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Trenchant, expansive essays on the cultural consequences of ongoing, all-permeating technological innovation
In 1994, Sven Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies, his celebrated rallying cry to resist the oncoming digital advances, especially those that might affect the way we read literature and experience artthe very cultural activities that make us human.
After two decades of rampant change, Birkerts has allowed a degree of everyday digital technology into his life. He refuses to use a smartphone, but communicates via e-mail and spends some time reading online. In Changing the Subject, he examines the changes that he observes in himself and othersthe distraction when reading on the screen; the loss of personal agency through reliance on GPS and one-stop information resources; an increasing acceptance of "hive" behaviors. "An unprecedented shift is underway," he argues, and "this transformation is dramatically accelerated and more psychologically formative than any previous technological innovation." He finds solace in engagement with art, particularly literature, and he brilliantly describes the countering energy available to us through acts of sustained attention, even as he worries that our increasingly mediated existences are not conducive to creativity.
It is impossible to read Changing the Subject without coming away with a renewed sense of what is lost by our wholesale acceptance of digital innovation and what is regained when we immerse ourselves in a good book.
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About the Author
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Changing the Subject
Art and Attention in the Internet Age
By Sven Birkerts
Graywolf PressCopyright © 2015 Sven Birkerts
All rights reserved.
On or About
"On or about December 1910," wrote Virginia Woolf with provocative imprecision, "human character changed," an announcement that has become more famous than it maybe deserves to be. Woolf was referring to the then-recent postimpressionist exhibition in London, arguing for the power of art to remake consciousness, though of course we know, as Woolf knew, that no work or performance possesses that kind of power in itself. More likely human nature was already changing, and the shift in artistic style only attested to the fact. Though Woolf's words were meant to be an arresting journalistic gambit and should not be held historically accountable, the assertion does create a pretext. After all, where larger cultural mythologies are at issue, no one really cares what is "objectively" the case — there is no objectivity in a field vibrating with jostling subjectivities. The sentence is so often quoted because it expresses a buried collective wish — for marked-out moments of transformation; for large-scale unitary psychic events. And the wish is in many ways stronger than the skeptics' main objection, which is that come what may, the mass of humanity continues on as it ever has; that nothing — no cataclysm, certainly no exhibition — will jolt it from the rails of the daily, from the unthinking placement of one foot in front of the other. But I don't think even the hardiest skeptic would deny that we also have a broad, nonspecific appetite for a certain kind of transformation — a group swerve toward meaning that has to be related to the millenarian longings at the heart of revealed religions.
What I want to look at here is the idea of pervasive change, and the common perception of such change, and how shared perceptions themselves become accelerators and consolidators of transformation. I am trying to catch hold of something that is in many ways like one of those gases that are without color, odor, shape, or apparent substance, and are undetectable except by way of the effects they produce — an analogy that leads me with devious ease to my point of departure. I'm talking about an event that was for me as much of an awakening in the Virginia Woolf sense as the far more disastrous World Trade Center attacks of 9/11, one that terrified me in that same primal way, driving home as no previous accounts of war or scientific breakthrough ever had, the knowledge that we are trapped inside of a huge system, one governed by forces we cannot control and that may be — in this case they were — essentially invisible.
My induction into the late-modern, or postmodern, age came on March 28, 1979, with news of the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Middletown, Pennsylvania. On that day uninterrupted radio and television bulletins reported an unprecedented system collapse and the impending release of enormous quantities of radioactive material — enough, it was said, to contaminate the whole Eastern Seaboard. The drama threw me into a state of inner panic. I could not stop listening as, hour by hour, the situation developed — the crisis, the magnitude of its danger, the seemingly inadequate efforts at containment. I felt my own core in meltdown. And that terrifying intensity was the first thing I thought of on the morning of September 11, 2001, when the reports and images were coming at us one hard upon the next — of a city drowning in black smoke, of hijacked aircraft, of other possible targets. I was suddenly right back in that tiny room in Cambridge two decades earlier, listening to my battery-powered radio, monitoring the reported shape and distribution of the radioactive plume that for a long period looked to be headed up the eastern seacoast, likewise half-convinced that the apocalypse was finally at hand.
What I realized in those hours in my room — what I "got" in my gut in a way I never really had before, not even during the atom bomb anxieties of my childhood — was that my assumption of the local, of the safe sovereignty of place, had been shattered. Something happening far away was very possibly going to change my life — all our lives — and that "something" was a power that was human-created, and invisible. Certainly those original nuclear paranoias had deeply shaken me, but for some reason they hadn't quite uprooted my worldview. Now I felt real change happening. Though everything out my window looked the same as it ever had, it was all made different by this new knowledge. Yesterday's tree, the parked cars, the neighbor boy's bike — their positions were unchanged, but the air surrounding them was no longer the same.
TMI — that was the acronym by which Three Mile Island entered our lore: journalists wrote "TMI" as they now write "9/11" or "Katrina," and everyone knew what it meant. Then years went by, the time of a half generation, and of course the terrifying recollection waned. But — and here is the sublime irony — as one sense of TMI gradually faded, another quietly arose to take its place. I remember that I was sitting at dinner just a few years back, all of us listening to my son, Liam, telling about something he'd heard at school, giving account, when all at once his older sister, Mara, dramatically clapped her hands over her ears and said, "TMI, TMI!" Meaning, as she explained when she saw my confused expression, "too much information." This latter meaning of the acronym has gone out to whatever linguistic boneyard old clichés go to, but for the opportunistic essayist looking to write about the inundation of our whole culture — our world — by data, and the transfiguration of our ways of living by information technologies, no coincidence of initials could be more apt. TMI — it can be considered our new mantra. Too much information. But here I don't say it cutely or blithely, but rather with some of the dread attached to the earlier acronym, keeping the former sense like an etymological root. What I mean is that it fits; it resonates. The new information culture is also ominously systemic, invisible, and dispersed. It is changing us with such subtle uniformity of pressure that we hardly know we're being changed, and this is unsettling in the extreme.
Why don't we hear more about it? Where is our shock and awe? The obvious answer is that we are not good with certain kinds of change, either seeing or accepting them. Our commonsense biology overrules mere supposition almost every time. Global warming? Climate change? Most days a glance out the window is enough to assure us that everything is fine. Seeing remains believing for a great many people. But there is also the contradictory warp, the fact that hand in hand with this deeper resistance goes our remarkable human adaptability. To setbacks and reversals less, of course, but certainly to the kinds of changes that bring about ease. How enthusiastically we are taking up our new technologies, the whole range of them. It required little more than a decade for vast portions of the world to outfit themselves with computers, and even less time than that for the cell phone — universal portable communication — and then the smartphone, the almost irresistible combination package, to become ubiquitous. One marvel hurries in piggybacked upon another — a ceaseless flow of innovations. With scarcely a double take, we are wading further into the ever-augmented stream of the new. Suggest, however, that these choices are changing us and our world in serious ways and you might meet with a slightly irritated incomprehension. "Change? What are you saying? Things are not that different. They're certainly easier than they were before." The new swallows up the memory of the old. We don't feel the headlong momentum. From the window of a jet flying at six hundred miles per hour the blue sky looks completely still.
The business of transformation is elusive, and I've come up with an analogy to make my point. I imagine a man, Adam, not exactly the first man, but his symbolic proxy. I envision Adam, a citizen of the city of Boston in the late 1700s, standing by the ocean shore on a summer day, watching as a figure approaches slowly from a distance like a mirage gradually taking on solidity. Now, on a parallel mental screen, I conjure up his counterpart in our new millennium, Zeno, alphabetical latecomer, standing in the very same spot, likewise watching someone approach. Let's say that the natural particulars are more or less the same — sand beaches don't change that much in their basic appearance, even if we grant the fact of shoreline erosion.
Adam has never traveled outside a hundred-mile radius of the village in which he was born. He gets his news and information about the world by puzzling out the words in occasional broadsheets, and from his conversations with friends and neighbors. He has, let's say, heard mention of a faraway place called China, and once even saw a man he believes was from China on the city street — but he knows nothing more of such a place, or most others.
His present-day counterpart, Zeno, by contrast, has traveled a bit in his time, by car, by air, and has visited much of this country; he has even been abroad a few times. He is old enough to have watched the first moon landing with his elementary school class in the gymnasium on a black-and-white television that was brought in for that purpose. These days he reads the Boston newspaper every morning with his coffee (having already scanned the main stories on his online news feed); he listens to the radio when he drives; he takes in the news along with a few favorite television shows in the evening. His job, to which he commutes thirty miles, requires him to use the computer and he spends hours every day receiving and answering messages and following work-related information trails on the Internet. He no longer writes letters. Instead, he keeps in active e-mail contact with people, like his sister who lives in Spain and his daughter who is in college in California. To her he sends texts with his phone. Zeno has never been to China either, and he doesn't know a great deal about Chinese history. But, like everyone back in those days, he watched news coverage of events in Tiananmen Square; and he knows, too, that with a few keystrokes and commands he can track down almost any information he might need.
China, of course, is a single-topic instance that must be multiplied a thousandfold to even begin to suggest how unalike the worldviews of the two men are. This is the crux. Similar in biological particulars, standing in the same spot, doing the same simple thing, Adam and Zeno would seem to be having identical experiences, but I would argue that they are not, not at all. "On or about December 1910," wrote Woolf, "human character changed." And even though neither man is just then thinking about China, or about computers, or the disturbance at the alehouse the night before — neither is thinking much of anything at all — their experience of the most basic act of watching is utterly different. As Wallace Stevens wrote in his poem "Metaphors of a Magnifico": "Twenty men crossing a bridge, / Into a village, / Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges, / Into twenty villages." Which is to say: their watching is different at a deep-down primary level because they are completely different, not just in terms of their personal biographies, but because the circumstance that has in every way formed them, created the structures of their consciousness, their phenomenology, is different.
The problem is obvious: there is no way to measure or compare subjectivities, not among living contemporaries, and certainly not from one historical epoch to another. I can only make extrapolating guesses, based on a kind of empathic projection. But even so, my intuition is strong. That we have a different, much diminished sense of human presence now; that what might be called the specific gravity of things — objects, events — is lessened in proportion to the expansion of our field of awareness. Adam filtered what he saw through the grid of his time and place; very possibly he saw the figure approaching as manifestly, solidly "other." Whereas Zeno, filtering through his far more complicated grid, has a different perception. His "other" is vaporous; it moves through other air.
I use this admittedly homespun imagining to try to capture my sense of an enormous collective change, because linear analytic argumentation breaks down in the face of the subjective. And the subjective is what I'm after here. The subjective, along with the transformative power of new information technologies, forms the backdrop, the ground, of everything I want to talk about.
Information. I would describe it first in terms of data and context, two ideas that necessarily work in tandem. I introduce the terms right at the outset because though we live in the so-called information age, very little of what now impinges on us is really information. It is data. The world we inhabit is producing and replicating data at mind-boggling speed and volume, and this data — these numbers and facts, the digital outflow of our organizations and systems — only becomes information, which is to say it only becomes usable, when it can be given a context. Think of the popular TV show Jeopardy!, where a category and a question are necessary to convert a mere datum into a piece of information. FACT: Cherry Tree. CATEGORY: American Presidents. QUESTION: What did George Washington chop down as a boy? For a piece of data to become a piece of information it has to acquire a transitive value — it must be seen to be for something.
The natural human ecology has always been self-regulating, individuals contending with the circumstances of their worlds, extracting from the noise around them the signal, the information they need, creating hierarchies of importance, working to strike the vital psychological balance between near and far, between the immediate sensory environment and the other — the all-determining but unseen larger reality. My eighteenth-century Adam dealt almost exclusively with the world in his immediate reach. Modern Zeno, by striking contrast, sometimes feels that he is moving through his local realm as through a dream. His attention is so often elsewhere, because it has to be. A great deal of the information vital to his well-being is coming from elsewhere, in the form of numbers and verbal instructions. Between Adam and Zeno we see the balance tip dramatically from one side to the other, from embodied physical reality to disembodied data space.
Modern living finds us enmeshed in systems that we think we require, that require us, from which it is every day more difficult to extricate ourselves. These systems all share a common digitally premised structure. They proliferate by way of digits and codes; they interlock; at no point do they simplify or clarify or bring us closer to our embodied physical reality. Their synaptic, almost-neural machinery advances by the constant creation and dissemination of data. And the process is continually accelerating. Most recently, for instance, we have found ourselves in transition from the "wire-bound" electrical impulse — itself a kind of sorcery, but still physically traceable — to what we now experience as essentially invisible wireless networks. The speed, volume, and presence of information are intensified even as our awareness of its originating context fades further. The stuff is just there, all around us. Information and data are no longer felt to be a vast accumulation of discrete items, but comprise instead an enveloping environment. Background and foreground have shifted almost without our noticing. Even a few decades ago, these signals moved to us in ways we essentially understood; now we move through their midst. The midst already feels like a given.
Grant my argument, that we are experiencing an unprecedented explosion of data; that our technological know-how, speeded up by the nearly independent self-governing know-how of the machines we have created, has put us in the situation of the sorcerer's apprentice in Disney's Fantasia — who for all his frenetic exertions was unable to keep up with the flood he had unleashed. Technology has now so far outstripped the human capacity to integrate its output that the essential human premise of context is under siege. Media thinker George W. S. Trow entitled his book-length meditation on our information age — his warning cry — Within the Context of No Context. That was back in 1980, but no phrase has ever seemed more apt.
Excerpted from Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts. Copyright © 2015 Sven Birkerts. Excerpted by permission of Graywolf Press.
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Table of Contents
ContentsOn or About,
The Lint of the Material,
The Room and the Elephant,
You Are What You Click,
The Hive Life,
"I'll take Hell in a Handbasket for five hundred, Alex",
"It's not because I'm a cranky Luddite, I swear",
André Kertész on Reading,
Notebook: Reading in a Digital Age,
Bolaño Summer: A Reading Journal,
It Wants to Find You,
The Salieri Syndrome: Envy and Achievement,
Emerson's "The Poet" — A Circling,
The Still Point,
Attending the Dragonfly,