I had several topics in mind when I called the Andover, Massachusetts office of Helium Exchange Inc, owner and operator of Helium.com, a “community of knowledge” purportedly created by “citizen journalists”, and spoke with John Rozen, its Vice President of Operations, to complain about what I believed to be Helium’s massive exploitation of writers, and the possibility that it was engaging in copyright infringement, maybe in violation of the spirit of the federal computer crimes statutes. I made the call with a constructive attitude: My objective was not to destroy, but to change Helium™ - I soon discovered that, like the element its trademark suggests, one can get nothing liquid or solid out of Helium™ except under extreme temperatures and pressures.
The presumably almighty cornerstone of the Helium™ approach is the Topic. Its “community of knowledge” is ruled by competitive or dialectical discussion of particular topics dictated by editorial policy. The fashion of the arguments is also governed by management. The “community” of writers, to obtain status, must not only write but must also rate one another’s written opinions on such topics as "Is the New Contraceptive Pill That Stops Menstruation Healthy for Women." [i]
The Helium™ brand of truth must be established by a popular opinion contest among presumably the most sophisticated opinionators or sophists, who, in this instance, may be males that have had no medical education nor must they have any experience menstruating whatsoever. Notwithstanding the issue of whether or not the propositions put forward truly correspond to reality, the critic should know that Helium™ truth is not fabricated democratically. The system itself is not even democratic-republican or a democracy led by elected representatives, but is rather an imperial schemata imposed by corporatist dictators. The incestuous rating progeny of writer/raters may not survive for long without the incorporation or cooptation of outside insemination of seminal material.
Peter Newton, Helium’s Vice President of Business Development, said, “Helium represents the first true meritocracy in the publishing industry. Helium welcomes anyone and everyone to join its community of writers. We don't select writers; they naturally come to the site and write to areas in which they have an interest (in many cases, a passion) in sharing their knowledge or opinion… After a writer submits an article, he/she is presented with two anonymous articles in the same topic area to rate in an "A versus B" comparison. Through the wisdom of the crowds, the best articles rise to the top, resulting in a rank-ordered list for every topic. The end result is that the best writers are promoted, recognized and rewarded for their work.”
We can appreciate Mr. Newton’s need to resort to often spurious rhetoric to promote his topic, but we have to smirk at “the wisdom of crowds” – knowing that two-thirds of any crowd will tend to agree with anything said by perceived authorities whether it is true or false, moral or immoral, beautiful or ugly. As we used to say: GIGO – Garbage In, Garbage Out.
To give another example of the Helium™ topical approach, if the subject is real estate, the writer needs to know next to nothing about real estate, at least according to Helium’s oft-quoted Senior Steward, Rex Trulove: "It is surprisingly easy to write about real estate if a person lives in a town or knows someone who does. Not a lot of research is required.” All the real estate researcher needs to do is call that someone, perhaps a single friendly realtor.[ii] This constructivist knowledge will be passed on to the public as knowledge of reality by Helium’s publisher-partners such as Hearst, which recently signed an agreement with Helium.
The word, topic, so beloved by the Helium organization, is derived from topos (place). The term used to refer not only to place or locality but to rhetorical argument. Aristotle authored an early work entitled Topics. This random sampling of the work will give the reader an idea of what the book is about:
“Our treatise proposes to find a line of inquiry whereby we shall be able to reason from opinions that are generally accepted about every problem propounded to us, and also shall ourselves, when standing up to an argument, avoid saying anything that will obstruct us…. We must say for how many and for what purposes the treatise is useful. They are three-intellectual training, casual encounters, and the philosophical sciences. That it is useful as a training is obvious on the face of it. The possession of a plan of inquiry will enable us more easily to argue about the subject proposed…. The question which is the more desirable, or the better, of two or more things, should be examined upon the following lines: only first of all it must be clearly laid down that the inquiry we are making concerns not things that are widely divergent and that exhibit great differences from one another (for nobody raises any doubt whether happiness or wealth is more desirable), but things that are nearly related and about which we commonly discuss for which of the two we ought rather to vote, because we do not see any advantage on either side as compared with the other. Clearly, in such cases if we can show a single advantage, or more than one, our judgment will record our assent that whichever side happens to have the advantage is the more desirable…. The discussion of Definitions falls into five parts. For you have to show either (1) that it is not true at all to apply the expression as well to that to which the term is applied (for the definition of Man ought to be true of every man); or (2) that though the object has a genus, he has failed to put the object defined into the genus, or to put it into the appropriate genus (for the framer of a definition should first place the object in its genus, and then append its differences: for of all the elements of the definition the genus is usually supposed to be the principal mark of the essence of what is defined): or (3) that the expression is not peculiar to the object (for, as we said above as well, a definition ought to be peculiar): or else (4) see if, though he has observed all the aforesaid cautions, he has yet failed to define the object, that is, to express its essence. (5) It remains, apart from the foregoing, to see if he has defined it, but defined it incorrectly…. Next there falls to be discussed the problems of arrangement and method in pitting questions. Any one who intends to frame questions must, first of all, select the ground from which he should make his attack; secondly, he must frame them and arrange them one by one to himself; thirdly and lastly, he must proceed actually to put them to the other party. Now so far as the selection of his ground is concerned the problem is one alike for the philosopher and the dialectician; but how to go on to arrange his points and frame his questions concerns the dialectician only: for in every problem of that kind a reference to another party is involved. Not so with the philosopher, and the man who is investigating by himself: the premises of his reasoning, although true and familiar, may be refused by the answerer because they lie too near the original statement and so he foresees what will follow if he grants them: but for this the philosopher does not care. Nay, he may possibly be even anxious to secure axioms as familiar and as near to the question in hand as possible: for these are the bases on which scientific reasonings are built up.”[iii]
In his editorial Introduction to Aristotle – Selections (1927), W.D. Ross, then Provost of Oriel College and University Lecturer in Philosophy at University of Oxford, stated:
“The Topics, of which the whole central part (Books II-VII) moves almost entirely within the Platonic circle of ideas, and betrays no knowledge of the syllogism…. The bulk of the Topics again is early. If you consider the vast part which dialectical discussion plays in the age of the sophists and in the pages of Plato, it would seem natural to expect that Aristotle’s thought would be drawn pretty early in the study of it. Further, the main part of the work constantly uses methods of argument and instances that were common form in the Academy. The doctrine of the syllogism, which (we must remember) is just as applicable to dialectical as to scientific reasoning, is entirely absent. The whole mode of thought strikes one as immature in comparison with the Analytics. And above all, once Aristotle had discovered how really to prove things, it is hard to believe that he would have devoted so much time to showing that it is possible to reason in an ingenious but essentially futile fashion about them.” (iii)
Writers are taught that writing must be about something or the other, and they are counseled to stay on topic and persuasively so. The so-called objective writer almost disappears in the chosen object. The technical and scientific writer may claim that his articles have nothing to do with him and his prejudices, and everything to do with the truth about the subject identified by his topic – several erudite philosophers have disagreed with that perspective, mainly because it is a perspective. Modern science proves propositions by experiments so that everyone interested in the subject can conduct and arrive at the very same empirical conclusion – even so, given human fallibility, there might be a very slight chance of error. A logical demonstration by way of rhetorical argument does not prove the truth of a proposition, or its correspondence to reality, though it may point out erroneous thinking. Logic is rather a method of persuasion.
I recall a reader who complained that a writer’s propositions must be a false because the author had used the personal pronoun ‘I’. I myself have written a great deal of “stuff” that was exciting to me but stuffy to many readers, mostly academic stuff, wherein I took care to not use any ‘I’s and to be as “objective” as I could be, to be as true to my chosen subject as possible. More often than not, the truer I was to a subject, particularly a non-scientific one, the less often I could arrive at the pointed propositions readers lacking a sense of ambiguity think every good writer should put forward – “What’s the point? Get to the point!” At least my stuff sounded true. Sometimes, when I am researching subjects on the Internet, I encounter a paragraph or two and think, “By god, this writer knows what he is talking about, what he is saying is true,” before I realize that I myself had authored the article several years ago, and had soon forgotten almost everything about the subject at hand.
My favorite writing is not about something in particular but about the about, and I have a roundabout way of going about it. One of the best avant-garde films I saw in Greenwich Village during my youth was “about” flies buzzing around a cow paddy, but it was really not about the manure and flies, it was about the personal expression of the filmmaker, his own truth. When art is for the sake of art, the matter referred to matters little. I am a free lance: I lance my topics out of thin air, sometimes because of their smell, and I like to title them myself, as briefly as possible – which is contrary to the imperial Helium™ policy. I am chiefly an essay writer whose sole teacher has been the greatest literature I could find by browsing in libraries –students of writing sometimes ask me how to write, but I always decline to answer, except to say that I don’t know how to write – I just write. An essai is an experiment. Once I begin, I go where my muse takes me. It is only after I have concluded an essay that I discover its topic – if there is none, well, the experiment has failed.
A brilliant author does not necessarily have to have topics chosen for him, or to construct one himself before the fact, or to explain to anyone what his method might be. Writing can be a way of being, or, if you will, a way of metaphysical constructivism that I call ‘Ising.’ In one of his seminal essay, ‘Thinking and Being, or the Heavenly Twins’, Jose Ortega y Gasset avers that “Philosophy is a certain idea about Being. A philosophy that breaks new ground brings forth a new idea of Being… a way of thinking radically different from those previously known…. One philosophy differs from another not so much, or primarily, for what it says to us about Being as by its way of saying it, by its intellectual language”; that is to say, by its way of thinking…. It is not important whether or not a philosophy explains the method by which it operates…. When we study their dogmas, we discover easily enough in what their method consists…. It is a bad thing if…we fail to see clearly…its way of thinking.”
Helium’s Peter Newton also said, “There will always be a need for professional journalists, especially in covering breaking news or conducting investigative journalism, and Helium is definitely not out to undermine established journalists or copywriters.” If the rhetoric hawked by Helium Exchange Inc is primarily inexpert insights into subjects, and dialectical arguments on pre-selected topics, and not fact-based news, the writer-critics should be more interested in the sophistication or persuasive quality of their rhetoric than in rating their agreement or disagreement on whether or not a certain contraceptive pill that stops menstruation is healthy, or whether whatever a friendly realtor says about the future of real estate in his area is true or not. Perhaps Helium’s writers’ guidelines should require the reading and criticism of Socrates’ and Plato’s dialogues as well as Aristotle’s before being qualified to take a position on other topics. Going further, since astute critics may say those dialogues are immature, the writer should take up the classical trivium, grammar, rhetoric, and logic: once the trivium is mastered, the writer will most likely abandon his $1-a-year job at Helium.com and take his position near the top of the social hierarchy, somewhat above scientists and technicians, the topos where persuasive lawyers and politicians preside – but even they do not rule the world, but are, despite many freelancing exceptions, powerful lackeys to those who do.
Sometimes my experimental essays fail dismally because my intuition does not grasp the root principles under the superficial or topical layer. Every Helium Head should have some idea of what a principle is in case s/he encounters one. I think the principle of a line is the point. The primary meaning of principal is “origin, source, beginning.” Secondarily, the term means “fundamental truth, law or motive force.” Jose Ortega y Gasset, in ‘The Idea of Principle in Leibnitz’, says that scientific method is a calculated procedure relates data to a principle that “explains” them. Philosophy attempts to discover such principles, hence philosophers may be called “men of principles.” Gasset claims that the identifying characteristic of a principle is “being found before another.” “The essential feature of a principle is, therefore, that something follows it.” “True propositions form an ordered whole…. The truth of one (proposition) follows the truth of another. That is the principle of the truth of this, and this is the consequence of that…. The logical order appears to be made up of pairs of propositions, one of them being the principle of the other, which in turn is its consequence… Every logical proposition –except the first ones [“first principles”] –is at once a principle and a consequence…. ‘Truth’ has a double value and because of that becomes equivocal. Within the logical corpus every proposition is true because it has ‘reason’ or its ‘proof,’ which is another proposition….But at the end of the series we find ourselves with propositions – the ‘first principles –which are not in turn ‘consequences,’ which are not ‘proven,’ which do not have ‘reason.’”
So, when we examine our logical order with the essential principle of logic in mind, that one proposition follows another, we may discover that our reasoning is true to that principle, but if we track our conclusion back to the first premise embedded in it, we find that our argument has no foundation in reality and is therefore neither reasoned nor reasonable but is only true in itself or self-evident.
By now the readers I have left can see that I have a metaphysical disposition, and that I always prefer the subjective over the objective and am not afraid to say so – the Helium™ pretense to objectivity is offensive. That is not to say that my scrawlings do not reveal the general truth about the sub-jects thrown underfoot, objects such as Helium.com. A subjective writer who wants to display his talents by expressing his self might as well write “about” the rare gas, helium, for instance, which is actually the second most abundant element in the universe, as about hydrogen, the most abundant one. Now helium is odorless, but it happens that a certain company that uses the common noun as its trademark (Helium™) began to stink in my nostrils, and that smell as perceived presented to me an occasion for writing that is as good as any other, at least until distracted by something else, some other element of the great, seemingly discombobulated blob called reality – of course I do not have the wherewithal to claim that Reality-in-itself is not One..
Helium.com bills itself as “the face of the publishing revolution,” “a knowledge cooperative where our writers are also our editors who read and rate every article on the site,” a place where publishers may efficiently “get the content they need” and where writers can “contribute what they know to share with millions of readers” “who want a choice of viewpoints.” But as far as I was concerned, Helium.com was actually the reactionary rump of the publishing revolution, a site where the blind lead the blind around and around narrow topics selected by staff, therefore a place that progressive publishers and noteworthy writers should definitely avoid if they are in the market for the exchange of true knowledge, no matter badly it smells, instead of tasteless and colorless content. If lucre instead of truth were wanted, I knew that a few aspiring writers, who, following the example of camels, put their noses to rears and circled the Helium™ topics long enough, might make over $20, enough to actually get paid as per Helium™ policy, but they would in the process become a clique of shrill helium heads.
And that is why I (HE™) wanted to disassociate myself from Helium™. I had posted a few brilliant essays on site, and then grew disenchanted with the absurdity of Helium’s editorial policies, which had become an intolerable nuisance, and respectfully asked that my work be removed from the site, in which case I would have gladly gone my way with no hard feelings. But apparently the distinguished directors of the firm desire to make enemies of mighty pen-wielders in order to gain publicity for their frigid and relatively inert enterprise. Perhaps the dissidents will eventually incorporate Hydrogen™ and blow up in the directors’ super-cooled, counter-revolutionary corporate faces, citing the motto: Why be Number Two when you can be Number One?
I was informed by Helium officers that the copies of my work that I had posted at Helium had been seized and could be displayed there forever without certain consideration, all in accordance with Helium’s non-negotiable, unconscionable adhesion “agreement” laid down on its content contributors. The licensing agreement, which very few contributors had read, also apparently mandates that their contributions may be chopped up and altered into a form unrecognizable by the creators – the editors have even gone so far as to replace writers’ names with numbers! For example, former Helium Head Steve Hart’s name has been replaced with Name Withheld No. 9. Mr. Hart reportedly engaged in “unacceptable” behavior when the site refused to remove his work from the site. Apparently, since a “contribution” is a gift and not something a writer should be paid for, the honorable donor should not try to take it back if he received nothing in return. (iv)
As for inconsiderable consideration, my work, although praised by Barbara Whitlock, Helium’s considerate community development manager, was valued at a little over $1 by Helium’s rating system; but that is precisely the dollar that Helium never intends to pay to me nor does it intend to pay the illusory dollar to each of the hundreds of thousands contributors who stand outside of the inner rotating clique, the mere handful of claquers who worked the rating game for several hundred dollars over many months, posting perhaps 15 articles each per week and rating others works madly, without due consideration, to improve their own status. Not that I resent the success of hardworking conformists who compete according to the rigid rules mandated by an imperium. I am an elitist who believes that every game should have a few winners. Let the best man win the most; indeed, let him own the house. More power to the winners. But the Helium™ gamesters, when they quit the game (little did even the most skilled writers know they were gambling for the house to win), they do not have the sacred Power to Delete, nor do they have the power to criticize Helium™ policies without being downgraded or excommunicated for “inappropriate” or “unacceptable” behavior. Mind you that the protests thus far do not come anywhere near the definition of “unacceptable” offered by a member of the now-defunct Written-by-me.com site, who uploaded a picture of his pecker on his Profile page, with the subtitle, “(expletive deleted) WBM!” Nevertheless, that is how some former Helium Heads feel about Helium™ now that their balloons have been deflated. The scribes say that one becomes much closer to knowing YHWH once crushed as flat as matzo – the most standard adhesion contract of all was given by Moses, and its nonnegotiable terms must be subscribed and adhered to for one’s own good – at least that good is considerable; i.e. GOOD.
[i] Publishing - Podcasts - New York Times Mar 1, 2007 ... Writers struggling to find a publisher are taking the high-tech, grass-roots approach. www.nytimes.com/2007/03/01/books/01podb.html] 3/27/2009 8:16 AM http://accrispin.blogspot.com/2009/03/victoria-strauss-hearst-partners-with.html
[iv] Antihelium’sblog: http://antihelium.wordpress.com/category/heliumcom