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How many horses do you have, Mr. Elamite?

How many horses do you have, Mr. Elamite?

Writing that Lasts

20 Jan 2013

So the books I've been reading this week are Lost Languages and Digital Barbarianism by Mark Halperin. Lost Languages is an amazing read about ancient scripts and how they were deciphered or not. My kid is such a smartypants that I've told her that from now on she has to do all her math assignments in Linear B.

I came to Halperin's book with an open mind, because as a professional writer I'm sympathetic to wanting to make a living from your art, no matter how ephemeral it is. But like a lot of conservative commentators, he conflates issues, draws invalid analogies, and engages in ideological attacks that lead him to equate (for example) group projects in social studies with Viet Cong re-education camps and the editors of Wikipedia with Joseph Stalin. So I don't know that I'm really following this argument. The part I do follow suggests that because of the importance of information in this age, copyright should be treated more like an institution or commodity that can be passed down to one's children and grandchildren for a long time (longer than 70 years).

Over the years, most of the hundreds of thousands of words I have written are available in the public domain, and many have been endlessly revised to reflect changing conditions. When people steal my words (which they do all the time), I weep not one tiny tear. Like Halperin, I enjoy the craft of writing--puzzling together the right arguments, words and phrasing. Unlike Halperin, who believes himself to be a transcendent writer for the ages, I see my work as very utilitarian. You can be a hair stylist who takes great pride in her craft and still allow customers to grow their hair out and even let others give the same haircut. I guess I see writing as a service and I make a good enough living from it.

Back to Linear B, Etruscan and Elamite/ proto-Elamite. Most of the writing we have in these languages goes against the grain of how I've always thought ancient people thought of writing. Far from being a mystical tool to fix and amplify power, this writing was all about accounting and doing business. In fact, the first breakthroughs on Linear B and the only breakthroughs for Elamite have been in recognizing and calculating the mathematical symbols. Although language and modes of written expression change all the time, you can't really ever change how many cows you've got if you've got six. The Etruscans used writing for a different kind of record keeping; grave inscriptions (death and patrimony being another kind of human constant). However, because these receipts for wineglasses, organizational charts and inscriptions have survived for thousands of years, they have become as riveting as Shakespeare (to some-- to me, at least).

This week I had to write an article on climate change, and it got me thinking about what our writing will mean to people a thousand years from now, and what of our writing will even be available. Certainly I think that any writing I've done for digital media will be long gone. What's the point of copyright for writing that won't even last. I'm producing a digital publication now about some 160-year old sketches and I have little hope that the ebook or DVD will last as long as the sketches have. Far from worrying about copyright past 70 years, I feel like the greatest threat to our modern writing is the changing nature of the technology we use to write.

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