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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.

The Ghosts Won’t Starve

Writing letters, however, means to denude oneself before the ghosts, something for which they greedily wait. Written kisses don’t reach their destination, rather they are drunk on the way by the ghosts. It is on this ample nourishment that they multiply so enormously. franz_kafka_cc_imgHumanity senses this and fights against it and in order to eliminate as far as possible the ghostly element between people and to create a natural communication, the peace of souls, it has invented the railway, the motor car, the areoplane. But it’s no longer any good, these are evidently inventions being made at the moment of crashing. The opposing side is so much calmer and stronger; after the postal service it has invented the telegraph, the telephone, the radiograph. The ghosts won’t starve, but we will perish.

That was Franz Kafka, March 1922, a letter to his lover Milena Jesenská. It can be found in Letters to Milena, published by Schocken. I came across it in a brilliant new book by Jimena CanalesThe Physicist and the Philosopher.

Today’s Dead End Kids

Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013 (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)

Anonymous, Stockholm, 2013 (Jonas Bendiksen/Magnum Photos)

William Gibson, who invented the word “cyberspace” for his futuristic 1984 novel Neuromancer, has said that the notion came to him when he watched kids playing video games at an arcade in Vancouver. They stared into their consoles, turning knobs and pounding buttons to manipulate a universe no one else could see. They seemed to want nothing more than to vanish through the looking glass:

It seemed to me that what they wanted was to be inside the games, within the notional space of the machine. The real world had disappeared for them—it had completely lost its importance. They were in that notional space, and the machine in front of them was the brave new world.

“Cyberspace” was a nonsense word. He hoped it would pass muster for his science-fictional purpose: to evoke a domain that might be created by networked computers—“a consensual hallucination experienced daily by billions of legitimate operators, in every nation.” Thirty years ago there was no such thing.

Now billions of legitimate (and illegitimate) operators live simultaneously in two worlds, or in two divided and contrasted modes of experience. Terminology is still a problem. On one hand is “cyberspace” or “the online world” or “virtual reality” or, not quite accurately, “the internet.” On the other hand we speak of “the real world” or “meatspace.” IRL is a standard geek acronym for “in real life,” and Wikipedia, an institution of cyberspace, helpfully explains, “The real world is another term for reality.” Of course the dichotomy is flawed. Billions of people live their entire lives offline; and the smartphone-bearing zombies plodding blindly down our sidewalks still inhabit the real world even if their souls have gone elsewhere. And as for that other place, it may be virtual, it may involve that metaphorical “cloud,” but cyberspace is real, too. It intersects with, and clashes with, the old world.

In the beginning they were “trolls,” the cyberspace term for people who, in the real world, would be called assholes.

One of its defining creatures—to some its most intrepid, to others its most fearsome—is the entity known as Anonymous. I say “entity” because it is so difficult to pigeonhole. Organization? Movement? Sometimes it seems like little more than a brand, or an attitude, that anyone can adopt or discard at will. “Leaderless Internet hive brain” was the phrase Time magazine used in declaring Anonymous one of the World’s 100 Most Influential People (yes, “people”) of 2012. “Shadowy, snide international collective of hackers and online activists” was how The New York Times identified it this summer, when members of Anonymous crashed the municipal Web servers of Ferguson, Missouri, and revealed the name of the police officer who shot and killed eighteen-year-old Michael Brown—except that it turned out to be the wrong name.

Gabriella Coleman likes the word “collective.” She is a cultural anthropologist, now a professor at McGill University, and for several years has been a public authority on Anonymous, giving workshops and seminars all over the world on hacking and “hacktivism” and virtuality. Her new book, Hacker, Hoaxer, Whistleblower, Spy, tells a version of the story from the beginning, almost a decade ago, and from the inside. She wears various hats (or masks); she switches between being an academic observer and acting like a privileged member—an “Anon”—whatever membership means in this unorganized organization, which declares: “We are everyone and we are no one. We are Legion.”

The Anonymous phenomenon unfolds in a political sphere independent from, and often in conflict with, real-world governments. The online world spawns electronic militias and virtual liberation fronts. The United States Air Force has declared cyberspace a “battle domain.” Anons think of themselves as freedom fighters in a perpetual global cyberwar. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is happy to think of them as cyberterrorists. Anonymous has attacked the Church of Scientology and various pro-copyright organizations and has supported WikiLeaks and Occupy Wall Street. Coleman goes so far as to say that Anonymous, or its members, have been “integral, even, to some of the most compelling political struggles of our age.” Still, identifying its actual achievements, or even its activities, turns out to be a challenge.

In the beginning they were “trolls,” the cyberspace term for people who, in the real world, would be called assholes. Trolls seek attention by disrupting online conversation with taunts, insults, racial and sexual slurs, hoaxes, rape threats, gore, and scatology. Provocation is valued and truthfulness is not. (As Coleman says, “lies, guile, and fabrication are the tools of the trade—often wielded with pride.”) Trolls naturally tend to use pseudonyms—they want to be noticed but they don’t want to be seen, which creates a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. The trolls who began calling themselves, collectively, Anonymous emerged on the internet forum known as 4chan (created in 2003), specializing in particularly juvenile and malevolent prankishness. Users either hid behind pseudonyms like “weev” and “dirk diggler” or, more often, posted as the default user: Anonymous.

Actually, weev and dirk diggler were the same person, a notorious troll who used his anonymity to spew hate against blacks and Jews and, in 2010, begged Coleman for attention and appreciation. “This is my art, ma’am,” he said in a voicemail message. He urged her, “Google my name.” By her account, Coleman was both attracted and frightened. Some 4chan trolls specialized in violent sexual fantasies about female bloggers; others liked to “dox” people—expose private addresses and Social Security numbers to invite harassment.

What motivates the trolls? They like to say, “I do it for the lulz.” That means, approximately, for the laughs—“lulz” deriving from the internet acronym LOL (laughing out loud). It’s a special kind of laughter, though: venomous, directed at victims of pranks. Coleman abhors the cruelty but likes the lulz as “a deviant style of humor and a quasi-mystical state of being.” She puts on her professor’s hat: “I recognized trolls as kin to the tricksters of myth. After all, I am an anthropologist, and tricksters are a time-honored topic of anthropological rumination.” She has in mind such archetypes as Dionysus, Puck, and the Norse shapeshifter Loki.

Anonymity is incompatible with the formation of reputation, and reputation is a component of trust.

In another way, though, the trolls were also kin to those early video gamers whom Gibson observed disappearing into their fantasy universe, blasting away at avatars and cartoon monsters. In gaming, identities are freely adopted and just as freely discarded. No wonder trolls have trouble seeing their victims as real. When they post images of mutilation and call themselves golum and Violentacrez, they are acting as though they’re in a land of make-believe, where blood is made of pixels.

The trolls still come out in force. Over the past few months, a self-described movement known as GamerGate has made headlines with campaigns of harassment aimed particularly at women. Most gamers and most game developers are male; when female critics began to push back against a culture of misogyny celebrated by the games, they met a barrage of mostly anonymous rage. “Virtual rape” is now a term; so is “slut-shaming.” The GamerGate people are mainly anonymous, but that doesn’t make them Anonymous. On the contrary, people who consider themselves “Anons” have been embarrassed by these gamers, making their mischief and wreaking their havoc in the name of “open discourse” and “ethical debate.”

Much of GamerGate has played out on Twitter. In a comical moment in October, some of the gamers were seen trying to educate and harangue a user called ElizaRBarr, who turned out not only to be nonfemale but also nonhuman—a bot, using some simple artificial intelligence to generate her tweets. The same month, however, they attacked a feminist critic, Anita Sarkeesian, who had created a video series called “Tropes vs. Women in Video Games.” Sarkeesian was barraged with online vitriol and death threats. She was forced to cancel a talk she had planned at Utah State University after an anonymous e-mailer promised a gun massacre and the university police insisted that, under state law, attendees must be allowed to carry concealed weapons. That happened in real life.

Anonymous has a generally accepted origin story that hinges on a transition from trolling to political activism. In January 2008, participants in the 4chan board found a convenient enemy: Scientology, the cult or religion founded by the science-fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard in the 1950s. Scientology was famously secretive and doctrinaire, qualities any hacker could hate, and it made news that month through the leak of an internal promotional video featuring a glassy-eyed and inadvertently hilarious Tom Cruise. The video became a momentary Internet sensation. The church responded bluntly, threatening lawsuits against YouTube, Gawker, and many other websites. This was like trying to sweep up a spilled candy bowl at a six-year-old’s birthday party.

Calls to action began to appear on 4chan, from users logged in, as usual, as Anonymous:

Join the legion against Scientology, help in its demise, in its long awaited doom!… For when we are victorious, the chans will stand united in a new chapter of anonymous existence and batshit insanity, we will have begun our world take over. If we can destroy Scientology, we can destroy whatever we like! The world will be but our play thing.

And: “I’m talking about ‘hacking’ or ‘taking down’ the official Scientology website. It’s time to use our resources to do something we believe is right.”

What resources did they have? What powers could 4chan’s members bring to bear against Scientology, or at least its website? The primitive hacker weapon is the “denial of service” attack, or DoS, which can be multiplied and amplified as the “distributed denial of service” attack, DDoS. (Also known as: smurf attack, teardrop attack, syn flood, ping of death…) In a denial-of-service attack, the victim’s network is jammed with information packets spuriously demanding attention from its servers; the servers become overloaded and cease to function. It is much like hecklers flooding a lecture hall or trespassers blocking an abortion clinic, but in the physical world the trespassers can be seen, arrested, photographed, and fingerprinted.

In the information world, attacks can be automated and scaled up by orders of magnitude. So in 2008 an ad hoc group of trolls and hackers from the 4chan board flooded Scientology’s servers. For good measure, they also placed prank calls to the church’s telephone lines, sent black pages to its fax numbers, and had unpaid-for pizzas delivered to its doors, showing that they had not completely forgotten the ways of old.

None of this did Scientology much harm. But for Coleman and other aficionados of Anonymous history, the episode known as Chanology represents a turning point, the beginning of “sustained political will.”

“The unified bulk of anonymous collaborated through massive chat rooms to engage in various forms of ultracoordinated motherfuckery” is how a participant told the story to Coleman’s university class. “The ‘secrets’ of their religion were blasted all over the internet. I also personally scanned my bare ass and faxed it to them.” Coleman sees this as the event that turned Anonymous from aimless trolling to “one of the most potent protest movements of our times.” It got a lot of press. Demonstrators turned out at Scientology premises on three continents. “Came for the lulz; stayed for great justice, epic win, and moar lulz,” one protester at a street demonstration told Coleman.

The street protests were more photogenic than the DDoSing, particularly when protesters donned the stylized Guy Fawkes masks that have become a familiar part of the Anonymous brand. They succeeded in generating considerable television news coverage, which had the effect back in cyberspace of making Anonymous a more serious-seeming entity than its individual members had previously dreamed. By then Fox News had dubbed them “the internet Hate Machine,” which they naturally wore as a badge of honor. This overheated publicity becomes self-fulfilling.

One of the first lessons everyone learned about cyberspace was that, on the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog (as Peter Steiner put it in The New Yorker in 1993). It is liberating to think you can be whoever you want; to reinvent yourself, and keep reinventing yourself, as often as you like. As a technical matter, anonymity is not easy to achieve. Anyone can sign up for pseudonymous addresses from one of the free e-mail services offered by Google, Microsoft, and others. “Get an Alias for every you” is a Microsoft marketing slogan. Hotmail addresses are to online villains what disposable “burner phones” are to drug dealers. Still, the internet protocols generally assign traceable Internet addresses to users’ computers, and hiding one’s tracks requires at least a bit of knowledge and effort. All the more nowadays: a cryptographic arms race is underway between hackers and their pursuers in corporations and in government security agencies.

From the beginning, anonymity online has been both a promise and a threat. Democracies are meant to cherish whistle-blowers and protect unpopular speech. We all feel the need sometimes to shed our skins. On the other hand, even the most fervent advocates of anonymity admit that when Internet communities require real names, they experience epidemics of niceness and civil discourse. When they allow users to hide behind pseudonyms, the trolls return. After all, anonymity is incompatible with the formation of reputation, and reputation is a component of trust. Ebay built its online shopping service on the principle that persistent identity would be necessary: buyers and sellers rate one another and build up reputations over time. Uber, the online taxi service, works the same way: riders and drivers cannot hide behind masks, because trust is needed to make the system work.

Coleman sees a moral virtue in anonymity as an antidote to “fame-seeking” in a culture fascinated by celebrity:

Fame-seeking pervades practically every sphere of American life today, from the mass media, which hires Hollywood celebrities as news anchors, to the micro-media platforms that afford endless opportunities for narcissism and self-inflation.

Thus the ideal of Anonymous is, in one version, the “elimination of the persona, and by extension everything associated with it, such as leadership, representation, and status.” This leads to a sort of paradox. Who can “claim the name” of Anonymous? Anyone. The lack of identity may not be ideal for organizing a political philosophy or program, but that is not seen as a drawback.

Somehow, decisions are made. Coleman monitored chatrooms in real time to try to understand the process. Examples from a few different conversations may give the flavor—and by the way, Coleman occasionally warns the reader, with no apparent irony, that she has altered the “real” pseudonyms:

<gibnut>: if we can get into that server we can root tunisias .tn tld nameservers and control its entire internet space

<p-ground>: Arm the nuclear warheads guys.

<z>: 2 or 3 people standing around doesn’t look epic, it looks lame…. it’s gotta go viral, you know?

<lafdie>: btw mad props on the lolcats

Here they consider whether to attack the British Phonographic Industry (BPI)—a trade group automatically despised because Anonymous associates piracy with free speech and copyright with censorship:

<Anon8>: what has BPI done?

<Anon7>: Well

<Anon9>: Guys, do not discuss any drama in the main chat.

<Anon9>: We are here for propaganda. Lifting spirits….

<Anon9>: If we even INDICATE our efforts are “useless,” people will leave en-masse….

<Anon9>: We don’t have like 800 people because we tell the truth.

<Anon9>: we have 800 people that BELIEVE they are doing something.

They argue. They vote. Action may or may not be taken. These generals without names, summoning their legions to action, must sometimes feel like Glendower and Hotspur in Henry IV:

 Glendower: I can call spirits from the vasty deep.

 Hotspur: Why, so can I, or so can any man;

But will they come when you do call for them?

Coleman does not pretend that her story is neutral or detached. She dedicates the book to its subjects: “the legions behind Anonymous—those who have donned the mask in the past, those who still dare to take a stand today, and those who will surely rise again in the future.” Like Sarah Palin, she reserves particular contempt for “the mainstream media” (another collective entity that turns to smoke when you try to define it exactly). The media are clueless; the media buy into Anonymous’s branding; the media are the unwitting source of its power. She sees Anonymous as fragmented and amorphous and loves those qualities: “the wily hydra.” Her perspective is always partly anthropological, but she is also something of a romantic: “The pressure and desire to efface the public presentation of self,” she writes,

allows the participants to perform an admixture of their souls, conjuring into existence something always emergent and in flux. The number of relationships, fiefdoms, and cliques in simultaneous existence is largely invisible to the public….

Anonymous issues declarations, manifestoes, screeds. It also performs “operations” and “ops”—Operation Payback, OpTunisa, OpEgypt, Operation Anti-Security. Wired magazine declared in 2011, “Anonymous has grown up to become the net’s immune system, striking back whenever the hive mind perceived that the institutions that run the world crossed the line into hypocrisy.” How does it choose its targets? Not (by now this should go without saying) in any organized fashion. Just as anyone can claim to be part of Anonymous, so Anonymous can claim anyone as an ally or an enemy. Sometimes targets seem to arrive at fortuitous moments.

So it was in November 2010: the Anons were mostly idle, drifting, wondering what to do next, when Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks teamed with The New York TimesThe Guardian, and three other major newspapers to publish a quarter-million classified diplomatic cables. This had nothing to do with Anonymous, but within days they figured out a way to join the party: by encouraging DDoS attacks against companies that had cut off their services to WikiLeaks. There were four main targets: PayPal, MasterCard, and Visa, which had handled donations to WikiLeaks, and Amazon, which had hosted its website on its servers.

When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes.

Anonymous never quite made a coordinated decision; it was practically forced on them, Coleman says, by “confusion and happenstance.” Hackers used automated software—the cartoonishly named “Low Orbit Ion Cannon,” in “Hive Mind” mode—to flood the companies’ servers. They called it Operation Avenge Assange. The attacks had some effect—not on Amazon, which swatted them away, but on PayPal, a much smaller e-commerce company. Even the damage to PayPal was modest. The company said its servers had been slowed but had never crashed; on the other hand, in court, it estimated damages in the millions of dollars.

A wave of publicity ensued—The New York Times called Anonymous a “hacker army”—and the FBI treated the attacks as a wave of cybercrime. The cybercriminals were not exactly geniuses. The Low Orbit Ion Cannon left a trail of IPaddresses, better than footprints. By the next summer, the FBI had arrested and indicted fourteen young “suspected Anonymous members” who had called themselves by names like “Toxic,” “No,” “MMMM,” and “Reaper,” but who now turned out to have real names after all. Under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, they could have been subject to fifteen years in prison. That would have been draconian and was averted by plea bargains. Other Anons, in the United States and several other countries, are serving prison terms for similar offenses—virtual crimes, that is.

A feedback loop is at work here, a cycle of exaggeration and amplification. In 2012, the director of the National Security Agency, General Keith Alexander, warned the White House that Anonymous was acquiring the capability to attack the power grid; soon major newspapers were speculating about an Operation Global Blackout supposedly planned for March 31; anonymous Twitter users had a good laugh about it. When the Anons at their computer terminals call themselves freedom fighters, and law enforcement and security agencies call them terrorists, they are not working entirely at cross-purposes; they are empowering each other. We should have learned this much by now: denial-of-service attacks are an expensive online nuisance, but they should be confused neither with terrorism nor with freedom-fighting.

Anonymous is “everywhere,” Coleman concludes, but it is nowhere, too. It is “shifty” and “it simply consists of humans sitting at their glowing screens and typing.” It continues to reach both for new enemies and new friends—Arab dictators, Occupy Wall Street, Chelsea Manning, the police department of Ferguson, Missouri. And now: Edward Snowden. “The politically engaged geek family continues to grow,” she writes excitedly. You can see why Anonymous embraces Snowden: wizard of cyberspace and cryptography and—at last—an effectual opponent of the security state. Among Snowden’s revelations is that British intelligence has targeted Anonymous chatrooms with its own DDoS attacks. In the leaked documents, the spies, too, begin to sound like trolls, with their code-named ops, “Scrapheap Challenge” and “Spring Bishop,” spoofing e-mails and faking Facebook posts.

But Snowden is not anonymous. He needed to be believed and he let us see his face.

First published in the New York Review of Books, December 18, 2014.

Why Must an Author Twit?

I’m reading with the greatest pleasure Zoo Time, the latest novel by Howard Jacobson. The narrator is an author called Guy Ableman, and one of its subjects is the parlous state of publishing today.

In this scene, Ableman meets with his publisher, Merton — “a publisher of the old school” who “didn’t know what was what any more.” They have the following all-too-timely conversation:


“Do you know what I am expected to require of you?” he suddenly looked me in the eyes and said. “That you twit.”


“Twit, tweet, I don’t know.”

“And why are you expected to require it of me?”

“So that you can do our business for us. So that you can connect to your readers, tell them what you’re writing, tell them where you’re going to be speaking, tell them what you’re reading, tell them what you’re fucking eating.”

After that, the conversation naturally turns to “blagging.”

Jacobson, who turned 71 this weekend, does not tweet, as far as I can tell. I do, but at least I can say I’ve never tweeted about anything I was eating.

“You Are Old, Father Feynman”

You write a book; time passes. Toward the end of Genius I quote a bit of doggerel by “a young friend” of Richard Feynman:

You are old, Father Feynman …
And your hair has turned visibly grey;
And yet you keep tossing ideas around—
At your age, a disgraceful display!

Where did I find that? I have no memory.

Now comes email from Tom Ferbel, a distinguished particle physicist at the University of Rochester, claiming authorship. Ferbel has been around: Fermilab, CERN, the  Max Planck Institute, SLAC—wherever a big high-energy collider can be found. In 1977 he and Feynman met at a conference on multiparticle dynamics in Kayserberg, France. Feynman was 59—about this old:


Also present was Giuliano Preparata, a 35-year-old firebrand from Padua by way of Rome and Princeton, then working as a theorist at CERN. Apparently Preparata and Feynman got into a shouting match about quantum chromodynamics, then in its heyday, and the hypothetical elementary particles known as gluons. (Gluons are needed to bind quarks. They’re the glue in the strong nuclear force—get it?) For some reason, Preparata really didn’t like gluons.

Ferbel immediately set down his poem (with apologies to Lewis Carroll) while sitting in a bus full of physicists. “An amazing confrontation,” he says in his email. “Their argument had to do with QCD, and eventually led to Preparata’s irate and disgraced departure from the conference. I lost the poem, and was very pleasantly surprised to find it in your book.”

Here then, with Professor Ferbel’s permission, is the poem in its entirety:


You are old, Father Feynman, Preparata declared,
And your hair has turned visibly grey,
And yet you keep tossing ideas around —
At your age, a disgraceful display!

In my youth, said the master, as he shook his long locks,
I took a great fancy to sketching:
I drew many diagrams, which most thought profound
While others thought just merely fetching.

Yes I know, said the youth, interrupting the sage,
That you once were so awfully clever;
But now is the time for quark sausage with chrome —
Do you think you can last-on forever?

In your words, my young fellow, the crone did retort,
As his face turned perceptibly redder,
In your words I detect an impatience, I’m sure,
Which makes me decidedly madder

You are old, quoth the youth, in his accented speech,
While eyeing the throne of the Master:
Let me help you relinquish your sceptre next day.
Or would you prefer that much faster?

No, thanks, Giuliano, the sage did rebuff.
Enough of your own brand of sass:
Do you think I can listen all day to such stuff?
Be off, or I’ll kick-in your ass!

Total Noise, Only Louder

Kids used to ask each other: If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears, does it make a sound? Now there’s a microphone in every tree and a loudspeaker on every branch, not to mention the video cameras, and we’ve entered the condition that David Foster Wallace called Total Noise: “the tsunami of available fact, context, and perspective.”

When terrible things happen, people naturally reach out for information, which used to mean turning on the television. The rewards (and I use the word in its Pavlovian sense) can be visceral and immediate, if you want to see more bombs explode or towers fall, and plenty of us do. But others are learning not to do that.

(Photo: Dan Lampariello/Reuters (Blast, Close-up); The Daily Free Press/Kenshin Okubo/AP Images (Ripped Pants); John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Blood); John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Fallen Runner); David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Blast, Pulled Back))

(Photo: Dan Lampariello/Reuters (Blast, Close-up); The Daily Free Press/Kenshin Okubo/AP Images (Ripped Pants); John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Blood); John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Fallen Runner); David L. Ryan/The Boston Globe via Getty Images (Blast, Pulled Back))

The Boston bombings, shootings, car chase, and manhunt found the ecosystem of information in a strange and unstable state: Twitter on the rise, cable TV in disarray, Internet vigilantes bleeding into the FBI’s staggeringly complex (and triumphant) crash program of forensic video analysis. If there ever was a dividing line between cyberspace and what we used to call the “real world,” it vanished last week.

Microblogging and social media intruded sharply upon the chain of events. The @CambridgePolice, having tweeted SUSPICIOUS PACKAGE reports through Thursday night and Friday morning, stopped tweeting in case the 19-year-old fugitive Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was glued to his cell phone like everyone else (“monitoring police response via social media”). And why wouldn’t he be? The internet revealed his supposed Twitter name, which instantly acquired tens of thousands of new followers.

Reddit users assembled a crowd-sourced map of the Thursday-night shootings and car­jacking. The @Boston_Police begged other tweeters to stop “Broadcasting Tactical Positions of Homes Being Searched.” Someone instantly registered the domain name ­ in order to post a short message: “NO. NO, NO and NO.”

The slain MIT police officer, Sean Collier, was memorialized on an Officer Down Memorial Page. The Chechen president, Ramzan Kadyrov, a.k.a. kadyrov_95, turned to Instagram to announce that, whatever had happened, it was America’s own fault. One of the more popular Twitter hashtags was #surreal. That would have been useful for television news, too, if they had hashtags.

We need to get smarter about the vectors of time and information flow.

I managed to evade the television for several days after the bombing. You can get your cable news secondhand, via Twitter or the blogs, which is a little like using a mirror to avoid gazing upon the Gorgon directly. If you did that Wednesday afternoon, you knew something was going on when William Gibson tweeted some weather: “Fog ’o news pea soup solid in Boston right now.” Followed minutes later by the London journalist Charlie Brooker: “CNN is essentially just footage of reporters in the street staring in bewilderment at their iPhones.”

Fog of News was right. At 1:16 p.m., the reporter John King told the anchor Wolf Blitzer that the police had identified a suspect. “A dark-skinned male,” he said, a bit nervously, “because of the sensitivities some people will take offense even at saying that.” Blitzer said, “We can’t say whether the person spoke with a foreign accent or an American accent or anything like that, that would be premature.”

At 1:45, Blitzer cut back to King for “more information, exclusive reporting”—namely, that an arrest had been made. “A dramatic, dramatic shift,” King said. Meanwhile, and all along, background video loops: smoke and blood and people running. Carnage recycled as eye candy.

“I want to be precise, and I want to be sure we have it right,” said Blitzer at 1:51. “It’s important to get this information out there to the American public and important to get this information out there in general, but it’s much more important to make sure that we’re precise and accurate.” King replied: “An arrest has been made. Both Fran [Townsend]’s federal source and my Boston source say an arrest has been made.”

None of this, of course, was true. No arrest had been made. No suspect had even been identified. Nor was it “important to get this information out there in general.” There was no information, and no one needed it.

But when everyone is monitoring everyone else, no one can bear to be left out. Fox News, along with the Associated Press, the Boston Globe, and various local stations, leaped in to report the nonexistent suspect in custody. They all cited unnamed sources and later blamed the sources. The Keystone Koppish retreat lasted about an hour. My favorite bit came on CNN at 2:30, from Fran Townsend, former Homeland Security adviser to George W. Bush and now professional television “contributor”:

“The situation is very fluid … There was a misunderstanding, I mean, that was said to me, not so much that we have misunderstood but that there has been a misunderstanding and lots of cross-communications and understandably, as law enforcement tries to work through this, what they’ve got, who it is, what the purpose of that is, and what the next steps are. So, I myself have had conflicting reports, and I wanted just to be clear with you that they think that’s a result of the chaos and the quickly unfolding law-enforcement situation up in Boston.”⁠

Maybe it’s unfair to set down this kind of pressured utterance in print. But cable news generates verbiage in this hollow mode, minute after minute, hour after hour, when people are forced to speak even though they have nothing to say. It’s inherent in the enterprise. In most of what it does, continuous real-time broadcast news is a failed experiment.

We need to get smarter about the vectors of time and information flow. We know what the hurry is, of course. It is devoutly felt at CNN and Fox News that prestige or viewership or both depend on being the first, even if only by seconds, to announce practically anything. They continue to believe this, even though no one remembers which of them was first to announce erroneously that the Supreme Court had overturned the Affordable Care Act—rushing to botch a fact that had been officially released to the entire infosphere and would soon be universally available to everyone. “We gave our viewers the news as it happened,” Fox said smugly later that day.


t starts to feel as though we’re Pavlov’s dogs—subjects in a vast experiment in psychological conditioning. The craving for information leads to behaviors that are alternately rewarded and punished. If instantaneity is what we want, television cannot compete with cyberspace. Nor does the hive mind wait for officialdom. While the FBI watched and tagged and coded thousands of images from surveillance cameras and cell phones, users on Reddit and 4chan went to work, too, marking up photos with yellow arrows and red circles: “1: ALONE 2: BROWN 3: Black backpack 4: Not watching.”

Virtually everything these sleuths discovered was wrong. Their best customer was the New York Post, which fronted a giant photo of two “Bag Men”—who, of course, turned out to be a high-school kid and his friend, guilty of nothing but brown skin. If the watchword Wednesday was crowd-source, by Thursday it was witchhunt. Total Noise. But when the FBI’s database of 12 million mug shots offered no help, what could the authorities do but enlist the hive mind in the search?

Then, if you were really hooked, you joined the manhunt in cyberspace. Reporters tweeted as they ran. ­@Boston_Police tweeted warnings and at least one license plate. Cambridge residents tweeted the sound of sirens, the chatter on the police scanner, and photos of bullet holes. Outsiders tweeted their love of crowd-sourcing and their disdain for the old media.

“A dozen officer going into our yard …”

“@msnbc says brothers had bomb, @FoxNews says only a trigger @CNN is clueless…”

“SWAT is out on Laurel St.…”

“Boston Police to Twitter: ‘Stop making up fake Twitter accounts, stop tweeting our scanner, stop telling people where we’re going.’ ”

We’re starting to sense what may happen when everything is seen and everyone is connected. Bits of intelligence amid the din; and new forms of banality. Within hours of his death, the world could examine the videos Tamerlan Tsarnaev watched in his YouTube account and, on his Amazon wish list, some books he wanted.

First published in New York Magazine, April 20, 2013.

“She Was a Courier in the City”

That venerable carrier of information, the bike messenger, must surely be going obsolete. The reasons are obvious. Anyway, people have been saying so for twenty years.

William Gibson, as ever, has had a more complex view of what the future might bring. In 1993 (Virtual Light), he described a bike messenger as “one who earned her living at the archaic intersection of information and geography.” This was visionary:

The offices the girl rode between were electronically conterminous—in effect, a single desktop, the map of distances obliterated by the seamless and instantaneous nature of communication. Yet this very seamlessness, which had rendered physical mail an expensive novelty, might as easily be viewed as porosity, and as such created the need for the service the girl provided. Physically transporting bits of information about a grid that consisted of little else, she provided a degree of absolute security in the fluid universe of data. With your memo in the girl’s bag, you knew precisely where it was; otherwise, your memo was nowhere, perhaps everywhere, in that instant of transit.

Seamlessness and porosity. We have both.

Duo-stub Tardis action 23333049890641 11-14

Under the New York Public Library, November 2014


March of time, arrow of time, time warp

This is the kind of thing that’s buzzing through my head as I work on the next book. (It’s an N-gram, computed on the fly by Google here, from the contents of all the books they [in some cases illegally] scanned from libraries.)

time warp n-gram

(Were you wondering about those “time warp” occurrences in the early 19th century? They come from passages like this (1812): “By keeping up the sluices, and drains, and banks, the land can be refreshed at any time. Warp land has had crops of flax …”)