January 7, 2005


Browse in Uncategorized

My son, who is a little over two, has an interest in trucks. Actually that’s like saying Tom DeLay, the House Republican Whip, has an interest in power. Josh is obsessed with trucks, consumed by the thought of them. He talks trucks when he wakes up in the morning and when he goes to bed at night. He plays with them, watches for them out the window, issues regular truck reports to his mother and myself. The arrival of the garbage truck on Tuesdays sends him into a frenzy. When we ask him if he has friends at playschool he says, “Trucks.”

If you ever have perused a picture book of trucks with a two-year-old hundreds of times over, and each time tried to think of something new to say about a dump truck and a front end loader, then you will understand why, one evening, I resorted to the Web. It was a lark, really. Josh was in my office, badgering me to read a truck book with him. I thought, “Hey, maybe we can see some new truck pictures on the Web.” I typed “truck pictures” on the Google bar, hit “go”, and found myself in one of those unlikely little worlds that flourish on the Web: truck picture aficionados.

They are drivers and retired drivers mainly, who started to create Web sites with pictures of the trucks they (or their fathers, or their fathers’ cousins) have driven. These evolved into sort of scrap books of a trucker’s life. The picture captions became small narratives, and some sites actually include memoirs. These have prompted other drivers to add tales from their own lives. (See, for example: The result is utterly enchanting.

I worry about the effect of telephones and email on humanity’s record of itself. Historians of the future will have to do without the letters that tell us so much about Jefferson, say, and the early settlers on the frontier. But Web sites like this are some degree of compensation. I should mention that these are not the weary men of “Four-D” music on country western stations in the South (ie drugs, desertion, depression, divorce). They are Northern mainly, from Canada or near the border, upright family men with neat trimmed hair.

They take great pride in the rigs they drove across the frozen North, and describe them in loving detail — the “Pennsylvania-built Diamond Reo Giant with Fruehauf Michigan-style double bottom trailers,” for example. Josh’s kind of guys. When I come to a picture of the last rig the writer or his father drove before retirement, there is a poignancy I never imagined I’d feel about a big truck.

Josh loves these sites. He has learned to entice me by announcing, with great earnestness, “Last one, Dadda,” which means of course that five or ten last ones will follow. But Dad isn’t entirely a reluctant guide. I find myself drawn despite my deadlines (or perhaps partly because of them.) The Web, in this case, has become “media” in the purest sense. There are no intervening agendas. No one is trying to seduce Josh into craving something and then nagging me for it. The Web is just the means that enables these people to share their stories and their lives with Josh and myself and anyone else who cares to read. My hunch is that whatever it is in our natures that impels that kind of exchange, the hope of humanity lies there.

As communication I still think it is second best. I’d much prefer no medium at all — to sit with Josh and listen to a driver tell his stories in person. Sometimes, in good weather, we sit on a bench on Main Street in our small town and talk about the trucks as they go by. Once I showed Josh the inside of a big refrigerated food truck and got into a discussion with the driver, who was from the Ukraine. Somehow the topic turned to politics, the administration, and the invasion of Iraq. He said, “In my country we could see lies. You Americans, you have not learned to see lies.”

You had to see his face, the wry regret and resignation that echoed of the old country, to fully get the point. That doesn’t happen on the Web. All and still, as media the Web is not half bad, when used as these truckers use it. Apparently they have missed the sermons of economists and libertarians, on the centrality of property and greed. They somehow don’t realize that without the prospect of copyright or patent millions, human creativity will flag and civilization dissolve into a puddle. They just sit down and share their pictures and their stories; and somehow — the invisible other hand perhaps — this sharing arouses something kindred in others, and makes us want to share too. Maybe this is part of what kinship actually is.

Soon you have a Web site such as Hank’s Truck Pictures, where people tell stories just for the heck of it, the way they did when the Odyssey and the Iliad were just yarns over a campfire, and the way people still do today in societies where commoditized and packaged entertainments have not drowned this instinct out.

This is the curious thing about so-called economic “law.” When you disobey it, things get better. Violate a real law and that doesn’t happen. Violate the law of gravity from a twenty story building and reality hits you in the face in a most unsettling way. Disobey economic law by contrast — give when you don’t have to, share what you could try to sell — and others tend to do the same. Reality changes. Could it be that economic “law” really is nothing but social consensus — or worse, an agenda for manipulation and control. I often sense a controlling, authoritarian quality in free market economists and libertarians. My way or the highway, buddy. You are free to choose so long as the choices are the ones I say you can have.

The other hand doesn’t work all the time, in every setting. But then, greed doesn’t always work so well either.You’d think that, at the very least, we’d try to give this other hand a chance, and provide space for it to operate, especially on venues such as the Web, where it indisputably works so well.

But if some people have their way, the Web will become a kind of informational coke machine, where we pay to see and download everything. “You want to see my truck pictures? I need your credit card first. Oh, and sign this “agreement” that my lawyer drafted, which says I can sue you for every penny if you dare to share the pictures with someone else.” The definition of a “visionary” in this society is someone who takes a process that works splendidly for free, and figures out how to erect toll booths around it and charge people a lot of money.

When I sit here with Josh in my lap, his curly head nestled under my chin, I think about how quickly these times will pass. Sooner than I can grasp, he’ll be a teen-ager who thinks his dad really isn’t the brightest bulb in the chandelier. I’ll wonder what happened to the little guy who begged to be held and spun and read to, and who yelped with delight when a tank truck came up on Hank’s Truck Pictures.

Will I feel the same way about the site itself, and all the other places on the Web, where you can wander in and share for free, without tollgates and lawyers and carping economists in the background telling you what’s good for you? Will they be gone, the way the front stoop socializing is gone in many city neighborhoods, displaced by professional couples with schedules to meet?

Unless a lot of people raise a lot of stink. my guess is yes. Funny isn’t it how the Right Wingers who harangue about evil lawyers, at the same time espouse an ideology that is based upon them. The glue of the market is contract, and the priests of contract are — yes — lawyers. I guess it all depends on which side the lawyers happen to be on. Myself, I’m for keeping the Web free.