In 1952, a 32-year-old man called the Los Angeles fire department and asked them at what temperature paper burned.
Strange question, yes.
But the man had just written a book on a rental typewriter in the basement of a nearby university’s library. And now he needed to give it a name.
Fortunately, the fireman on the other end of the line humored him.
“Fahrenheit 451,” he said.
The man hung up the phone. He had his title.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Cautionary Questions For a Cautionary World
Ray Bradbury’s book, Fahrenheit 451, of course, is a classic. Even the introduction, written by Neil Gaiman, is brilliant.
In it, Gaiman talks about the power of cautionary questions.
There are three phrases, says Gaiman, which make it possible for speculative fiction (also known as science fiction) writers to write about the “world of not-yet.”
Fiction takes an element of life today and asks what would happen if that thing became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved.
These phrases are…
If this goes on… ?
These three questions help speculators to frame possible timelines for the future, wild as they may be, and to see what may come of them if the train remains on track.
Gaiman elaborates on the three phrases:
“What if … ?” gives us change, a departure from our lives. (What if aliens landed tomorrow and gave us everything we wanted, but at a price?)
“If only …” lets us explore the glories and dangers of tomorrow. (If only dogs could talk. If only I was invisible.)
“If this goes on…” is the most predictive of the three, although it doesn’t try to predict an actual future with all its messy confusion. Instead, “If this goes on…” fiction takes an element of life today, something clear and obvious and normally something troubling, and asks what would happen if that thing, that one thing, became bigger, became all-pervasive, changed the way we thought and behaved. (If this goes on, all communication everywhere will be through text messages or computers, and direct speech between two people, without a machine, will be outlawed.)
It’s a cautionary question, and it lets us explore cautionary worlds.
Thus, Fahrenheit 451, says Gaiman, “is a book of warning. It is a reminder that what we have is valuable and sometimes we take what we value for granted.”
Which is why, in light of a recent story we read about Berkeley’s run-in with a cohort of digital book burners, we thought we’d summon up those three phrases for our own purposes.
What if… the State Had the Power to Burn Books at Will?
Our story today is nonfiction.
It begins where most horror stories of the nonfiction variety begin… in Washington D.C.
The requirements of the ADA would make for an extremely time-consuming and expensive endeavor. One they couldn’t reasonably justify undergoing.
About a year ago, give or take, two employees of D.C.’s Gallaudet University – a school for the deaf – were outraged to discover some of UC Berkeley’s 20,000 free world-class lectures could not be accessed by those with hearing impairments.
But rather than contacting Berkeley to see if they could solve this problem amicably, the complainants turned directly to the DOJ for help.
Bit hasty, we think.
“After investigating the claims made by the two Gallaudet employees,” says Brittany Hunter on FEE.org, “the DOJ came to the conclusion that yes, Berkeley’s free online archive had in fact violated the ADA, particularly Title II, which mandates that all public audio and video content provide accommodations for the deaf and hard of hearing. Among these stipulations is the requirement that all applicable content offer closed captioning, which, regrettably, 543 of Berkeley’s videos were missing.”
The DOJ then sent a letter to Berkeley essentially stating these videos needed to be reformatted to meet the criteria, else they would have to delete the archive completely.
Problem is, Berkeley found, the requirements of the ADA would make for an extremely time-consuming and expensive endeavor. One they couldn’t reasonably justify undergoing.
Last September, Cathy Koshland, vice chancellor for undergraduate education at the University, said this:
In many cases the requirements proposed by the department would require the university to implement extremely expensive measures to continue to make these resources available to the public for free. We believe that in a time of substantial budget deficits and shrinking state financial support, our first obligation is to use our limited resources to support our enrolled students. Therefore, we must strongly consider the unenviable option of whether to remove content from public access.”
Early March 2017, Berkeley officials made their final decision: They would, regrettably, begin removing all 20,000 of the files on March 15. And that’s exactly what they’ve been doing – and will be doing for about the next five months.
“Now,” says Hunter, “instead of one group of people having limited access to a very small portion of Berkeley’s extensive online library, the whole world will lose access to the entire archive.”
(But don’t you worry. All is not lost! More on that in a moment.)
Crowdfunding would’ve been a much better route than wasting precious time and resources demanding the State equalize the situation.
If Only… We Chose to Create Rather Than Destroy
The result of this story was entirely predictable. Government does not create wealth. In fact, it’s the best wrecking ball on earth for destroying wealth.
It’s silly… in an age where we have all of the tools at our disposal to come together and peacefully fix our problems as a national and global community, too many of us still have this knee-jerk reaction to turn to the most violent solution (AKA the State) as a first resort.
Crowdfunding, in this case, would’ve been a much better route than wasting precious time and resources demanding the State equalize the situation by flipping the proverbial game board mid-game.
“Imagine,” Hunter writes, “an alternative reality where instead of pursuing legal action against UC Berkley, those who felt passionately about this matter joined together as a community and raised awareness and funds in order to provide the funding needed to have the 543 videos reformatted. If they had ‘criticized by creating,’ instead of by litigating, not only would the problem have been solved in a more productive manner than it actually was, but all parties would actually benefit in the end.
“Berkeley,” Hunter goes on, “wouldn’t have to spend several months taking down its content, those who wanted the content adapted for those with hearing impairments would have not only gotten what they wanted, but they would have also raised awareness and possible donors to their own school. Additionally, the entire world would have also continued to benefit from the use of Berkeley’s material.”
If This Goes On… ? The Digital Pitchforks Will Rise.
The more the State pushes its arbitrary agendas on the flow of information the more the digital pitchforks will rise.
If you haven’t read Fahrenheit 451, Guy Montag, the protagonist, lives in a world where firefighters burn books and the State controls the spread of knowledge completely. (You should really read the book.)
We could’ve very well gone down that dark path. But I think, thankfully, we chose a different route.
With the incredible rise of the alt-media, especially over the past year, I think it’s safe to say the war on your mind has been won. The pearls of wisdom surround you – you are responsible for your own education now, not the State.
And the more the State pushes its arbitrary agendas on the flow of information, I predict, the more the digital pitchforks will rise.
“What if,” Bradbury asked himself in his run up to writing the book, “firemen burned down houses instead of saving them?”
“If only,” he pondered, “books could be saved. If you destroy all the physical books, how can you still save them?”
If he were alive today, we would whisper a single word in his ear in response…
“Blockchain, Bradbury. Blockchain.”
The content metadata is written to a public blockchain, making it permanently public and robust to interference.
Berkeley’s 20,000 lectures, despite Berkeley pulling them offline via the DOJ’s orders, were never deleted.
They’re still up. And they will be for as long as the Internet remains a thing.
An enterprising blockchain-based company, called LBRY, copied all 20,000 of them before Berkeley took them down and have made them permanently available online – for free.
“LBRY,” the team explains, “is the first truly free and censorship-resistant way to exchange content. The LBRY protocol provides a completely decentralized network for discovering, distributing, and publishing all types of content and information, from books to movies.
"When publishing the lectures to LBRY, the content metadata is written to a public blockchain, making it permanently public and robust to interference. Then, the content data itself is hosted via a peer-to-peer data network that offers economic incentives to ensure the data remains viable. This is superior to centralized or manual hosting, which is vulnerable to technical failure or other forms of attrition.
“While other archive teams have also backed up these lectures using traditional methods,” says the LBRY team, “publishing them to LBRY offers greater openness, usability, and robustness.”
For more information on how LBRY managed to rescue 20,000 world class lectures from the digital book burners, click here.
This, dear LFT patron, is how the war is won. No bullets necessary.
P.S. Have something to say? Say it! Chris@lfb.org.
Reprinted from Laissez Faire Books.