What Difference Your Ephemera Makes

To a society numbed by the ease and convenience of the internet, its dangers are difficult to fathom. Warnings from those of an older generation, like me, are met with smart answers referencing our age. Blood, sweat, and tears are to be avoided at all cost. And now there is ChatGPT to make things even easier.

When my children look at the accumulation of ephemera (never mind the books)—mostly paper—that I have saved through the years, they stare: notebooks (only a few hundred of those), odd issues of obscure magazines, single pages from more obscure publications, brochures, index cards with my illegible scribble (tens of thousands of those), old calendars, almanacs, travel brochures, ticket stubs, programs, receipts, etc., (lots and lots of etc.). Out of context, these are only seen as units of accumulated weight to be lugged away to the dump upon my demise. “Do you have any idea of what’s here?” My daughter asks. “An idea? Thousands of ideas.” I answer. 

My children write on computers, as I do now. But they always have. They are not compelled to find “hard copy,” for reference. They download what they need or want. I complain to them that they have no idea about the trustworthiness of their sources. Their answer is that they can readily see a dozen different confirmations. I retort that those are all based on the same few originals—sometimes only one. Look at the COVID morass of media quoting other media quoting the Centers for Disease Control while ignoring primary reports. “We don’t have time,” they say. “How do I know their news is false and mine is true?”

Giving context to this conundrum is a large part of what I do when I write. My own methods of revelation involved narrative. I am not a maven for statistics. But I can readily follow the veracity of a story involving people. That Playbill there in the lot, for instance, is for a production of Hamlet my brother and I went to see on Broadway in 1964. Our seats were fifth row, center. Some big shot couldn’t make it, and my father got the tickets as a gift. I can tell you that Richard Burton’s spittle made it well beyond the fifth row because I watched it arc over my head in the stage light. This event has no meaning to anyone other than ourselves except as data. The data is interesting. The event was life-changing. 

In the context of 336 million Americans, my data is no more important than anyone else’s. The data of 336 million lives is difficult to imagine, much less comprehend—and that’s only 4 percent of the over 8 billion people on earth today. How can we deal with such numbers without compromising the individual passions and fears of people who feel as strongly about theirs as I do?

I think the effort to see the events in my life as part of a larger story of cause and effect is essentially an effort to give my own data importance and thus some value beyond the moldering heaps in a dump. But in the end, my data—as represented by the ephemera of paper, or bits and bytes, that I have collected or produced myself is only worthwhile in some context. If someone who has no acquaintance with me comes along to the dump someday, they may grab the Playbill from the heaps because they have heard somewhere about Richard Burton—or more likely about Elizabeth Taylor and her husband. It’s easier these days to find Elizabeth on YouTube than Richard. I suppose that would be some good from the lot of it. Maybe some inspiration to become an actor on stage, perhaps, in the way that the actual event made me want to write plays.

What is mine is important to me. That’s as it should be, just as the ephemera of your own life is most important to you. You can’t expect some functionary in the bureaucracy that oversees 336 million people to give a damn. They have the mouths of their own egos to feed. And it is that effort to give our lives some importance that is the motive behind our beliefs, our faiths, our convictions, and our dreams. 

The authorities—those constabulary keepers of society—think they know about all of this. They have my data. They have yours. And they have their own mouths to feed and nourish. In the greater numbers game, they believe that by reducing the importance of their subjects to a mass of data that they control, they can somehow increase their own legacies. And that is what they do. 

In the age of the computer, which is now morphing into what is being called “artificial intelligence,” data is the new king. A.I. is the term on the lips of every authority, would-be or wanna-be. And the A.I. behind ChatGPT has grown from whispers to shouts as the very future of information transfer and language modeling. Competition from Google’s ironically labeled “Bard” has turned the heat up even more.  But it’s all just data. Without context, it is all an accumulation of data. ChatGPT can write your play for you. Of course, it is somehow like all the plays that came before it, with phrases that recall something strangely familiar. But, say the “deconstructionists,” isn’t that just what playwrights do?  

In a short leap of imagination—only a step really—if a nonentity from Delaware can be president, why not an android? ChatGPT is really just that in another form; the processor for cultural automation. Just a way for a future president to be a more perfect representative of all 336 million of us, don’t you know? 

In fact, reducing each of us to a biological data unit is an active purpose. That aside, the unspoken secret is that the authorities believe they will actually be in charge. They just won’t have to worry about being embarrassed ever again by the decomposing brain of a sock puppet.

The president can say that he has reduced unemployment while 20 million more have dropped out of the workforce to live off of the other 316 million. He does not lie—by much. But in context, we are talking about 20 million more lives being reduced to statistical ephemera for the dump. 

Taking away homes and replacing them with apartments is good for this purpose. Homeowners are a pain in the ass. They actually think they own something—that they are entitled. The banks think otherwise, and they have the data to prove it. Meanwhile, apartments can be swept out and repainted and readied for the next occupant. And, bonus, all the while, the amount of useless ephemera is reduced! There is no room for all that paper. No basement. No attic to consider. It’s all on digital databases now. Those are a lot easier to clean up. And to alter to fit the purpose.

No use saving your cash to stuff your mattress. Your financial independence has been revoked. It won’t be legal tender anymore. It will all be digital. Just data. And as we said, much easier to control. But more than the money, there is the stuff of memories. Those human occurrences, more precious than the pearls on Elizabeth Taylor’s neck as she stepped from the limousine to meet her husband after the show. How do you save that for the small voice of the future?

Interestingly, to me at least, there was a filmed version made of that production of Hamlet, but I have never wanted to see it for fear of having the play I saw usurped—in my mind by a sort of “Claudius” of new angles and closeups and emphasis. That filmed release was, I have read, as great a “screwing” of the cast as I imagine the reduction of a living theater stage to mere celluloid can be. 

What may be a great benefit to those who never had the chance to see the play in person, is a curse to me. This is the great danger of artificial reproduction. The genetics are never the same as they were for the loving moment. The artificial can be marvelous, especially because it can be replicated exactly, again and again. But what is missing is the human experience of the actor with the audience in the original moment. The spittle and the stage light are lost.

And now, with ChatGPT, the very words of the Bard are mutable. You can “create” a new tragedy as with Shakespeare’s own words that the Bard never wrote. Something like the replicated meal of a great chef, delivered exactly the same whenever you like. Great idea, eh? (And all inspiration to reinvent the world is destroyed.) In this new age, let’s make Claudius the woke hero and Gertrude a woman to be revenged. 

As the AP reports, “Microsoft is fusing ChatGPT-like technology into its search engine Bing, transforming the internet service that now trails far behind Google into a new way of communicating with artificial intelligence.” And, gee, a further integration of chatbot software into the Edge browser ought to be the trick. “While it’s not always factual or logical, ChatGPT’s mastery of language and grammar comes from having ingested a huge trove of digitized books [Project Gutenberg, anyone?], Wikipedia entries, instruction manuals, newspapers, and other online writing.” 

Where is the end to this—the artificial refashioning of our language and of our culture to meet the diktat of some present norm? It is too much like the madness of believing that the weather of today must be somehow preserved for tomorrow. The key to the future is in the past, but the future must always be remade. The present must be unlocked. 

Just say no. When they say you ought to move into something smaller, just say no. Where are you going to put all your stuff? Your crap? Your junk? It is you they are looking to dispose of, after all. And besides, moving aside for the next generation is no favor to them as they hurtle toward the digital dumpster. Save something for your grandchildren when they come by, wondering why the lights in their parent’s eyes have dimmed. Tell them about it.

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About Vincent McCaffrey

Vincent McCaffrey is a novelist and bookseller. Visit his website at www.vincentmccaffrey.com.

Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage

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