On my way into work this morning, I nearly finished the latest book I’m reading, Paradise by the late Donald Barthelme. I will finish it on the train home tonight, just two days after finishing the last book I read, The Quiet Girl. Hopefully I will not be in Orinda at the time.
The book is short and has fairly big type and is pretty much a novella, so it’s not like this rapidity is a reflection of anything other than that. I guess it’s also an engagingly quick read. Up next is the longest book I will probably ever read, David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest, checking in at over a thousand pages. I’m looking forward to it, I think, even though Wallace probably annoys me at least as much as he impresses me. I suspect I would hate him in person. But if I’d grown up with him, I’d have infinite admiration for him. Life is often all a matter of perspective. See also friends may just be assholes you like.
But this (length of books and time to read them, not DFWallace’s personality) got me thinking about my own writing and how many words it takes to convey something. I think it was my Dad who told me early on that a standard of “making it” as a writer was writing one’s first million words. I think he got this from his grandmother Hemme, who he writes about in his most recent post. I haven’t really sat down and calculated where I am on my own road to a million, but I suspect I might be getting close. It depends on what counts. E-mails? That would clinch it for sure. The Legend of Enutrof? That would certainly help. The website counts, and Introspection alone probably gets me up there. I should do a count.
But then it occurred to me, as my train approached Powell, that writing is not a matter of actually writing a million words. Probably there are no more than few thousand words actually in play, no matter how many millions one “writes”. What writing is (and I think this has hit me before, but not as clearly) is a matter of distribution. One is not creating, per se, so much as allocating. One could go a step further to reveal that one is simply allocating letters and punctuation… distributing not from a pool of a few thousand so much as about forty. The realization doesn’t really translate to Chinese, but is probably viable for everyone else. Even if it’s just words and not symbols, it’s an incredible thought that what matters is the distribution, and one is not making new stuff.
It’s incredible in part because it’s the story of our planet at this time (and probably for the last few centuries). There were probably times when distribution of resources was not the central question of humanity… times when communities were extremely isolated and lived on the edge of extinction at all times. When a drought hit, people died. There were real shortages.
Those times are long gone, replaced by a heartening era in which we are not shy what we need, but we simulate that idea through mismanaged distribution. This is not revelatory, but I feel like it needs to be broadcast on all the radio stations at infinite volume for a week or so. Then maybe people would get it. Would understand. No one starves on this planet for any reason other than distribution. And a load of people are starving, starving literally to death, every day. Thousands. Because of distribution.
Mismanaged distribution’s partner in crime in this enterprise of starving and otherwise abusing people is the myth of ownership. The concept that we somehow possess things, or should, even though we all are on a one-way train off this planet forever, and will leave with nothing in tow. My friend Russ is continually mindblown that people are willing to pay $1 for pixelated “gifts” on Facebook to send to each other, when there is no reality or purpose to these items. He and I both spent years of our life subscribing at a $10-$15/month clip to an online role-playing game where we bartered in all manner of fake goods that were no more than the transmitted image of pixels. Both of these are stunning emblems for the entire reality of ownership on Earth… it’s just a collective illusion that we partake in which has no lasting value or meaning.
Ownership, as a limited and controlled concept, does have some practical benefits. It can be very hard to share the whole world all at once without drawing some lines and dividing things up. I think it’s possible, but we’re not there yet. However, that doesn’t mean that a redistribution project the size of the world is not in order. The point is that once we look through all the economic nonsense people proliferate on this planet, we see that all any item or its possession really is, in reality, is a collective agreement to suspend disbelief. We all hold hands and together just agree that such and such will be the value of a dollar, that this person deserves to live in that house, that this country belongs to those people. There are strong assertions, as well as threats and use of violence, backing these things up. But really, at their fundamental core, is the willingness to go along with the suspension of disbelief. Forget the invisible hand, it’s the whole invisible enchilada. Who says we’re not a nation of believers anymore?
If we were to redistribute, the starvation thing would go away, and the homelessness thing, and the lack of clothing (though really, when was the last time someone was at risk for a lack of clothing? I think that one’s been solved despite the famed food/clothing/shelter trifecta being so popular). Everyone could be on an equal footing, without the wealth and poverty.
I hear you economists in the back. You’re worried about incentives and motivation. Without a bunch of metal or paper that symbolizes the suspension of disbelief, how could we possibly have our food and shelter and… stuff?
First, about the stuff. We don’t need it. Really. I mean, I love the internet, but I’d trade it for the assurance that every person will get food and shelter. And medicine, probably. That’s about all we really need.
So how many people do we actually have to motivate? We need farmers for sure. And builders. Maybe not even builders at this point so much as building maintenance folks. Don’t we have enough buildings at this point? Clothing-makers. Clothes wear out, after all. People to get the resources that go into clothing, which is mostly back to the farmers. Doctors, I suppose. Teachers, I guess, but the curriculum needs some major changes.
Everyone else can be thinkers. Artists. Creators. Isn’t that what most of us ultimately want to do? That… and help people? (See above for how to help people.)
The rest, I must say, is just crap. Everything else. Which is not to say that what you’re doing (how many of you are doing one of the above things?) is crap, given the circumstances. The circumstances are also crap, and require adjustments. I work for Glide, a nonprofit that helps provide things for the victims of distribution. 90% of us here believe we are doing something the government should be doing, but isn’t, so they need us. We are desperately trying to put ourselves out of business. Until redistribution, it’s not going to happen though. So, yeah, what I’m doing is crap. We shouldn’t need it. We don’t need it. We need redistribution.
I am part of the problem. I buy stuff. I spend my time interested in and investing in crap. We all do it, unless we are a victim of distribution and instead can focus only on survival. It’s the sad result of a really powerful collective delusion.
Have I still not answered the motivation question? There are a lot of folks who would advocate that we should all be self-sufficient… everyone their own farmer, builder (or maintainer), sewer, doctor, and teacher. It’s feasible. It’s a stretch, it would take all someone’s time, it would be a half-step above the survival level, but it could be done.
However, as I often say, we’re not all alone on our own individual planets for a reason. We’re supposed to be in this together.
So I’m a firm believer in specialization. Everyone should be an expert at something. And if you’re worried that that’s not enough work, then everyone can take a rotation turn at whatever’s undesirable work. We’ll all pitch in on the farm with 20% of our time. Or get a choice of building, farming, or sewing for a third of our time. The rest of the time, we can think. Interact. Develop the higher arts. Ponder. Focus on what’s important. Unlearn fear, collective suspension of disbelief, and shortage.
I think enough people would be satisfied with being full-time farmers or builders or what have you, reveling in their extra-beneficial role to society and their friends, that we wouldn’t even need rotations. But it might take some time of taking turns first.
Maybe it sounds too simple. Communication and transportation would be severely limited. We could have some system for these things, maybe, although I’m not convinced they’re strictly necessary. It’s nice to see the world and to maintain contact with distant friends. They might be luxuries we could redevelop over time. But there’s something about all that movement that seems wasteful to me today. Maybe just in the transportation. Communication is always probably good. But one system and stick with it, not ever-slightly-better technology. At the point where we have instant communication, we can stop. Maybe we can keep the internet after all.
Until then, we are all (in some way) victims of distribution. No one is poor. No one has shortages. Everyone who suffers for basic needs does so because humanity is too selfish and stupid to break out of this mess. Collectively. Clinging to our illusions.
Maybe if I can redistribute a million more words, others will start redistributing everything else?
It’s just about all I’ve ever wanted out of this lifetime. That, and a Mariners jersey. We all have a long way to go.