Real Empires Ship

The quality of heaviness.

A year ago, when I lived on 9th Street, I could lift and carry everything I owned. I know this because I brought most of my furniture home on the subway and dragged it up the stairs. Yet now I look around this apartment on 3rd Avenue and see: a long green sofa; a thick wooden dining-room table; a washer/dryer; and a steel dresser that's up to my chest. To lift any of these things requires four hands.

There was no specific choice made to introduce heaviness to our life. These objects just appeared in response to fresh needs: to sit together; to eat together; to wear clean pants. And implicit within each new, bulky thing is the assumption that we will always be strong enough to lift them, or rich enough to have them moved.

Soldiers in ancient Rome, helped by camp followers, carried a city wherever they went. They needed all that stuff to face Vercingetorix. They needed densely packed wagons to bring barley, pigs, and hair for wigs to Rome, so they built long stone roads. Then add in some aqueducts to carry water (8.3 pounds per gallon), and the occasional defensive wall. Somehow, without sticky notes, the Romans knew all about productivity. Of course, their version of Getting Things Done would be one word: “slaves.”

Meanwhile, the Egyptians had long ago blown a huge amount of money building pyramids and were giving themselves over to sensous waste and incestous infighting instead of building aqueducts—and they ended up a powerless client state. The heaviest thing lifted by humans, says LazyWriterPedia, is a 570-ton stone at the foundation of the Western Wall in Jerusalem, once part of the Temple—and the Romans knocked the Temple down in 70 A.D. Monuments and temples make good ruins, but you got to move product if you want an empire. Or, as Steve Jobs, hoping to motivate the team that was late in finishing the development of the original, beeping Macintosh, epigrammatized: “REAL ARTISTS SHIP.”

The Romans would have loved Steve Jobs. I can easily see him in a turtleneck in the middle of an ampitheater, explaining the digital lifestyle to the assembled nobles at some ancient equivalent of the TED Conference:

Big dinner tonight, you've dropped a quarter-talent on fish sauce and Falernian wine mixed with Attic honey, and someone comes out of the slave's quarters and says, “Master, the panpipers are drunk.” It happens. You're going to have them flayed, absolutely. But right now people are going to eat all your dormice and go home and tell their friends that Marcus has forgotten how to throw a party.

So let's just, watch here, there's a little something called 'Party Shuffle' . . . and, BOOM, I'll just switch it into 'Aeolian mode' . . .

After the first wave of applause I imagine he would pepper the pitch with wee hints that he, Steve Jobs, might, you know, cough, deserve a triumph. And pop up a slide in KeyNote with a table:

Julius Caesar Steve Jobs
Gaul NeXT/Pixar
Crossed Rubicon Returned to Cupertino
Pompey Gil Amelio
Voted dictator perpetuus by Senate Named CEO by board
Cleopatra Laurene
Veni, vidi, vici “Think Different”

Caesar, sure, okay, right, yeah, sure, but did he create the iPod? To the point, should Steve Jobs not be drawn, in an anodized aluminum chariot pulled by iLephants, through roaring throngs of stockholders and Apple fanboys (pomum puer fanaticus[1]) while a slave stands behind him, whispering “remember that you have a market share of only 6.1 percent”?

Of course he should, because REAL EMPIRES SHIP. Hannibal brought 37 elephants (or maybe a few more) over the Alps; they put the elephants on rafts to get them across the Rhône. And Hannibal pounded the holy hell out of the Romans. Fast forward two millennia. If your average iPod weighs five ounces with packaging, then Apple has moved about 21,875,000 pounds of them, equivalent in weight to 1,325 full-grown male African elephants, 35 times as many as Hannibal's force. That's also the combined weight of nearly a quarter-million full-grown males—the population of Rochester, New York, if Rochester was all men with scroll wheels in their stomachs.

Today I picked up and held Mo's two-year-old green iPod mini. It stores four gigabytes—exactly as much as my new silver iPod nano. But already the mini, once the zenith of high design, is comically fat in comparison to its much smaller sibling. Its monochrome screen and broad curves consign it to the era of Marilyn Monroe in a Fiona, uh, Apple world. The new model looks like a cigarette lighter for nymphs and sprites, and we barely need pockets anymore. Yet as gadgets shrink we get collectively fatter, as if nature must maintain equilibrium between our toys and our bodies. Draw a chart: if this trend continues we will all turn into spheres of flesh, and our machines will be tiny golden threads woven into our 20XL shirts.

This is all part of the digital lifestyle, coming at the middle class like a division of Panzer tanks. First they came for the vinyl, and I said nothing. Then for the cassettes, and the CDs, and the VHS tapes. Still I was silent. And now they will come for my books, sad little volumes trembling on their shelves. I look at my friends the books and I think, sorry, fuckers, for the iBrary is only a few dozen failed product launches away. Eventually (waves hands) this will all be stripes on disk.

I predict that as many things get smaller and more ephemeral there will be more heavy art in response, like Ron Mueck's rhinoceros-sized resin infant and Damien Hirst's The Virgin Mother. Or Richard Serra's Torqued Ellipses, triumphal arches bent and pre-rusted and knocked on their sides, post-apocalyptic ruins readymade.

Unlike a videogame console or an iPod those objects, because they are art, can't be miniaturized; nor will they become obsolete. Yet, big as they are, as long as there is gasoline and human will, they can be shipped. That's how much power we have, with trucks, cranes, and sea-going vessels. Faced with a choice between being Egypt or Rome, we just went ahead and made the pyramids portable.


1. Guesswork. Grammar fixes to ford@ftrain.com. [Back]




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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

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