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The Neuron, the Ant, and the Novel

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Funeral rites for the novel, and other solo creative efforts, have birthed the notion that the contribution of the individual is waning, subsumed by some sort of global consciousness that deprives us of individual ownership of ideas and creative property. In part this is a notion of manipulative economics, and in part it is a large, evolutionary idea that is partly to do with the way we use tools.

In writing about the effect of Apple's new iPad, Chauncey Mabe, former book review editor at the Florida Sun-Sentinel, often refers to the way such tools change us. Mabe is onto something; electronic devices definitely do something different to the human brain than a paper and ink book does. More, it may be that from Mabe's point of view, near to the literary ground, the edge of the gigantic iceberg is visible, and it may be the next step in human consciousness. Truly, the individual as we know it may be lost as we come into congruence to create a super-organism on planet earth. There are national governments right now that see things that way, and corporations, too. If they are not already so, people may soon enough become just like ants, and the whole earth will be our anthill.

This notion, advanced by Deep Ecologists, stresses the importance of interdependence between the physical characteristics of our planet and all the living things on it. James Lovelock, the famous climate change guru, calls it Gaia. Science fiction writers and evolutionary speculators have taken it a step further and imbued the entire system with a consciousness of its own; the result--earth as super-organism.

What does all this have to do with novels? Well, if we are all progressively being absorbed into some larger entity, then our individual lives are of increasing irrelevance. According to the work of renowned biologist E.O. Wilson (see his Sociobiology and his new novel Anthill) it's the hive that counts. If that's the case, then our individual creative efforts are even more irrelevant than our lives. Novels? Music? A great sculpture or a great painting? Who needs 'em? Close the museums! We should all just put our ideas out onto the web where they will become incorporated into the ideas of others. The very notion of plagiarism will vanish, as there will be no ownership and thus no copyright.

This vision isn't communism and it isn't socialism; rather it's something more grittily biological, either very spiritual or not spiritual at all, depending upon how you look at it. Good thinkers on both sides are getting quite fired up about whether an individual's work matters, and in a way much deeper than a Napster-style debate. See cherished novelist Mark Helprin's controversial diatribe against digital barbarism.

Here's the rub, though. Even in an anthill, it is that one, lone, solitary ant that finds the delicious, rotting carcass that feeds the entire mound. Even in The Matrix, there's the implication of an overseer who maintains the volume on the piped-in human dreams to keep us in our stupor, and the one "Neo" who breaks us out. The human brain, just like the global super-organism of the future, depends upon the linking of certain specific neurons and the material manifestation of specific proteins to create a memory that leads to an idea, that in turn leads to the flash of insight that gives us the structure of the benzene ring or the theory of general relativity.

It's the individual scientist who has the breakthrough (although sometimes, eerily, the breakthrough comes to two thinkers working on the same problem, simultaneously, on opposite sides of the world) not the collective. It's the individual director who provides us with that haunting vision, even though the image is conveyed through the work of many, and it's the individual composer who comes up with the melody that moves us to tears even if it is played by an entire orchestra.

It's human nature, if not ant nature, to need at least some level of appreciation, and if we don't appreciate (read protect and remunerate) creative folks, they are likely to leave the collective and either start their own or huddle, disgruntled and resentful, on the outskirts of ours. Can our hive survive without news of the food down the trail? It cannot. Whether it's a neuron, an ant, or a novelist, we need the contribution of the individual. If we want to continue to enjoy breakthrough entertainment and ideas, we better narrow our eyes and look critically at both the price of our shifting technologies and attention span, and the agenda of those who would rob the rights of creative artists. The alternative could be intellectual, spiritual and even physical starvation.

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