Thursday, September 9, 2010

Night of the Living Word

The Florida preacher has cancelled his plans to burn copies of the quran on the 9th anniversary of the attacks on September 11th. President Barack Obama and Defense Secretary Robert Gates impressed upon the Rev. Terry Jones that this act would result in more violence and terrorism.

Burning books can ignite wars, but you can delete a hundred thousand bible.pdf's with no effect on the real world. Both printed books and e-books are easily duplicated, exist in millions of backup copies all over the world, and the information that defines each will not be permanently lost from the destruction of a few symbolic copies. What makes these acts different? What is it that imbues the physical object of the book and the act of incineration with such power?

If burning a book is like sacrificing a beloved but abundant animal, deleting a file is akin to recycling an empty can of beans. There are no emotional repercussions because a digital file is lifeless. Both contain the same information, but where exactly where does the life that is extinguished in a physical book's destruction reside? Does the living word reanimate the dessicated wood pulp within the page? Is the soul of language sleeping within the curves of the ink letters or born of the ritualistic actions that a pen or printing press must go through to conjure the symbols onto paper? The data spreadsheet resulting from the Human Genome Project is not the same as the first cry of a newborn human baby, and so perhaps we are similarly aware that ones and zeros only ever amount to a blue print, and that pixels are mere simulation.

Would we mourn for Wikipedia as we did for the Library of Alexandria?

Once we create a digital file worth crying or killing over we will know we have achieved Artificial Life.

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