Emerick and Clay Shirky

The story doesn’t start with this name, Emerick.  It ends with it.

It starts about fourteen years ago, when I was a Sophomore in college, at St. John’s (http://www.stjohnscollege.edu/).  In the autumn of that year, I got into the habit of waking at 4:30 a.m. to read Greek.  I would consequently get pretty tired in the afternoon.  It became somewhat habitual to take a nap in the library in between studies.  Here’s the library:

meem_upper One afternoon I had a vivid dream, or kind of a day-mare.  I dreamt that I could sense all the books in the library… and that they were mad at me.  They were restless and making small noises and gesticulating a little on the shelves.  The light was low.  There was a small murmuring of voices coming from the books, but not human voices… voices like wind and rattles and leaves rustling, but somehow in concert and somehow addressing me.  I walked through the stacks and the books began to move more violently and their tonality became crisper and their organization more like one thing quaking.  Then a screech erupted out of a shelf in front of me as one sole book departed from the shelf and flew into the narrow path I was on, it came right at me, its binding flapping like a bat and an unworldly cacophany coming from it.  I ran towards the open library and turned around as I emerged: the whole stack was taking flight and thousands of books, howling and screeching in unison flew at me.

I woke up sweating in the middle of the library, at about five in the afternoon.  The girl on the couch next to me was not pleased.

I have had dreams like this throughout my life: that there is a great force, far outside of my control, and that force is not happy with me.  It is becoming clearer what these forces are.  I think they represent larger contexts, our environments, the things we surround ourselves with.  A library is not just a sanctuary of culture, catalog of human thought over thousands of years (especially the St. John’s College library), it is a forest… and the forest was angry in my dream.  The voices calling to me were not those of Plato, Herodotus, Hume, and Isaac Newton… they belonged to nymphs and bats, fireflies and birds and wasps.

Later on I read that sentence of Margaret Atwood: “Our books should be written on the skins of fish, with the blood of bears.”  That’s how important a book should be.  714275

92662596nqhjbq_fsI drove down to Powell’s (pillar of books at left) today to do two things: 1) look at a  book on tree houses that I saw a few years ago… because I’m going to build a tree house for my nephew in a couple weeks, and 2) buy a book called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky (right: http://www.shirky.com/herecomeseverybody/).  I was enthralled by the tree house book.  I told myself I was going to buy it.  I carried it toward the section where I would find Clay Shirky’s book and suddenly was struck with an epiphany… a feeling vivid like the dream I’d had in school.  The tree house book is made out of the stuff that the tree houses are intended to live in.  We are cutting trees down to write books about how to make houses in the places that we’re cutting down to make more books about how to make those places.  There’s a problem there.  Why wouldn’t I just make a tree house?  Or look to another resource for tree houses.  Like what?  Well, what about this:

treehouse-fall-04-gifI found that in about eight seconds on the internet.  It’s from this site: http://treehouseguy.wordpress.com/ and you can find building drawings like this:

tbr-deck-schematicAnd as I look around at just the initial findings of a goolge search of “tree house” there are not only many more resources for tree house constructions, but many redundancies to what I had seen in the book.  These are offered up not because people are marketing a service or creating proprietary domains for tree house resources… they’re just into tree houses.  So with a little work on the computer I can put together a powerful collection of tree house information, without cutting down a tree.  Somehow it is not as immediately satisfying as a book, not as tactile, and I don’t get the satisfaction of sitting down late at night under a lamp with a cup of tea and slowly leafing through the pages of my own book.  But I can dim the computer screen and still have tea and play some quiet music and get a pen and paper out and start drawing plans, inspired the work of others’ accomplishments.  And it’s free and totally ecological.  This is not including a fairly complex calculation of what energy is required to manufacture a computer (and the percentage of the machine’s computing energy and lifetime dedicated to my tree house research among everything else I’m doing), or the electricity required to run one.  I’m sure, however, that in the long run those resources are drastically smaller than the forested trees, and the long production of a glossy paged book.

So I didn’t buy the tree house book.  I went to the sociology section where Clay’s book lives.  The meter on my parking spot was running out, the bookstore was insufferably crowded, I had to pee, and I was overcome with this realization that books are a decaying form of human history recording methods.  Nonetheless, I found his book, began reading it, and began questioning.  I already know the essential message of his book: that social media devices are beginning to somewhat magically organize human efforts such that they greatly out-perform institutional organization.  The idea is that human beings have passions and activities that they are willing to engage in for free.  They will do so on the internet and form organizations of vast resources, such as wikipedia.  But I want to read the book.  I don’t have the argument all the way down, just from the lectures I’ve seen.  If someone asks, “have you read blah blah blah,” I want to say yes.  I want to read the book.  But I was sitting there looking at the book in this context; well, in a couple of contexts: one being that there is another way to get this information without killing trees, and the other being that that is somewhat the very subject of this book I’m holding in my hands: THE INTERNET.  My question is, why aren’t we innovating faster?  Do we really have time for books like this.  I mean books: paper and pulp and cardboard and glue and chemicals.  I just want the idea, to make notes about it, and use it for what I need.  That need may be very different from what you need.  So it’s kind of a question for Clay: why not just put this book on a kindle:

the_raw_feed_on_kindle-bigand publicize the hell out of what you’re doing, i.e. not making books?

There are a lot of reasons for that, I’m sure.  The most important being that he, like all of us, wants to make money.  And I saw how many people were in that bookstore today buying books, old fashioned books, on paper, printed with ink (http://pubs.acs.org/cen/whatstuff/stuff/7646scit2.html).

I guess my question about this incredible change that we’re in the middle of is: how do we design within this immense shift?  And by “design,” I mean, how do we improve human life quality?  And that means, how do we preserve a wildness of heart, a sanctity of wild places, a sense of bonding and community, and create an heirloom for our children, not a liability.

I went to the grocery store after the bookstore, to buy food to eat, so that I can keep living and buying books and making tree houses.  The check out clerk had a name tag: Emerick.  At first I just read it.  Then I said it over in my brain.  I don’t know why, but I asked him, “What does that name mean?  Emerick?”  He looked at me and said that it was the germanic form of the word “america,” the word for “lord of industry.”  I had more flashes of light.  We are a land of industry, for better or worse.  And it turns out that the Americas are named so after Amerigo Vespucci, who sailed along the coasts of South America in 1501 (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amerigo_Vespucci), and who was supposedly named after this guy: Emeric of Hungary, also a saint (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Emeric_of_Hungary)  His name seems to be derived via some germanic permutations, from the latin word, emery, or almeric.  This is a good musing upon it: http://www.hundeshagen.org/emmerichdername.html.  Though not totally transparent, this Hungarian Saint was a god-king and was closely related to the god of work, or industry.  It is somehow perfectly pertinent that this god-king descendent was there today to tell me he came from the original god-king, the archetype of our country of industry.  Almost all of the major degredation of the environment began at the inception of industrialization.  America far and away innovated that process: we are the work-king.  Now we must become the design-king.  And redefine “design.”  For now I’m weary, but I will sleep on the questions of our nation’s origins and what we must do to begin this re-design.  I guess the question is, “what can I do?”

I am putting together a group called The Archimedes Coalition that will take up questions of energy consumption, industrial design, and infrastructure planning in a wiki format (for now), but with a mission of becoming a server technology for how to begin answering these immediately pressing questions… things like, “do I buy this book?”  How do I get funding to get my house off the grid, etc.  You can visit it here: http://benshook.com/archimedes/index.php?title=Main_Page.

In the end it is a question of lifestyle.  Our solutions have to be fun, palatable, respectful, easy, etc.

What’s your take?