Upgrade or Retrograde?
Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age
(2015, Graywolf Press)
Recently, I took my cracked and obsolete iPhone 4S to the AT&T store for a much-needed trade. I sauntered in proudly and, with no effort to modulate a note of pleased roguishness in my voice, declared to the salesperson that I wished to turn in the battle-scarred old smartphone for—how did I put it?—“Just a basic cell phone.” He took a few seconds of blank blinking to process this request before replying, “I’m sorry?” The fun was beginning just as I expected it would. I repeated my desire, and it wasn’t long after he had seated me at the high white table toward the back that he asked, personally, “Why are you doing this?”—the first of two such queries from him. His concern was echoed a third time by his manager, who came out a bit later to assist with a transaction for which the salesperson apparently could not recall any protocol in the training manual.
I left half an hour later with a flip-phone, listed features of which include “Color Screen,” “Camera/Camcorder,” and “Sturdy” (though, to be honest, I find the pure plastic lightness of the thing difficult to get over—it hardly even seems electronic!). Continuing my errands, I decided at some point I ought to check my email. Realizing I could not, I upgraded my saunter to a jaunty trot. How lovely!
Ever since that day, I have delighted in displaying my purchase ($20) to friends and strangers alike, who hover about the relic saying stuff like, “My goodness,” or “Whoa.” It is strange, then, to consider the possibility that there is almost nothing I could show them from the technological vanguard that would elicit such a reaction. The vanguard, as we expect it today, is always just around the corner, and we uncritically assume the constant imminence of a fresh breakthrough. Such is our velocity that the past is instantly the distant past; a flip phone may thus trigger the same nostalgia in a thirty-something that a rotary phone would evince in a baby boomer.
Does this seem right? Author Sven Birkerts would suggest that it doesn’t—that something isn’t right about our culture’s eager acceptance of its envelopment by digital technology—though after copious cogitation even he’d admit his case is a hard one to make. Those cogitations have taken form most recently in his book Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age. For those who follow either Birkerts or public discussions of technological angst, this latest may seem like familiar territory. Birkerts wrote a similar book in 1994, The Gutenberg Elegies, in which he forecasts the diminishing of reading culture—real reading, that is, deep reading—because of the rapid rise of the circuit and the screen, and all the attendant changes in the world around us. Social commentary aside, it is in Birkerts’s basic nature to churn out lyrical panegyrics to the act of reading itself. So we know that when he writes “Everything about modern […] life carries us away from the state that is propitious for deep reading,” it is a grave concern indeed, a “private emergency,” as he describes his writing mood in the introduction to the 2006 edition of Elegies.
My goodness, if he was so urgently upset in 1994, what volcanic ire he must have for the present moment! Well, he is in fact a pretty mellow guy, it would seem, and his willingness to enact his own ambivalence and uncertainty on the page makes him an effective guide through the vagaries of contemplating his topic. He doesn’t come across as a polemicist, even if we know well the temperature of his passions.
The trouble for a staunch defender of traditional literary culture is that you end up stuck with your subjectivity and nothing else. A devoted Kindle reader, for example, will agree with Birkerts’s observation that content is content, regardless of format, and easily discard an accompanying criticism that a Kindle always looks like a Kindle and not, say, the novel Anna Karenina, a difference that Birkerts contends “bears on our collective assessment of value.” My father may emit a triumphant yawp of affirmation over Birkerts’s idea that “the writing of the paper letter presumes the fact of physical transmission—real time, real space, and literally tangible message,” (“A dying art!” Dad will add), while “writing and receiving email puts me inside a kind of parenthesis—at a level of remove;” my sister and cousins and friends, on the other hand, will definitely stick to email (and should they receive a handwritten letter, likely from my dad, they will hover over it and say “Whoa”).
How do you convince a technophile of your gut instinct that the digital advance is an ominous one? How do you cast convenience and ease and mind-boggling accessibility of information in a negative light? You don’t, and Birkerts, ever cognizant of the counter-argument, doesn’t exactly try, which may be because he’s acutely aware of what has happened to him in the time between The Gutenberg Elegies and now: he has given ground, just a little bit. Sure, he still has no cell phone (impressive, Mr. Birkerts!), but he is an emailer and a web surfer and is generally, he admits, “far too deeply implicated in various digital webs to have any moral ground to stand on.”
Happily, it is when Birkerts takes himself as test subject that he is most convincing. Here, the great hero of deep reading reveals that he recently rediscovered, somewhat by chance, the energizing pleasure of reading a novel. “How had I let it slip from me? By explainable increments—like so many things,” he writes. “We change, the world changes, our habits and expectations are subtly modified.” Such is his affable and empathic conclusion to talk of a condition earlier described far more direly, one that is endemic to the modern moment: “[…] we need not just attention, but also sustained imagination. And these […] are the two human attributes most at risk. Our fragmented, dispersed living is wreaking havoc on both.”
Are we losing our own taste for cultural richness without even knowing it? It is wonderful, a goddamn miracle, that Dad can receive word of our safe arrival in Timbuktu in the blink of an eye, that we can tweet directly to the Pope, that the most far-flung of informational minutiae is literally at our fingertips. Still: “There has to be a difference between earned knowledge and that which is dropped into our laps—and laptops. It is through the earning […] that we establish our psychological claim on our experience.” It’s also how we establish our personalities, Dad might add, glad to know we’re safe in Timbuktu but sad to know not to expect a postcard, with all the intimacy of penmanship and tales carefully chosen to fit on four inches by six.
Birkerts was prescient in the pre-Facebook Gutenberg Elegies when he listed “the waning of the private self” as one of his primary concerns: “We may even now be in the first stages of a process of social collectivization that will over time all but vanquish the ideal of the isolated individual.” But he won’t proclaim a new brand of tyranny just yet, nor will he lord his foresight over his legion of doubters. For he is a doubter too, because he is a thinker, a contemplator, a fervent adherent to the idea that knowledge “is not a unilateral absolute.” Wikipedia, say, may be a “stirring instance of people working together” toward a democratized compendium of human knowledge, or it may be evidence of a “further migration toward the groupthink ethos” that threatens to undermine the faculty for original thought among individuals.
So how do we interpret his alarm? Birkerts might say, Just sit a bit, and see if it feels to you how it feels to me. “Don’t we know […] occasions when it strikes us that the world is indeed changing, and changing in ways that escape our easy reckoning, but that sometimes waken in us […] either bursts of quiet exaltation or else premonitions of some deeper dread?”
He isn’t standing in front of the digital tank, so to speak. He is merely asking us to consider that dread.
GEOFFREY YOUNG is a writer living in Brooklyn.