Monday, July 23, 2007

That Wizard Book, Viruses, and Maybe Iraq

I wonder what it feels like to have your book burned?

Does J.K. Rowling feel offended or hurt? Liberated? Does she laugh all the way to the bank? I can't really imagine how I would feel about it, much less someone I've never met. I don't really know quite what to think about it.

The idea of burning books is just... repugnant. It's something you don't do in the modern world. The immediate mental associations with book burnings are witch burnings and Nazi cultural cleansing, neither of which are things that most people are eager to claim as their inspiration. The modern, enlightened individual just doesn't destroy information; it's why the fall of the Library of Alexandria is counted as one of the most devastating destructive acts in human history.

What drives these people? What could make a functional, thinking adult afraid of a collection of words on paper? Books don't possess any motive force. They can't do or harm anything. Platitudes to the contrary, words and information are neither powerful or dangerous; it is and always has been people who are dangerous, whether the tool they use is a rumor or a gun. It is when ideas reach people that there is danger. History has shown us that the struggle to prevent ideas from reaching people, to suppress information, is an ugly, destructive, and ultimately futile exercise generally undertaken only by dangerous people.

And it seems to me that the type of people who feel that certain thoughts - certain words that contain information that doesn't seem to accommodate their own favorite words - must be purged from the world by flame or by force are very, very dangerous people indeed.

WARNING: The following paragraphs will involve some speculation and possibly certain liberties with the hard and fast boundaries of current knowledge for the sake of ease of explanation. Nevertheless, I will represent everything as correctly as I can.

Ideas can, in some regards, take on a life of their own, and I don't speak metaphorically when I say that. Those who are familiar with meme theory may already have some inkling of what I mean, but for those who don't: a meme is a single piece of information or idea, of variable complexity but generally at least a complete thought, which acts in certain regards very much like the information encoded biologically in a gene. Like genes, memes influence the "host" organism that carries them in order to ensure their own replication; in the case of genes, this replication involves the reproduction of the host. In the case of memes, it simply involves communicating ideas. In a way, then, ideas can be viewed as a form of near-life on par with, and indeed virtually identical in principle to, viruses.

Unfortunately, unlike the body, the human mind does not seem to have been evolved with a robust immune system. Indeed, it seems as if humans will take in and support almost any idea, and it is only other, pre-existing ideas which prevent the uptake and acceptance of new ones. Since humans are almost never raised in a complete cultural vacuum, it is difficult to separate what is genetic instinct from what is learned unconsciously or at a very early age, but it does seem fairly certain that while some faculties, at least, are "hardwired" in, most behaviors that we undertake are learned either through experience or through communication with other individuals; and what we learn is definitely a mixed bag. Humans are very susceptible to infection by information.

There is genetic evidence, and a body of theory, which suggests that during human evolutionary history, certain viruses became virtually endemic to human populations, and were eventually, over the course of many generations and through a process of pathogenic attenuation, incorporated into human DNA as nonfunctional pseudogenes or other segments of DNA of varying levels of expression. I use "pathogenic attenuation" to refer to the process by which communicable diseases tend to become less deadly to their hosts over successive generations and during transmission to new hosts, since the organisms which kill their hosts less quickly generally have more chance to spread themselves.

In other words, the body of human information - the human genome - adapted to and overcame these viral threats not by the war undoubtedly waged on them by countless immune systems, but by assimilating them and rendering them harmless. A virus is nothing more than a length of genetic material with a delivery system - a biological data packet. Instead of continuing to wage an endless, impossible war against information, our ancestors eventually won by accepting it.

If this strategy was the ultimate answer for our bodies, which already possess a powerful, diverse immune system for the explicit purpose of fighting off or destroying invaders, how much more important must it be for our minds, relatively undefended as they are? Ideas are powerful influences on humans, and humans are powerful. As I mentioned earlier, attempting to stop the spread of ideas is a futile and destructive pursuit, as governments and churches throughout the ages have discovered; and that, ultimately, is what makes the assimilative strategy so very vital.

The fool who takes arms against an idea - be it Hogwarts Academy or the Heliocentric Model or Terror - inevitably misses his target. He damages his intended intangible not even a little, but seldom fails to do grievous harm to his fellow man. Concepts cannot be killed, but human beings certainly can.

Take information into yourselves. Use your faculties for critical thought to evaluate it, and place it in the hierarchy of information where it belongs. Let it strengthen you. Never fight and never flee from learning; only fools, frauds, and cowards try, and their efforts are ever wasted. There is never anything to fear from information. If something you learn conflicts with something you know, you can lash out and try to destroy the new data, or you can figure out the truth, act accordingly, and grow stronger for it. Information is what it is; you may like it or you may not, but you can't fight it and win.

And burning every book in the world won't change that.

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