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Counter Culture


A new kind of disenchantment has come over literature. It has to do with what you might call the working myth of the life of literature — the half-conscious way that people decide which texts they consider literature, and how they carry those texts forward. The catalyst, I believe, is the recent revolutionary advance in counting. That may not sound like a startling technological breakthrough, but thanks to computers, we are now able to count with unprecedented speed and thoroughness. Last August, for example, a computer programmer named John Matherly sent a simple “Are you there?” message to every device with a direct, public connection to the Internet. Within five hours, about 400 million machines responded, and after twelve hours of analysis, he was able to draw a map of their locations around the world. Imagine trying to contact, count, and map all the people in the world by yourself; because they aren’t (yet) all connected to the Internet, you wouldn’t be likely to live long enough to finish.

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is the author of Necessary Errors (Penguin), a novel. He delivered a version of this essay as a lecture at Reed College and at the University of Portland in March.

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