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Excerpt: Copies in Seconds


We ourselves are copies. "And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness." A living organism, from its DNA up, is a copying machine. The essence of life -- the difference between us and sand -- is replication.

Copying is the engine of civilization: culture is behavior duplicated. The oldest copier invented by people is language, the device by which an idea of yours becomes an idea of mine. We are distinct from chimpanzees because speech, through its irrepressible power of reproduction, multiplied our thoughts into thinking.

The second great copying machine was writing. When the Sumerians transposed spoken words into stylus marks on clay tablets, they exponentially extended the human network that language had created. Writing freed copying from the chain of living contact. It made thinking permanent, portable, and endlessly reproducible.

Civilization has evolved at the speed of duplication. One mark in clay became two; two became four; four became eight. Like all doubling, copying accumulates slowly at first but compounds. Less than a millennium ago -- forty centuries after the Sumerians -- a single literate polyglot theoretically could have read every book in the world; today, copied language constitutes so much of the intangible infrastructure of existence that we consciously register only glimpses of the shadow of its shadow. A newsstand in Manhattan contains more duplicated text than did the legendary Library of Alexandria.

The earliest written documents were simple tallies: so many animals, so much grain. For centuries, that was all the writing in the world. Last week, a small plastic latch broke off my clothes dryer. I copied the number molded into its side and searched for it on Google. Less than a second later, my computer screen filled with a list of suppliers all over the country, with links to their inventories and their prices, along with half a dozen portals into a galaxy of intricately cross-referenced self-promotion. Behind the copied words on the screen lay invisible sentences of ones and zeros, and behind the ones and zeros lay a babel of electrical impulses and magnetic fields: the ultimate modern repository of replicable meaning. I chose a likely supplier, found the part I needed, and with a couple of clicks transmitted a copy of a stored description of myself that was more detailed than any a Sumerian could have produced of anyone he knew: my name, my exact location in the world, a partial history of my material desires, access to my treasure. Two days later, I installed the new part on my clothes dryer.

The world we live in -- as distinct from the world we live on -- is made of duplicated language. We build our lives from copies of copies of copies.

Copyright (c) 2004 by David Owen