Mark Helprin’s Hardcopy Barbarism

A few weeks ago, I tried to make my way through Mark Helprin’s book Digital Barbarism: A Writer’s Manifesto, and I gave up about halfway through (more truthfully, I accidentally left it in a hotel room while on a business trip but did not regret it).  Now, with the publication of a review of this book in the New York Times Book Review, I am no longer afraid of my own opinion, even though it’s based on an incomplete reading: this is a terrible book.

Digital Barbarism resulted from an op-ed column that Helprin, a highly regarded novelist, wrote a couple of years ago calling for the further extension of the term of copyright.  The intensely vitriolic online response he received – hundreds of thousands of online comments, blog posts, etc. – stunned him into insensibility. That is the only plausible explanation for how an acclaimed, accomplished writer can publish such a pompous, curmudgeonly, incoherent, and poorly researched screed.  It is as hard to slog through as it is full of inaccuracies and gratuitous ad hominem attacks.

And the only plausible explanation for how a respected house (HarperCollins, which did not publish Helprin’s novels) could publish this book is that an editor there liked its core message: content creators should be able to get paid for their work; the current trend of scholarly thought in the copyright world jeopardizes content creation by ignoring or denying its value; this in turn jeopardizes the richness of culture and the integrity of information.

This is a worthwhile message that deserves a coherent, creditable, and persuasive book expounding it.  It’s really unfortunate that no one has written such a book.  Digital Barbarism is the most squandered opportunity to do so since Clifford Stoll’s Silicon Snake Oil in 1995. Andrew Keen’s The Cult of the Amateur (2007) is the best book-length discussion to date on the Internet’s negative effects on copyright, but even that was undone by Keen’s snarky tone.  The best overall piece has been from computer scientist and composer Jaron Lanier.  Lanier’s 2007 Times op-ed was a mea culpa with respect to his “piracy is your friend” piece of nine years previous.

When will we get to read a well-organized, well-researched work about the erosion of value of content that is written by someone with credibility who is not a recondite copyright scholar, a media industry shill, or an Internet Luddite?   I’m still waiting.


  1. Well, that’s not the actual book I’m writing, but I expect I will meet your other criteria.

  2. Ignoring Helprin’s silly argument, the big problem is that information or “content” has now moved to the PC/internet, a completely new technological platform, yet unimaginative creators continue to want to take their old forms and place them online. We will see an explosion of new forms of media online, where you’re only limited by what ideas you can get a programmer to code for you, but hand-wringing about the value of content is all creators seem to want to do. The reason for this is that content creators are economically and technologically illiterate so they’re waiting for the techies to build a platform for them, that they can then jump onto. However, the techies are economically illiterate and so have never deployed a usable micropayments system. This might finally be changing this year as the WSJ has announced that they’re working on a micropayments system, MySpace claims to have one in the works too. Micropayments are the key, they will catalyze all the change that is necessary. People do not experiment unless they know they’ll get paid for it. 🙂

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