One year ago today, Michael Hart died. This weekend, at his home in Urbana, Benjamin Stone and Nadja Robot will sell all of his books. A beautiful personal library of thousands upon thousands of books, that were once pieces of others’ collections and those before them, comes apart but will be absorbed by so many. The wheels on the BookMobile go ’round and ’round.
A footnote on the book sale site made me laugh out loud.
… there is a LOT of [Ayn] Rand at the house and we’re not really sure why Michael liked her. We make no promises not to judge you if you buy it but we’ll keep quiet about it.
Michael and I met at all because he overheard me discussing Rand with a friend at the University of Illinois Digital Computing Lab. Rand’s books, if you’ve never read them, are a great place from which to inspect individual self-worth and self-confidence, but we both understood that her work, like any and all books ever written, are explorations themselves that then become stepping stones from which we heave forward into the wide expanse of Thinking.
In fact, the most fun the two of us had was attending a few campus Objectivist Society meetings to debate the Rand dittoheads on everything from Gold vs. Information as economic standards to the role of agrarian communes in modern America. At the time, I was an undergraduate and a high-school debate veteran, basically a kid who liked the heat of the specific battles. It took me a few years to see that Michael, who never wasted his time, was trying to get these young people to do exactly what Rand wished for them – not to worship John Galt but to be their own individual people, to think for themselves. It turns out being an atheist or not adhering to a recognized organized religion doesn’t make you immune to being a believer who parrots the Good Books.
Project Gutenberg has a lot in common with the commendable and feasible in the collected works of Ayn Rand. While the popular significance of Rand today is a vicious cycle of the Right idolizing her to justify their get-rich-quick schemes and the Left vilifying that veneration and so on, much of her philosophy is about getting off your behind and doing, never compromising on core principles and changing yourself and the world only for the better, after a lot of introspection on what “better” means. Here are a few Randian basics which Michael and I discussed in depth (as in hours within days within years) and explicated as guiding principles not just for Project Gutenberg but what the project really stands for: personal, technological and social revolution.
1) The Virtue Of Selfishness, Not Self-Centeredness: You’ve got to love, take care of and understand yourself, because ain’t nobody gonna do it for you. It sounds simple enough, but searching for You and Home outside of yourself is the root cause of a lot of suffering. If you don’t love yourself, no one will do this in your stead. But many stop here and begin to confuse self-centeredness, i.e. narcissism and selfishness. This is not semantics. Taking care of yourself and building upwards and outwards in life is important, but never at the expense of others, because that is not true progress.
I don’t trust people who cannot and will not question, critique, grow and better themselves first before asking this of the world. And if there is no you, figure it out quick.
2) The New Industrial Revolution: Pushing others down for higher relative net worth and destroying X to create Y is not real advancement. It is a zero sum game, in which no value is generated. Furthermore, in order to maximize the usefulness of what you create, the most number of people need to be able to access, digest and build on it as possible. Rand’s gold standard falls apart here because what can you create new for a world from and with a limited supply of gold hoarded by a bunch of Morian dwarves? As Michael was fond of saying, all an alien species has to do is bring along an asteroid made of gold and buy us. We will then be the Native Americans who sold Manhattan for shiny baubles because that is all they knew to value.
Progress and revolution – true human industry – will come from nothing but global access to information and the algorithms with which to process it. Isn’t it odd then that the Party Of Capitalism has no room on its budget and agenda for unfettered access to a complete education and members of the Party Of The People write and support bills that extend copyright and decrease digital rights indefinitely? It’s a fight on two fronts, returning to zero and pushing into the positive. This is where the Project Gutenberg mottos of “Break down the bars of ignorance and illiteracy” and “As many books to as many as possible” come from and are more important than ever.
3) Hart’s Gulch: Don’t wait for things to happen or to be given, make them happen. If the system is broken, stop whining for someone else to fix it. Instead, do something positive, and preferably lasting, about it or leave the system and make a place for and by yourself. Michael is the only one I know who came closest to doing both. This is a man who gave up admittance to the world’s greatest educational institutions, a swinging commodities-trader lifestyle, the riches that his intellect could have bought and a family, to live in an old, falling-down house propped up by books and garage-saled electronics, with the barest of essentials and off any donations to the project. He bought not a single thing new – not even food other than cheap meats, eggs and bread – and built gadgets out of parts if necessary. We are talking about the man who invented eBooks but did not own a car, a laptop, a cellphone or anything we consider necessary, but were absolute necessities for what he was doing, until forced to in the last few years of his life. Many attribute this austerity to Michael’s disdain for materialism, but it was really his way of thumbing his nose at an unreasonable system that hoards creation, gives away garbage, rewards mediocrity and puts boundaries on the place he thought the world could be. “I will leave your norm and more will come from it.”
So, I have to smirk at today’s talking heads and Captains Of Industry who threaten to Go Galt when they’d shrivel up and die the moment their lips move an inch away from the teat of the preordered government-financial sector complex. John Galt and Michael Hart didn’t quit the world, they left the contrivance and noise behind in order to change the world that they considered theirs. But that’s where that similarity ends. Galt’s Gulch was nestled in a beautiful valley maintained by a national park service, fed by unpolluted rivers, situated comfortably inside America’s protected borders. Project Gutenberg – the eBooks and the ethos – could not have happened without Carnegie’s public libraries, formerly great public schools, a public research university and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s government-funded mainframe computer and internet.
Michael was acutely aware of the social realities that helped his inventions become reality and argued loudly for their careful tending. This is where he cast his votes from. And towards the end of his life he was certain Project Gutenberg would not have come to pass in the political and economic climate of the last three decades. Something broke somewhere along the way, he maintained. Electronic books would have been invented, but not for free and not fiercely retained in the public domain for so long. Yet he pushed and pushed and pushed so that, some day, more young punks like him could blast through the bars and usher themselves and others out.
“We only rise above mediocrity when there’s something at stake, and I mean something more consequential than money or reputation.” – Michael Hart
For everything that’s been said above, I don’t at all attest that Michael knew himself even moments before he died or that he ever realized what a mark he made, on the nature of books, people all over the world and me. What is important that he was ever an eight-year-old, ever curious, ever inventive and that he fought “cannot” and “should not” to his end. I thank him for thinking that I have that fight in me.
Oh, and there is a very simple and obvious reason for the sheer number of copies of the same Rand book in Michael’s possession: He was a consummate librarian and very few books other than The Bible have had that many editions and that many cover art pieces generated for them. That’s all.