June 29, 2008

by Reb Yudel
What are the dreams of a TwentyFourSeven world?

Sean Voisen poses a fascinating question about cultural production:

There is a hypothesis that says that the purpose of sleep is to reinforce certain memories, or rather, neural connections, that were created during the previous day. Sleep does this not in a way that one might expect — by actually strengthening the connections — but rather by subtly washing away the neural connections created during the day that are deemed trivial or unimportant. Leaving only the most important ones remaining. A bit like waves washing gently on a rocky beach over thousands of years — eventually most of the rocks are turned to sand and only the largest rocks remain.

When it comes to the preservation of culture, time, I think, works quite similarly. Take literature, for instance. Of the many millions of bodies of text that have been created over the thousands of years since man first invented writing, only a very few have been continually preserved and set aside as “classics.” The rest were beaten into sand and washed away by the ocean of time.

isn’t a random process either. The Iliad or the Old Testament or Beowulf or Hamlet aren’t available to us today by mere fortunate happenstance. Society made great efforts to keep them in circulation and preserve them. If culture is like a brain distributed across a certain population, and time is its sleep, then these cultural works are the synapses that matter. Somehow. Even though when you read them in high school it doesn’t seem that way.

Will the Internet and digital storage media do away with this form of cultural sleep? If everything can be preserved, whether or not it is of significant cultural value, will it? Where then will classics come from? Or will culture break down into nervous chaos — where everything is of equal importance and so nothing is of importance at all — perhaps like the mind of a chronic insomniac?

Even in a digital world, preservation of information still requires time, money and resources, albeit small. Websites come and go. So do blogs. They are more ephemeral even than books. So, perhaps the reverse will be the case — that because we can preserve anything, we don’t produce anything worth preserving, and thus preserve nothing at all. Either way, in the future, the mechanisms by which culture evolves will almost surely be different.

At Ben Yehuda Press, we're trying to capture the best of today's Jewish culture -- much of it already flickering on screens -- and pin it down into books we hope will become classics for this generation, and beyond.

It's sobering to think that outside cultural forces beyond our control and prediction will determine whether our collection will prove to be -- to switch metaphors slightly -- a thriving cultural preserve, a zoo, or a collection of fossils.

I'm convinced, however, that just as neither a DNA sequence or a YouTube clip is the one best way for preserving an animal, so too the medium of books -- whether stand-alone or read on a device -- will maintain an important place.

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