Two seemingly unrelated things caught my attention this week.
The first: a couple of old commercials from Apple. Younger folk may not remember these ads from 20 or so years ago, which emphasized doing creative things and making the world a better place. The Power To Be Your Best was their tag line then. Yeah, I know it’s just a slogan created by advertisers—those cynical, martini-guzzling lizards—but there was a time, not long ago, when computers were seen—especially by Apple—as devices to unleash your creativity and nourish your better angels:
…Even if sometimes Apple’s approach was a bit good-naturedly tongue-in-cheek:
Now our electronic devices are being sold as extensions of our egos, toys to take pictures of our feet and our lunches and our vacations, and post updates about what inane things we’re doing every 30 seconds.
Basically, there’s been a seismic shift in the last decade or so in the way we see computers and what we see ourselves doing with them, a change from idealism to narcissism. And I haven’t seen anyone comment on or even acknowledge it.
The second thing was a speech this past weekend at the Edinburgh Writers Conference delivered by Dr. Ma Thida, Burmese writer imprisoned for more than five years by strict censorship rules. She spoke about the need for literature if society is to remain free. “Publishing is not always related to freedom,” she says:
In my own country, we had the Press Scrutiny Board for nearly five decades. This censorshipboard prohibited the publication of some literature. In the early 1980s, it took from one to two years to get permission to publish a novel. Even with permission, there would be much editing. Sometimes writers decided not to publish because of immense and nonsensical editing by the censorship board.
The vital link between literature and freedom may have once been self-evident, back in the days of those Apple ads. Today the thinking is more that our life’s avocations are merely self-gratifications and literature and other “liberal arts” pursuits are masturbatory activities. The words of David Coleman, president of the U.S. College Board (those people who bring you the SATs) rang through my ears: “Forgive me for saying this so bluntly. The only problem with a [personal narrative] writing is, as you grow up in this world, you realize people really don’t give [expletive] about what you feel or what you think.” If he thinks this is what one does in a humanities class, I wonder if he’s ever taken one.
Mr. Coleman wants to see the study of literature and other mamby-pamby liberal arts pursuits diluted (to use a polite word) from the newfangled Core College Curriculum. Students, he says with a straight face, should be learning “practical” skills, reading programming manuals instead of silly Steinbeck. All the better to generate those nifty apps we can buy for 99 cents from Apple—today’s Apple, which seems more concerned with giving you the ability to check when your favorite multiplex is playing a movie than empowering you to be your best.
Investors and owners didn’t want editors who were willing to test tolerance or censorship, or take the costly and time-consuming risk of reprinting manuscripts. Some editors refrained from accepting any work which might be censored heavily. As no definitive rules were set out by the censorship board, it was sometimes hard to predict what might be censored or not.
My overall point is that not only are freedom and literature intertwined, but that not long ago the new wave of computers (personal computers) were at least partly tools in the pursuit of the humanities. Apple’s founder, Steve Jobs, was the ultimate sixties beatnik, who cited calligraphy as the most influential class he took in college and who read Dylan Thomas and listened to Bob Dylan and studied art and trekked to India. He spoke highly of those liberal arts “weirdos.” Remember the opening line to Apple’s famous comeback commercial that kicked off its “Think Different” campaign: Here’s to the crazy ones… Whatever happened to that kind of talk?
Parting thought: something I’d love to ask Dr. Coleman, if I ever met him: if literature is so useless, why is it the first people imprisoned when dictators take power are writers and artists?
Something to think about on this day of freedom in the U.S.A.
You can read Dr. Thida’s entire Edinburgh speech here.