nothing.” Sure, for some lucky souls their fascinations may eventually yield a paying vocation. But for most of us, we are not only content with volunteerism; we are drawn more and more into it.
The Collapse of Consumerism
Thanks to the Internet, the democratization of the flow of information and the exchange of ideas is prompting a surge of volunteerism and a push-back against consumerism in the western world.
This is very good news, as both trends bode well for our culture, our society, and the community of life.
Thanks to the Internet, more and more individuals — and at astonishingly young ages —are discovering not only outlets for their creative energies but also the joy of giving away their gifts, of volunteering their time, of participating in the democratization of cultural progress.
Those of us besot with an avocational passion need no monetary draw to keep us producing and giving, producing and giving. More, we begin to start structuring our lives to free up more time to “play” in this worldwide and open exchange, this supremely democratic form of meritocracy that with no hesitation gives all comers a platform to prove the value of their projects.
For the still-in-school, this always-available creative outlet is a reminder that we do have worth and that life is not just confusion, boredom, and a set of rules and timetables not of our making. It is a way to gain respect and a sense of accomplishment.
For those who have launched into the adult world of earning a living, we learn by experience that if we really want to pursue our passion, then we have to cut back on what we buy, what we consume, what we think we must have and must do. We thus shed the default foundational value of our culture — that is, the goal to get, to spend, to acquire. Consumption as an end in itself.
For those who have fared well enough and long enough in life to no longer need to earn income, here is an outlet for putting wisdom to work. We happily volunteer time and energy toward projects of our own making — not just what our local community may offer. And, here too, the drive to consume diminishes. There is “something more” and that something more is a way to grow our legacy — to attend to our “immortality projects” — in this final phase of life.
Even the computer-phobic among us can manage to write (and with help, post) an Amazon (or Google Books) review. Old folks have a special role to play in this regard. Just tally up your favorite books of the past, find them on Amazon or Google Books, and post (what may well be) the very first review!
The Downside of Democratization for the Elite
Let’s take a look at what the Internet era means for the folks who have long stood at the helm of idea generation and exchange at a societal level. This is the arena of “public intellectuals.”
Many in this category are scholars employed at colleges, universities, and privately funded think-tanks, whose ideas and communication skills launch them into public view. A rare few make their living as columnists with the top tier of newspapers and magazines. Others are entrepreneurs who must generate their own paycheck, by way of published articles, books, and speaking fees.
In September 2011, best-selling author Sam Harris posted on his blog ruminations on the dismal future for both the publishing industry and “public intellectuals.” Entrepreneurial public intellectuals, like Sam, have grown accustomed to earning their living by writing books and articles and giving the occasional invited talk.
Sam titled his essay, “The Future of the Book.” It begins,
Writers, artists, and public intellectuals are nearing some sort of precipice: Their audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free. Jaron Lanier has written and spoken about this issue with great sagacity. You can purchase his book here, which most of you will not do, or you can watch him discuss these matters for free. The problem is thus revealed even in the act of stating it. How can a person like Lanier get paid for being brilliant? This has become an increasingly difficult question to answer.
Where publishing is concerned, the Internet is both midwife and executioner. It has never been easier to reach large numbers of readers, but these readers have never felt more entitled to be informed and entertained for free. . .
After a fascinating tour of his own experience in print and recent forays into ebook self-publishing, blogging, and vlogging, Sam concludes:
One thing is certain: writers and public intellectuals must find a way to get paid for what they do—and the opportunities to do this are changing quickly. My current solution is to write longer books for a traditional press and publish short ebooks myself on Amazon. If anyone has any better ideas, please publish them somewhere—perhaps on a blog—and then send me a link. And I hope you get paid.
As a “public intellectual” and author, I too am feeling the financial pinch. For ten years my husband and I have been travelling the USA in our van, giving talks — mostly at no charge. We do, however, routinely set up a book table at each venue, where we sell our own books and dvds along with a selection of books by others — meaning, we earn our living more as booksellers than as idea-makers. With the crash in the economy, fewer people are buying books and dvds. To be sure, audiences enjoy the free lecture. Individuals may even be moved and remade by it; and they tell us so. But most leave without purchasing anything.
I cannot fault them for that. I do the same. As Sam Harris pointed out, “audiences increasingly expect digital content to be free.” I would add that audiences increasingly expect to find all forms of content online (and for free), including the most alluring format of all: free videos on YouTube.
Indeed, over the past decade of this ongoing “major transition in evolution” (in the way information is stored and passed forward), software and hardware technologies for all three modes of communication have become increasingly available to those of even modest means — limited only by one’s drive to self-learn and persist in internet empowerment. (See also Kevin Kelly’s superb blogposts on this theme: “The Major Transitions in Technology” and “Evolution of the Scientific Method”.)
And so, while I continue to love thinking and writing and talking (on audio and video), I am no longer doing so with the hopes of producing a salable product. No more books! (And beginning three months ago when YouTube eliminated the 10-minute limit on video uploads, I now also declare, No more dvds!)
More and more, I am drawn into volunteerism. More and more, I look for ways to reduce my spending so that less and less of my time needs to generate income.
The game has changed utterly, irrevocably.
Halleluia! . . . (I hope)
Incentives for Building Quality Into Immortality Projects
Let me be clear: Facebook pages that survive the individual’s death, along with the plethora of self-focussed and fluff YouTube videos, will of course pass forward in a memorabilia sort of way. One’s great-great-great grandchild might someday thrill to catch a glimpse of what life was like for an ancestor in the days of digital deprivation, when there were still places where one had to purchase Internet access — indeed, when there were still regions lacking optical fibers or satellite feeds. As well, all such digital memorabilia may serve some function as part of a vast and easily accessible database for future scholars of cultural history and transformation.
But there are growing numbers of us whose creative and volunteer energies are sparked by a chance to pass forward something of lasting value — something that might actually improve a life (maybe a million lives) or help preserve the planet.
And we are willing to invest time in learning about that which captures our heart, our mind, our imagination, so that we truly will have something of value to post.
After weeks and months (even years) of soaking up the wisdom of others, one day an idea for a new project arrives unbidden. It may even be something we feel uniquely positioned to offer the world. So we get busy, taking great care that our text or audio or video baby will have a decent chance to capture the scarcest resource of all: the attention of other Internet surfers, public intellectuals, and immortality project creators.
Expanding and Reinforcing the Ark for Securing Immortality Projects for Cultural Progress
Within the last few months, not one but two now-elderly creators of information-rich websites have sought to bequeath their digital babies to my husband and me. We are both in our fifties, so we are still a pretty good bet.
The websites are superb and uniquely valuable. Nonetheless, we declined. Both of us have a backlog of creative Internet projects we are aching to pursue. Assuming responsibility for somebody else’s website cannot compete with our existing creative To Do lists — no matter how worthy we regard those projects as contributors to the public good, to cultural progress.
Who will take those websites over?
And who (or, more likely, what) will take over ours in another few decades?
What new digital emergent will assure that these painstaking contributions are accessibly archived — maybe even periodically updated so that their worth not only maintains but grows?
Sure, I could take all of our audio podcast episodes one by one and laboriously turn each into a black-screen or minimal-jpg video and post them as a distinct playlist on my YouTube channel. But that is a cop-out. There really ought to be a way to keep ideas-rich audio as audio, while securely passing forward and superbly tagging each mp3 with a description and keywords, in YouTube fashion.
And there really ought to be a way to secure the continuity and accessibility of educational websites when their creators and caretakers give up the ghost.
Till Yellowstone Blows
I am certain that among the wealthy of the world are benefactors who have already secured in elaborate bunkers digital records and instructions for rebooting the Internet after a civilizational collapse (see update, below). That would be the greatest immortality project of all! Here is why:
We can direct our human ingenuity to perhaps safeguard the world from nuclear and biological terror. And it is well within our reach to nudge the flight paths of asteroids coming our way, if only we are willing to fund the effort.
But there is nothing we can do about our planet’s half-dozen civilization-destroying supervolcanoes.
So maybe digital “immortality” is a physical impossibility, even for the likes of Google.
Nonetheless, I am content to believe that at least some of my digital babies will live on — and continue to make a positive difference — until Yellowstone blows.
UPDATE 12/20/11: Kevin Kelly (author of What Technology Wants) directed me to one of those “bunkers” online, known as the WayBack Machine. It has a simple enough url: http://www.archive.org/web/web.php. And yes, indeed, my thegreatstory.org website is fully on there. It hasn’t yet connected the podcast archive pages of mine with the actual mp3’s, but finding a way to do that myself will go onto my long-term To-Do list. (BTW: I made a financial donation to the archive.)
Kevin’s email also said,
“YouTube will die some day. This is a certainty. What we need is a pan-civilization, non-profit record for all time. This is technically possible —even safe from Yellowstone supervolcano. We at The Long Now made a “backup” of 1,000 language versions of the same text (Gen 1-5) put it on a nickel disk (optical readable), and it is on its way to land on an orbiting comet right now. See the Rosetta Project at Long Now. We could put the entire library of earth there if we wanted to.”