E.L. Doctorow made the following remarks at the 2013 National Book Awards ceremony, where he received the NBA’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters.
Before coming here this evening, I thought to say something about what is lately on my mind—what is on all our minds, whether we know it or not—something that has swept through our lives and taken us up in ways that are useful and even spectacular, but also worrisome—and so ubiquitous and loomingly present in everything we do: the way we communicate and take care of ourselves and find things out and look to be entertained. Well, that would have to be the Internet. So to begin, I want to congratulate those short-listed content providers here this evening.
The World Wide Web was conceived as a somewhat academic resource some years ago, but its years of development since the 1980s have seemed to me the work of a moment, coming into being with the force of an astronomical event. Here was this virtual world, a companion planet in orbital swing with our own. And its stuff, its substance, was not mountains and seas and deserts and melting icebergs, but information, data, knowledge in every form, of every kind, transmitted for every purpose, personal, governmental, commercial, educational, political. It is a companion world mined to create wealth, to educate, to bring news, to spy, to save lives, to make war. But my odd sense of it as something that exploded instantly into being has to do with a population putting itself eagerly into its arcane service, as emigrants swearing fealty to a new world—the techies, the programmers, webmasters, security experts, hackers—as if, with its appearance, it created the people necessary to maintain it. And you wonder, what if there was no Internet, what would these people have done with their lives? It was as if they were born for the virtual, so promptly and efficiently did they bond with it, work out its kinks and deduce its possibilities.
And this world of theirs is a world of simulation, clearly evidenced by its language. Never mind that text is now a verb. More radically, a search engine is not an engine, a platform is not a platform, a bookmark is not a bookmark, because an e-book is not a book, and a cookie is not a chocolate chip cookie. Cloud is something that may be somewhere in the sky, though not to produce weather. Surfing, an activity with neither a surfboard nor waves to ride. So language has been stolen or, more charitably, metamorphosed. We in this room especially have to appreciate metaphor. We're the descendants of writers who saw the sun as Helios' chariot riding across the sky. And yet… when was the last time, hearing the word mouse, that you thought of a small gray rodent? Or heard the word web and thought of a spider?
Emerson said "all that can be thought can be written…. Man is the faculty of reporting, and the universe is the possibility of being reported." So Emerson would appreciate the Internet. The universe as the possibility of being reported suggests endless ascription, infinite surprise. And he might, after a drink or two, think of global Internet activity as a kind of Oversoul. For my part, I think less mystically, of an Overbrain. You will find in the relevant Wikipedia entry a visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet. What makes the picture uncanny is that it might easily be mistaken for a cross section of the human brain.