- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007

THE PLENITUDE: CREATIVITY, INNOVATION, AND MAKING STUFF

By Rich Gold

MIT Press, $22, 111 pages

REVIEWED BY JACK MATTHEWS

If you’re bored with your life of sustained ecstasy and crave a little hopelessness in the way of relief, this is a book for you. “The Plenitude” is an interesting book, and obviously important, being focused upon the undeniable fact that there are too many of us on Earth producing too much with such dizzying acceleration that there’ll soon be no more breathing space, or people to breathe in it if there were.

The Earth we live on is, of course, finite and it’s constantly being stuffed with stuff so that it must eventually get so jam-packed that — well, who knows what will happen. Rich Gold doesn’t and tells us so. The demoralizing accumulation of data concerning the accumulation of stuff is the basic theme of his unsettling book, and the plenitude of its title is the very stuff of ambivalence, for we can’t really understand how much of it is good and when it becomes dangerously bad.

Gold, who died in 2003, was celebrated as a sort of Rennaissance Man plugged into the electronic age; he was an artist, engineer, designer and scientist. All of those things. And like all artists, he was healthily egotistical — his book teems with his own cartoons, often featuring a face that is unmistakably Gold’s. But his chutzpah blends into real intelligence, which is a familiar blending.

Still, we pay a price for everything, and Gold’s nervy intellect has obvious disadvantages along with the bounce. His approach is sensational and happily slam-bang, his intension to stir and shock (much of the material of the book was taken from his speeches given all over the world). He seems to have been part trickster, part guru and, in his way of bending words to fit new realities, even something of a con man — a “lexi-con” you might say.

One of Gold’s titles, conveying the “open-ended questions amounting to a metaphysics of representation” was this sporty probe: “When My Father Mows the Lawn, Is He a Cyborg?” The title itself invites comment; since “Cyborg” is a portmanteau word, referring to an interface between some form of cybernetic technology and an organism, it obviously converts people into Cyborgs the instant they have a pacemaker implanted. But does my using this computer make me a Cyborg?

With all his brilliant insights there are astonishing lapses of judgment, as when he attributes the invention of automobiles to the unpleasant bouquet of horse manure on city streets.

Being a liberal, his response to the question of Third World agonies is Pavlovian. When we read that half of the world’s population survives on less than two dollars a day, we know what we’re in for, and by implication, Gold puts the blame upon the capitalistic system, the majority of which is the good old U.S. of A. We consume and in doing so make the world suffer.

But Gold evidently had no idea that the greatest problem with the Third World is not American capitalistic greed, but simply overpopulation. In India, for example, the population has doubled within the last three decades, and it can be argued that more of the world’s air pollution comes from the open fires used for cooking in India than from our gas-gulping SUVs.

Although Gold did devote a section near the end of his book to overpopulation, his focus there is general, with no reference to its particular relevance to the problems of the Third World. And he seems to have no understanding of how it is not the grown-up moms and pops of the Western world, those who are married and morally responsible in having and rearing children, that contribute to overpopulation.

Nevertheless, Gold’s indictment of the “Junk Tribe” (as he refers to those who, as he did, keep producing more stuff in an increasingly crowded world) is convincing. For all its advantages, the largesse of capitalism in stuffing all of us with more than we can hold is appalling. One thinks of the sorcerer’s apprentice and shudders at how entrapped we seem to be in the mindless advance of technology.

“The magnitude of the Plenitude is difficult to grasp,” Gold wrote, sounding like a Gilbert and Sullivan lyric. “It simply doesn’t matter that most things don’t work out, for even as it is, the Plenitude may be too fecund for the planet to absorb.”

It would be hard to argue with this, and we can only hope that there are already clever people in the Junk Tribe who have taken the hint and are working on ways to tame all of this wild plenitude. Or is it philosophers who are needed for the task?

Jack Matthews is distinguished professor emeritus of English at Ohio University in Athens. His next novel, “The Gambler’s Nephew,” will be published by the Toby Press.

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