EOF - The Mania of Owning Things

by Doc Searls

For the second time in six months, our house has been threatened by wildfire—the city's third in less than a year. That threat continues right now, and it's so absorbing that I have no choice but to write about it—or about a subject close enough to serve our purposes here.

Our house is in Santa Barbara, a town that exists by temporary exception to the vicissitudes of nature. Soil studies show that it has burned about four times per century, going back to the Pleistocene. Earthquakes violent enough to level rock walls occur on an average of every 75 years. Tsunamis average once every 500 years. The last was in 1812, along with an earthquake that leveled the city's famous mission, for the first of several times. All of this means that people putting a city in this place is a bit like ants building a nest in a footpath.

Yet we do. Ambition and industry in the face of inevitable destruction is the job of life. So I'm not in full agreement with Whitman on that one. Nor do I agree with other assertions in that passage. But, the line I chose for the title always has hit home for me.

I believe in ownership—not for economic reasons, but because possession is 9/10ths of the three-year-old. We are all still toddlers in more ways than we'd like to admit—especially when it comes to possessions.

We are grabby animals. We like to own stuff—or at least control it. Where would a three-year-old be without the first-person possessive pronoun? No response is more human than “Mine!” And yet possessions are also burdens. I have a friend whose childhood home was burned twice by the same nutcase. He's one of the sanest people I know. I can't say it's because he has been relieved of archives and other non-negotiables, but it makes a kind of sense to me. I have tons of that stuff, and I've thought lately about what it would mean if suddenly they were all cremated. Would that really be all bad? What I'd miss most are old photos that haven't been scanned and writing that hasn't been digitized in some way. But is my digital stuff all that safe either?

I just figured that I have about 4TB of digital stuff. Eliminate duplicate files and I'd guess the sum goes down to about 600GB. Most of those are photos. Now that big drives are cheap, I have backups of backups. Some are here in Boston (where we have what our kid calls “alt.home” or “shift_home”). Some are back in Santa Barbara. None are safe from fire or theft.

I've just started backing them up “in the cloud”. But how safe is that? Or secure? Companies are temporary. Servers are temporary. Hell, everything is temporary.

When I was young, I acknowledged death as part of the cycle of life. Now I think it's the other way around. Life is part of the cycle of death. Life generates fuel for death. It's a carbon-based refinery for lots of interesting and helpful stuff.

Think about it. Marble. Limestone. Travertine. Oil. Gas. Coal. Wood. Linoleum. Cement. Paint. Plastics. Paper. Asphalt. Textiles. Medicines. Even the heat used to smelt iron and shape glass comes mostly from burning fossil fuel. The moon has abundant aluminum ores. But how would you produce the heat required for extraction, or do anything without the combustive assistance of oxygen? Ninety-eight percent of the oxygen in Earth's atmosphere is produced by plants. Most of the sources are now dead, their energies devoted to post-living purposes.

The Internet grows by an odd noospheric process: duplication. In “Better Than Free”, Kevin Kelly makes an observation so profound and obvious that you can't shake it once it sinks in: “The Internet is a copy machine.” As a result, the Net is turning into what Bob Frankston calls a “sea of bits”. This too is an ecosystem of sorts. Is it, like Earth's ecosystem, a way that death makes use of life? I wonder about that too.

This fire brings home an observation made by my son Allen way back in 2003: that a live Web feeds the static one. We see this now with Twitter. I use a Greasemonkey script to make Twitter search results appear atop my Google searches. Thanks to these, tweets appear in Google searches an instant after they are posted. Thanks to tweeting, I rely on a long tail of interested parties to keep me up on #jesusitafire. Many of these tweets point to other live Web postings of immediate interest. In time, most of these scroll to the static Web of archival material that comprises most of what you find on Google. The live Web is a system of rivers feeding the sea of bits. That too is a source of life. It is dead stuff that feeds the noosphere's cerebrum, which in turn produces more of it.

In life, each of us takes what we brought. What we leave is what matters to the rest of us.

Doc Searls is Senior Editor of Linux Journal. He is also a fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University and the Center for Information Technology and Society at UC Santa Barbara.

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