Sunday, March 19, 2017

Geology of Planet Earthsea.

Earthsea is a fictional universe created by Ursula Le Guin and described in a six-volume corpus. I wrote about Earthsea here.

The "Earthsea" cycle created by Ursula Le Guin is one of those works of art that you can keep admiring forever, finding new elements of fascination everytime you return to it. Few works of fiction gave us such unforgettable characters as Ged and Vecth, shown here in a splendid interpretation by Hchom. And, of course, the more you delve into Earthsea, the more you wonder about what kind of world it is. What makes Earthsea tick?

Nothing would prevent writers from imagining words were the laws of physics are not the same as in our universe but, in practice, that almost never happens. In the case of Earthsea, we have a world that's very much like Earth, but also different in many ways. So, let's see what we know about Planet Earthsea.

First of all, it seems that the gravity field of Earthsea is similar to that of Earth. It means that the archipelago described in the novels is just a tiny fraction of a much larger planet. Then, it is clear that the flora and the fauna of Earthsea are very much the same as they are on the Earth we know. This implies an atmosphere that contains oxygen for animals to breathe and a small fraction of carbon dioxide (CO2) for plants to do photosynthesis. The presence of these two gases tells us a lot about Earthsea beyond the archipelago. Oxygen and CO2 are unstable gases which can exist in a planetary atmosphere only because they are continuously re-created by complex biological and geochemical cycles. These cycles involve at least two characteristics: one is the presence of large continents, otherwise the concentration of CO2 couldn't be kept under control by the process of silicate erosion. Then, it needs also an active plate tectonics, required for cycling CO2 from the atmosphere to the mantle and back. The continents must also be at least a few hundred million years old so that atmospheric oxygen could be generated by sedimentation and burial of organic matter. The presence of oxygen tells us that, somewhere on Earthsea, there exist coal deposits, just as well as oil and gas, even though the inhabitants of the Archipelago have no access to them or, anyway, don't use them as fuels.

The active plate tectonics that must exist on Earthsea also explains a characteristic described in the novel: the fact that people know and use metals. The father of Ged, the protagonist of the first three novels is said to be a "bronze smith". The stories make it clear that the people of Earthsea know copper, tin, silver, gold, and iron. In one of the stories, we are told of a mercury mine being exploited. There have to exist mines yielding these metals, somewhere in the Archipelago. In turn, if ores of these metals exist, they must have been created by processes of enrichment created by plate tectonics. Another indication that Earthsea is a geologically "live" planet and, indeed, in the novels we are told of active volcanoes and earthquakes.

The size of the Earthsea archipelago is not exactly reported but it may be assumed to be that of a small continent, about the area of Western Europe. The largest Island of Earthsea, Havnor, may have approximately the size of Britain. The local lore says that a divine or semidivine entity (or maybe a mage) called "Segoy" raised the islands out of the sea. It may indicate a volcanic origin of the islands.

But saying "volcanic origin" may mean several thing and some are unable to explain the characteristics of the Archipelago of Earthsea. For instance, with a group of islands that we know are of volcanic origin on Earth, Hawaii.

This chain of islands is the product of a hot magma "plume" that emerges from the Earth's mantle. The islands were generated, one after the other, as the ocean floor slides over the plume. The oldest islands (North-West) are inactive volcanoes, slowly eroded and tending to disappear. The most recent island is the "Big Island"; South-East, where the hot spot is today. In time, the sliding ocean floor will create a new island, off the coast of Big Island.

Clearly, the Earthsea Archipelago is not a small chain of islands: there is no evidence of a temporal sequence as there is for Hawaii. More importantly, in this kind of orogenesis (mountain creation) there is no possibility to create metal ores. The Hawaii island are mineral-poor; their inhabitants never had metals until they were able to import them from the continental mainland, in modern times.

Maybe we could think that the archipelago of Earthsea is similar to the Aegean islands or the Cyclades.

These islands are volcanic and they have been created by the energy released by the collision of the plates existing in the region:

The Aegean islands are known to have been rich in metal ores, at least until humans started exploiting them. That would be consistent with at least one of the characteristics of the Earthsea archipelago. But there is also a problem, here: these islands exist only as minor features at the edge of large continental regions. On the contrary, we have no evidence that a large continent exists close to the Earthsea archipelago.

So, we must look for something else and we can find an interesting analogy with the submerged continent that some call "Zealandia", close to Australia.

Zealandia is a "micro-continent" in the sense that it is much smaller than the other landmasses of Earth, but it has all the characteristics of a continent. It is a solid plate, floating above the viscous asthenosphere, below. Today it is mostly submerged, the only part of it surfacing are the two islands of New Zealand, but in the past, it seems to have been in large part emerged.

Zealandia gives us a good model for the archipelago of Earthsea; it has the right size and New Zealand is about as large as Havnor on Earthsea. Its past history of being above the water provides the setting necessary for the formation of ores. Indeed, New Zealand is rich in metals, including gold, copper, nickel and more.

Of course, the Earthsea archipelago is not so nearly completely submerged as Zealandia is on Earth. It is possible that the phenomenon described as Segoy raising up the islands was, rather, a eustatic fluctuation of the sea level. Planet Earthsea may have seen an ice age that lowered the sea level, giving the impression of the islands rising out of the sea. It was the opposite: it was the sea that was retreating. In the process, the mountaintops of the ancient continent emerged out of the waters, creating the Archipelago described in the Earthsea novels.

We see how Earthsea makes a lot of sense in geological terms. It is a planet with large continents, icecaps, a geological history, and many features that make it similar to Earth. It could be something like this, although, for some reason, the people who draw fantasy planets always seem to forget icecaps - this one, at least, has a hint of them.

We may also consider a more detailed explanation for the eustatic oceanic movement that created the Archipelago. Let's imagine that the continents of Planet Earthsea were once populated by humans. We said that these continents must contain fossil carbon and it may well be that this carbon was exploited in the form of fossil fuels, coal, oil, and gas, by the humans of an earlier time with respect to the stories of the Earthsea cycle. In this case, humans would have developed an industrial civilization and the emissions of greenhouse gases resulting from the burning of fossil fuels would have generated a rapid global warming; just like what's happening today on our planet.

Let's also suppose that this warming took place a climate situation where there existed icecaps on the polar continental regions of Earthsea. The melting of the icecaps raised the ocean levels and submerged the Zealandia-like region which had been a regular continent up to then. That region would have remained submerged for several tens of thousands of years until the slow re-capture of the greenhouse gases would have brought back temperatures to the earlier values, re-formed the icecaps, and caused the Archipelago to resurface.

So, what happened to the humans who lived on the continents of Planet Earthsea? Their civilization was destroyed by a series of factors: climate change, pollution, resource depletion, soil erosion, and others. The humans of Planet Earthsea didn't go extinct, we know that they were still there tens of thousands of years later. But surely, they must have been enormously reduced in numbers.

A fascinating hypothesis is that the humans of Planet Earthsea tried to remedy to the disaster of climate change and fossil fuel depletion by moving to nuclear fission as a source energy, building several thousands of nuclear reactors. That didn't stop global warming, by then well past the "tipping point", but gave them the possibility to survive as an industrial civilization for a while. But, at some moment, they lost control of their nuclear plants; maybe because they ran out of fissile uranium. Without the necessary maintenance, the nuclear reactors went into meltdown and released prodigious amounts of radioactivity in the atmosphere that returned to the ground in the form of fallout. That killed off most of the surviving humans and animals.

The humans of Earthsea could perhaps have survived in small numbers by moving to the sea to avoid the nuclear contamination that made the land nearly uninhabitable. They may have developed the civilization described in the Earthsea cycle as The "Children of the Sea" or the "Raft People." They would visit land only occasionally to get, for instance, wood for their rafts, but these short visits wouldn't result in a dangerous exposure to radioactivity.

When Earthsea resurfaced, some 50 thousand years after the catastrophe, it was not contaminated by the radioactive isotopes released in at that time. So, the Raft People found it a good place to colonize, even though some of them maintained the old ways and are described in the cycle as still existing in the Southern and Western ranges of the Archipelago.

There remains one feature of Earthsea that makes it very different from Earth: dragons. We don't know very much about them, except that they tend to "fly west" where they probably live in one of those large continents where humans don't live, at least not anymore. Are dragons somehow correlated to the nuclear disaster that turned the continents into radioactive waste? Mutant creatures generated by the last remnants of a civilization engaged in genetic engineering? It is impossible to say but, obviously, Ursula Le Guin knows best:

things change
     authors and wizards are not always to be trusted
           nobody can explain a dragon

Ursula K. Le Guin - "Tales From Earthsea" (2001)

Other posts by Ugo Bardi on Earthsea 

The Magic is Back 
Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine
How we Lost the Silence
The End of Music, The End of Magic.

Monday, February 20, 2017

Tegethoff at Lissa: the battle in a flash

Back from Vienna, a visit to the Belvedere museum where everybody goes to see Klimt's "The Kiss". Yes, great painting the one by Klimt, but this one by Romako is simply unbelievable. So much that I had to put it up on the "Chimeras" site.

Consider that it was painted in 1880 and be amazed at how so much action could be packed into a single scene. It is a scene of the 1866 battle of Lissa, a small island in the Adriatic sea, where the Austrian and the Italian fleets squared off against each other. The Austrians were outnumbered and outgunned, but they won the battle by a combination of better coordination and superior tactics. It was, perhaps, the last naval battle in history where ramming played an important role. And the painting by Romako conveys what it must have felt when admiral Tegethoff, commander of the Austrian fleet, led his ships straight into the line of the Italian ironclads.

Note how Tegethoff is shown as the only one in the scene who is not leaning on anything, his hands in his pockets, his legs firmly set on the deck. And the scene breaks completely from all the conventions of battle scenes up to then: it is focussed on human feelings, courage, fear, enthusiasm, pure adrenaline flowing all over. Truly a masterpiece.


Thursday, February 9, 2017

Iconography of Donald Trump as the Woman Slayer

I noted in an earlier post how images are pervasive in human history. Just as we can still recognize, today, the image of an ancient Chimera - we can see other ancient iconographic themes resurfacing over and over. So, above, you see Donald Trump portrayed in the "Der Spiegel" as beheading the Liberty statue. Obviously, the image is inspired by an ancient classic theme; that of Perseus beheading Medusa.

It is a very ancient theme that, in this form and composition, goes back to Roman times. Look at this image from the excavations of a Roman villa in Stabia, in Italy, a nearly identical posture.

Then, we may ask ourselves why this composition was so popular and it remains so. What's so fascinating in a bloody scene of murder? That would require a long exploration of the human mind (and of the male mind in particular). As a first attempt, I think we can say that the Roman society had a strong element that, in modern terms, we would call a "macho attitude" that involved quite a sadistic streak.  Taken to the extreme, it implies killing women as a demonstration of male virility. And hence these images: the art of femicide. Most Romans, it seems, would see nothing objectionable in paintings and statuary that showed a man beheading a woman.

In our times, well, things may have changed but not so much. Look at this image, allegedly representing the beheading of a female Kurdish fighter on the part of an Isis fighter somewhere in Northern Iraq.

Crude? Sure, but don't worry; it is almost certainly a photoshop work. Nothing special in this age of fake news. Besides, it is not cruder, and not more real, than the piece of statuary of Perseus and Medusa by Benvenuto Cellini in Florence, that tourists seem to be happy to photograph. 

In the end, it seems that the streak of sadism that affected ancient Romans affects us as well. Will be ever able to tame the killer that's in us? Hard to say; of course, today, killing women and being proud of having done that seems to have gone a bit out of fashion, to say the least. But the idea of killing defenseless creatures still pervades our society.

And so, let me conclude this little post with a modern image of wanton slaughter of a creature who couldn't defend itself. This one is crude, too, but real. It is Cecil the Lion killed by the American dentist Warren Palmer.

Note the faces; the same expression of idiotic happiness that you can see in the face of the Perseus of Stabia. But there is nothing to do, humans are like this and will remain like this for quite a while.

But how about Donald Trump? Does he deserve to be cast in the role of woman slayer? Maybe not.  True, he has been rather abusive to women in verbal terms, but it is also true that it is not reported that he ever killed anyone, not even lions. But he fully deserves the Der Spiegel front cover because of this:

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Ursula Le Guin on "Alternative Facts"


Legendary Portland writer Ursula Le Guin is pictured here in her home in this March 2016 photo. (Motoya Nakamura) 

From "The Oregonian", February 1, 2017

A recent letter in The Oregonian compares a politician's claim to tell "alternative facts" to the inventions of science fiction. The comparison won't work.  We fiction writers make up stuff. Some of it clearly impossible, some of it realistic, but none of it real - all invented, imagined --  and we call it fiction because it isn't fact. We may call some of it "alternative history" or "an alternate universe," but make absolutely no pretense that our fictions are "alternative facts."
Facts aren't all that easy to come by. Honest scientists and journalists, among others, spend a lot of time trying to make sure of them.  The test of a fact is that it simply is so - it has no "alternative."  The sun rises in the east.  To pretend the sun can rise in the west is a fiction, to claim that it does so as fact (or "alternative fact") is a lie.

A lie is a non-fact deliberately told as fact.  Lies are told in order to reassure oneself, or to fool, or scare, or manipulate others. Santa Claus is a fiction.  He's harmless. Lies are seldom completely harmless, and often very dangerous.  In most times, most places, by most people, liars are considered contemptible.

Ursula K. Le Guin, Northwest Portland

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Earthsea: the Soul and the Machine

Two young wizards of Earthsea, Ged and Vetch (Ged is the one with the scars on his face). Behind Ged, the Shadow. A wonderful image by Paul Duffield, one of the very few images that manage to do justice to the spirit and the substance of the "Trilogy of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin. 

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (Arthur C. Clarke)

Long ago, one of my teachers in high school said that the existence of the Middle Ages in history was justified because it had produced such a genius as Dante Alighieri and a masterpiece such as the Comedy. Surely, there is virtue in genuine enthusiasm and it is true, in my opinion, that some ages are characterized - and perhaps justified - by the literature they produce.In this light, I came to think that if the second half of the 20th century had something comparable to Dante's Comedy, that might well be Ursula Le Guin's "Trilogy of Earthsea".

It takes little effort to identify the elements of the fictional Earthsea universe that couple with the corresponding elements in our world, with magic being the Earthsea equivalent of science and technology in our world. Of course, that has to be taken with some caution: it is an old cliché that of saying, for instance, that a girl's eyes are like stars, and then go on describing stars while referring to the girl's eyes. Shakespeare could do that, but Shakespeare was Shakespeare; for a modern writer, allegory is a deadly trap. But in Le Guin's work (just as in Dante's) allegory goes way beyond banality. It has been said that true writers don't think in symbols and I am sure that Le Guin never planned the allegorical two-way correspondences in her world and ours. But, no matter what mental process produces symbols, good literature teems with them. Le Guin's writing, then, sprouts out symbols like a Medieval cathedral sprouts out gargoyles.

So, what is the Earthsea world telling us? To explain my point, I have to start from far away. Imagine that you have never been exposed to the thousands of years of accumulation of what we call "culture". Culture is a way of classifying and categorizing; it tells you that things may be organic/inorganic, hard/soft, good/bad, friendly/unfriendly, etcetera. But imagine that you are looking at the world with fresh eyes; as if seeing it for the first time. You see all sort of things: people, animals, rivers, rocks, building, mountains, and much more. And you try to make some sense of all that. So, you notice that some things move, grow, shrink, and change shape. There seems to be some hierarchy in this kind of entities; some move fast and some slow, some don't move at all, but that doesn't mean they never do (think of a volcano). Let's  say that that you could think that all things have a soul; in a way they are like you, there is a certain kinship in all things.

So, if things have a soul, then you can speak to them. To people, you can talk and they talk back to you. You can do that also with animals; they won't talk back to you but they may listen. You can talk to plants, streams, and rocks; who knows? They might be listening. You may well try to convince the sky to produce some rain when you need it. Praying, dancing, offering sacrifices. That's the origin of what we call "religion", that's a very, very old way of understanding the universe. The universe has a soul. It is a soul. It is the definition of God (or of the Gods).

But there is also another way of understanding the universe: it is to assume that it is a sort of a machine. A machine is not something you talk to; it is something you act upon. And if you act in the right way, it will react predictably and as expected. So, you may pray to get the benevolence of the soul of a great forest tree, but you may also chop it down with an axe. You can do the same with an enemy: if you bump his head with a battle axe, the results will be predictable. If you know the functioning of the machine, then you can make it behave as you want to. This is the origin of Magic; that some also call "craft". Finding the rules that things follow gives you power on them.

Religion may be older than magic, but they seem to have been going in parallel in human history. Take one of the oldest Western pieces of literature, the Iliad, and you'll find Gods appearing on almost every page, but no wizard ever crosses them. But, in the "Odyssey"; you have an almost prototypical witch; Circe, who turns people into pigs, although she is also described as a Goddess. In some of the earliest literature we have, the Sumerians left us plenty of healing recipes where they freely mix invocation to Gods with herbs and other substances that surely had some healing powers of their own.

In time, Religion and Magic diverged more and more to the point that most modern religions despise magic as evil. Priests may well perform rituals to obtain something for the benefit of the faithful, but they are always careful to state that success or failure is never guaranteed. If you pray God (or the priest does that for you) you may ask Him that He would cure your ailment. If you are cured, then you are supposed to thank God for His benevolence. But the ailment doesn't disappear or you get worse, then you are not supposed to blame God for that. The divine will is unfathomable and it may be argued that it is your fault because of some sin you committed that made you unworthy of God's benevolence. A win-win condition for the priests, for sure.

Over history, magic took different paths. One was that of the Europan alchemists. They tended to renounce to all the dark incantations of old times and they became true empiricists, originators of what we call the "scientific method". Their theoretical basis was faulty and they lost a lot of time in tasks that today we recognize as impossible. But they were always in search for things that worked. Modern science is a wary of recognizing their role, but the basic idea is the same: the world is a machine: you don't need Gods to operate on it. And, in a certain way, the daughter of alchemy, science, triumphed. In most of the Western World, when people want to be cured of their sickness, they trust a doctor more than a priest; even though they may also pray God to give them a hand, just in case. But praying God is way more unreliable than taking a pill or undergoing surgery.

There is a problem with the universal machine, though. Magic, just as Science, has no moral compass: the end result of magic doesn't depend on whether it is done for a good or a bad purpose. Science-based medicine will unflinchingly cure an evil person while the best modern technologies have developed weapons that will kill anyone. And this is a big problem especially when science fails - and it does. While you can't sue God for malpractice, you can and you do that when you think a doctor did something wrong to you or to someone close to you. And modern science has been unable to maintain its promises and it is been as an evil form of black magic for having lost control on those that it did manage to deliver; think of nuclear energy as an example.

Now, let's go back to Earthsea. It is a society nearly fully based on magic, just as our modern world is nearly fully based on science. That allows Le Guin to dissect the moral dilemmas of science in a variety of narrative plots. Earthsea is a machine all based on the "old speech" that plays the same role as mathematical models in our world. This old speech, in other words, is something like an instruction manual for the world machine. Then, the novel describes idealized scientists - portraited as wizards. They are benevolent, crafty, intelligent, and always worried about not doing damage to the equilibrium of things. One wishes our scientists were like that! But, even the wise mages of Earthsea have problems. One is that they can do very little; we see them mending broken vases, curing goats' infected udders, raising - sometimes - the magewind to push boats, and curing human ailments only when they are not too serious. So, they are at times considered as useless and rejected. One of the stories of the series deals with an age in which wizardry had fell from grace and was widely despised. Just like what may soon happen to science in our world.

True, the protagonist of most of the stories, Ged, also fights dragons, but dragons are not a problem; they are more part of the danger of doing science, a little like nuclear energy. The real problem with magery in Earthsea is the same we have with science in our world: the lack of a moral compass. So, in the first story of the series, Ged's enemy is not a dragon but himself. And, later on, it will be another mage, turned evil. Over and over, the mages of Earthsea are at loss on how to deal with the Otherworld; the realm of the dead. A realm that's alien to magic and to science, but that's the natural domain of religion.

Le Guin's view of the Otherworld is nearly identical to the Sumerian one reported in the Epic of Gilgamesh and the interaction of the dead and the living is a theme that goes through the whole series; concluding it in a way that's a pure rendition of the Buddhist concept of Nirvana. The dead vanish in a puff of smoke, but the problem remains and it is one that neither science nor magic can solve.

So, Earthsea is not a Godless world; it can't be. It was created by Segoy; who maybe is a dragon, or maybe he is a God. And it is hinted that there is something more; much more than that and at least one region of Earthsea, the Kargad Lands in the North, are described as dominated by a religious vision of the world. Initially, the Kargish are just pirates and barbarians, but then they take up power and importance in the stories, hinting that their view may be on a par - perhaps superiors to their crafty Southern Neighbors. It is like that: Earthsea is a real world, it is alive. Le Guin says that she won't write more novels about it, but that doesn't matter. It was another writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who said that a writer only adds pages to a giant book that's being written by all the previous writers.

So, as I am writing these note, I am almost overwhelmed at the vastity and the complexity of what I am trying to describe. The Earthsea universe is so complex that to describe it you would need to write another complete Earthsea cycle. Something like what Borges had one of his characters trying to do, becoming capable of rewriting the Don Quixote, exactly as Cervantes had written it. Or, maybe, you need to live in Earthsea, as Ursula Le Guin has probably done. So, in the end, what's the point of creating a whole new universe which has the same problems we have with ours? Maybe creating universes is unavoidable for some people with truly awesome creative powers. Maybe there is no rational justification for doing it, it just happens. And maybe these universes are not created by anyone, they just exist and they are described by some people who have the gift of seeing them.

Maybe we should just read about Earthsea for the pure joy of doing that. Or, maybe, we can read it in order to learn something about the contradictions and the problems of our world. What's all our science for? Can it solve problems or does it just create more of them? Can we attain the "balance" that the wizards of Earthsea keep striving for? How can we keep our nuclear dragons for burning all of us to cinders? What should we do with our dull and arrogant wizards who think they know more than anyone else?

Will we ever know if the universe is a soul or a machine? Maybe not. Like Ged in his little ship, the Lookfar, "we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. (*)” It is our destiny to follow the great current that's taking us across the ocean of time to an unknown destination. Or maybe toward Earthsea.

(*) For those who live in Earthsea and may not have heard of "The Great Gatsby" by Scott Fitzgerald, that book is the origin of this quote.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

The Magic is Back: Reading Novels Again

things change
     authors and wizards are not always to be trusted
           nobody can explain a dragon

Ursula K. Le Guin - "Tales From Earthsea" (2001)

I was afraid that the change had been definitive. That I would never be able again to read books the way I would read them in my 20s, as an avid reader of science fiction. Recently, when I had tried to reread the "Trilogy of Earthsea" - a book that has deeply shaped my view of the world - I found myself reading in the "skipping mode" that I had to develop to read internet pages full of links and advertising. The daily exposure to the Internet social media seemed to have destroyed my capability of reading a novel line by line, the way a novel is supposed to be read.

So, I had to work on it and, in the end, the magic returned. It took a certain effort, but not so much as I had feared. This morning, I looked at the low sun of a clear and chilly winter day and I told myself that I wouldn't turn on anything (no PC, no cell phone, not even the TV) until sunset. And I did just that.

I sat in the sun with the "Tales of Earthsea" by Ursula Le Guin in my hands and, as I went through the novel, the magic returned. Yes, I could read again a novel, one line after the other. And every line brought a description of the world of Earthsea with its oceans, islands, boats, towers, trees, wizards and everything. Every line was an invitation to imagine the world that Le Guin has imagined (and where, I think, she has lived. It cannot be otherwise.). Every line was a glimpse of a world that I thought I had lost but that was still there, that greeted me back as if I had been the prodigal son of the Bible returning home.

I was an elation that almost made me fall from the chair where I was sitting. And it was an incredible sensation of freedom. The Internet hogs all your time: no Internet means plenty of time. It means that you don't have to worry about answering mails, about writing blog posts, about following the comments. It is an unexpected freedom. When I was not reading Le Guin's book I walked around the house, noticing many small things I had to fix and to do, and that I had the time to fix things and do things. I took a walk to the woods near my home, to pay homage to the Great Oak that rules on the hills nearby, just as the Magic Grove rules on the Island of Roke, in the World of Earthsea.

I cant' say if this little Internet Ramadan is enough to cure all of us of Internet addiction. Maybe, even in my case, it was possible only because it involved some spell casting on the part of the wise wizards of Earthsea. But I'll try it again next Saturday. And I hope that the Wizards will help me again.

Monday, January 2, 2017

How we lost the silence: what's the Web doing to us?

Only in silence the word,
only in dark the light,
only in dying, life: 
bright the hawk's flight
on the empty sky                   
           - The Creation of Èa

Ursula K. Le Guin, "A Wizard of Eathsea" (1968)

As I was re-reading the novels of the "Earthsea" trilogy, by Ursula Le Guin, I found that I had troubles in following the text. I had read those novels for the first time, I think, in the late 1970s and I read them again at least  two times. Yet, this time, it took me a conscious effort to read the novels in the way I remember having read them decades ago, before the age of the Internet. I had to concentrate on following each line, on savoring every word. I could do it, but at every slowdown of the action - these novels are not perfect, just as the world they describe - my mind started to lose contact, moving again to the "skipping mode" that's typical of surfing the Web.

Le Guin's prose is not slow, but dense. It is full of details; as you follow the travels of the wizard Ged, you always know the shape of the Moon, the color of the sky, the shape of the hills, the trees, the creatures, the people. It is a prose that demands a certain degree of attention; well worth dedicating for a series of novels that have been shaping my view of the world. And, at the very beginning of the first novel of the series, I found the words that I transcribed at the beginning of this post and that describe exactly what's happening. In another section of the novel, Le Guin says, "For a word to be spoken, there must be silence." And we seem to have lost the silence we need in the great cacophony of the web.

The difficulty of following prose is not the only symptom of Web addiction I noticed.  Today, I can't watch TV for more than a few minutes before getting bored (this is not so bad, actually). For years, by now, I have been unable to watch a movie all the way to its end, they all seem to me slow and boring. So, not surprising that it happens for books, too, to say nothing about the disappearance of that concentrated form of textual communication that we call "poetry". And, finally, there are my students who seem to find every hour of class as a torture to be endured before going back to texting on their cell phones.

Of course, I am not the only one with these symptoms. Andrew Sullivan wrote a hugely interesting piece about what's happening to us with our daily overexposure to the Web. We are more and more retreating to the world of the social media, continuously exposed to an endless flow of news and contacts. Faster and faster, and more and more shallow. And, as a consequence, we are losing a lot: the ability of concentrating on anything. It is a serious form of addiction; a constant form of dopamine stimulation, getting worse all the time.

Can we do something about all that, or do we have to accept it as unavoidable? Hard to say; but it is well know how difficult it is to deal with a addictions. You can make plenty of grand proposals and then you'll lapse again to the old routines. Sullivan mentions the Judeo-Christian tradition of the Sabbath as a way to attain the degree of silence that's necessary to hear the words spoken to us. Maybe we could think of an "Internet Ramadan" for the same purpose. Or, perhaps, we'll never be free again until the network collapses; everything must collapse one day or another. Then, we'll be able again to listen to each other and, maybe, to read poetry again.

Below, the text of a comment by Deric Bownd that summarizes Sullivan's article, but it is worth reading it all.

Andrew Sullivan does a striking piece, describing a process that began with his daily immersion in The Daily Dish, an early blog that was a precursor of everything to come. Here are some should read the whole article.
I was…a very early adopter of what we might now call living-in-the-web. And as the years went by, I realized I was no longer alone. Facebook soon gave everyone the equivalent of their own blog and their own audience. More and more people got a smartphone — connecting them instantly to a deluge of febrile content, forcing them to cull and absorb and assimilate the online torrent as relentlessly as I had once. Twitter emerged as a form of instant blogging of microthoughts. Users were as addicted to the feedback as I had long been — and even more prolific. Then the apps descended, like the rain, to inundate what was left of our free time. It was ubiquitous now, this virtual living, this never-stopping, this always-updating. I remember when I decided to raise the ante on my blog in 2007 and update every half-hour or so, and my editor looked at me as if I were insane. But the insanity was now banality; the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone.
…the rewards were many: an audience of up to 100,000 people a day…a way to measure success — in big and beautiful data — that was a constant dopamine bath for the writerly ego.
I tried reading books, but that skill now began to elude me. After a couple of pages, my fingers twitched for a keyboard. I tried meditation, but my mind bucked and bridled as I tried to still it…Although I spent hours each day, alone and silent, attached to a laptop, it felt as if I were in a constant cacophonous crowd of words and images, sounds and ideas, emotions and tirades..I’d begun to fear that this new way of living was actually becoming a way of not-living.
…my real life and body were still here. But then I began to realize, as my health and happiness deteriorated, that this was not a both-and kind of situation. It was either-or. Every hour I spent online was not spent in the physical world. Every minute I was engrossed in a virtual interaction I was not involved in a human encounter. Every second absorbed in some trivia was a second less for any form of reflection, or calm, or spirituality. “Multitasking” was a mirage. This was a zero-sum question. I either lived as a voice online or I lived as a human being in the world that humans had lived in since the beginning of time...And so I decided, after 15 years, to live in reality.
Truly being with another person means being experientially with them, picking up countless tiny signals from the eyes and voice and body language and context, and reacting, often unconsciously, to every nuance. These are our deepest social skills, which have been honed through the aeons. They are what make us distinctively human.
By rapidly substituting virtual reality for reality, we are diminishing the scope of this interaction even as we multiply the number of people with whom we interact. We remove or drastically filter all the information we might get by being with another person. We reduce them to some outlines — a Facebook “friend,” an Instagram photo, a text message — in a controlled and sequestered world that exists largely free of the sudden eruptions or encumbrances of actual human interaction. We become each other’s “contacts,” efficient shadows of ourselves...When we enter a coffee shop in which everyone is engrossed in their private online worlds, we respond by creating one of our own. When someone next to you answers the phone and starts talking loudly as if you didn’t exist, you realize that, in her private zone, you don’t. And slowly, the whole concept of a public space — where we meet and engage and learn from our fellow citizens — evaporates.
Has our enslavement to dopamine — to the instant hits of validation that come with a well-crafted tweet or Snapchat streak — made us happier? I suspect it has simply made us less unhappy, or rather less aware of our unhappiness, and that our phones are merely new and powerful antidepressants of a non-pharmaceutical variety...You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something. That’s what the phones are taking away...Underneath in your life there’s that thing … that forever empty … that knowledge that it’s all for nothing and you’re alone … That’s why we text and drive … because we don’t want to be alone for a second.
...our need for quiet has never fully gone away, because our practical achievements, however spectacular, never quite fulfill us. They are always giving way to new wants and needs, always requiring updating or repairing, always falling short. The mania of our online lives reveals this: We keep swiping and swiping because we are never fully satisfied. The late British philosopher Michael Oakeshott starkly called this truth “the deadliness of doing.” There seems no end to this paradox of practical life, and no way out, just an infinite succession of efforts, all doomed ultimately to fail.
The Judeo-Christian tradition recognized a critical distinction — and tension — between noise and silence, between getting through the day and getting a grip on one’s whole life. The Sabbath — the Jewish institution co-opted by Christianity — was a collective imposition of relative silence, a moment of calm to reflect on our lives under the light of eternity. It helped define much of Western public life once a week for centuries — only to dissipate, with scarcely a passing regret, into the commercial cacophony of the past couple of decades. It reflected a now-battered belief that a sustained spiritual life is simply unfeasible for most mortals without these refuges from noise and work to buffer us and remind us who we really are. But just as modern street lighting has slowly blotted the stars from the visible skies, so too have cars and planes and factories and flickering digital screens combined to rob us of a silence that was previously regarded as integral to the health of the human imagination...This changes us. It slowly removes — without our even noticing it — the very spaces where we can gain a footing in our minds and souls that is not captive to constant pressures or desires or duties. And the smartphone has all but banished them.
I haven’t given up, even as, each day, at various moments, I find myself giving in. There are books to be read; landscapes to be walked; friends to be with; life to be fully lived. And I realize that this is, in some ways, just another tale in the vast book of human frailty. But this new epidemic of distraction is our civilization’s specific weakness. And its threat is not so much to our minds, even as they shape-shift under the pressure. The threat is to our souls. At this rate, if the noise does not relent, we might even forget we have any.