December 1, 1996
Something is always passing away, to someone’s chagrin. Pronouncements of decline merit skepticism when uttered, as of course they invariably are, by persons past their biological prime (i.e., older than 25). No gain comes without a corresponding loss, no growth without subsequent decay; but this is just life, and no warrant for doomsaying. Having swallowed these cautionary grains of salt, let us consider whether we may not, after all, be drifting toward the Void.
Sven Birkerts is the most eloquent of contemporary Jeremiahs. In The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age and subsequent writings, Birkerts has described a possible glacial shift in our spiritual ecology, a mutation in the molecular structure of individuality. The evolutionary analogy is apt. For all their differences, cultural evolution and biological evolution share a fundamental mechanism: selection. Forms (of life, culture, personality) compete; the winners reproduce; advantageous innovations become standard. Evolutionary success depends on adaptiveness, the suitedness of a form or practice to its environment. Non-adaptive forms die out.
Memorization is an obvious example: highly adaptive in an oral culture, less so in a print culture, obsolescent in our electronic one. For a less straightforward example, consider this observation by a visitor to pre-industrial Japan: “The toil of the fields and the labor of the streets are performed to the rhythm of chanted verse; and song would seem to be an expression of the life of the people in about the same sense that it is an expression of the life of cicadae. …Poems can be found upon almost any kind of domestic utensil-- braziers, iron kettles, vases, wooden trays, lacquer ware, porcelains, chopsticks of the finer sort, even toothpicks.” But chanting is incompatible with the disciplines of mass production, and surfaces of all kinds are increasingly preempted for commercial messages. So the human instinct for spontaneous rhythmic and metrical self- expression is liable to atrophy; perhaps already has. Of every change, then, one may ask: what traits, capacities, practices, ways of being will be favored or disfavored in the resulting new environment?
The electronic revolution, everyone agrees, is the biggest change on the horizon and will utterly transform our everyday condition. What adaptations might this change induce in the species undergoing it? As connections proliferate and rates of transmission accelerate, will boundedness, stability, sensitivity to the physical surround, and the other characteristics of our embodied identity gradually become less adaptive? Under the massive, continuous, permanent pressure of a transformed environment, will the dimensions of selfhood alter?
The dimension that interests Birkerts is depth, or inwardness. This is notoriously hard to specify-- think of the centuries-- long philosophical wars over terms like “soul” or “spirit.” Birkerts comes at it in The Gutenberg Elegies through a memorable reconstruction of the reading experience, deploying and (partially) explicating suggestive notions like “immersion,” “duration,” “illumination,” and “resonance.” But this experience, at its transfiguring best, yields itself only to attention of a certain quality, concentration of a certain intensity, inner balance, detachment, silence, solitude-- just what electronic hyperstimulation undermines. Since we cannot increase our psychic capacity overnight-- evolutionary change is slow-- as our horizontal dimension expands, our vertical dimension must shrink.
This is a large, tendential argument. It does not imply that books, or selfhood as we know it, will disappear in a generation or two, or that all computers should be immediately unplugged. It merely reminds us that our minds, like everything else, have an ecology, and that if it changes drastically enough, they-- we-- will change too.
Readers (me, for example) expecting Tolstoy’s Dictaphone to be a symposium on The Gutenberg Elegies will be disappointed. It may well be something better; at the very least, full of splendid writing, it augurs well for the new Graywolf Forum series, in which creative writers will address contemporary social and cultural questions. But there’s almost too much imagination and verve here; I was hoping for something more dour, dyspeptic, and doctrinaire. Lenin famously warned that listening to too much Beethoven could take the edge off one’s revolutionary ardor. The memoirs, meditations, and jeux d’esprit gathered in Tolstoy’s Dictaphone-- Tom Sleigh’s lyrical reminiscence of a Western boyhood, for example, or Lynne Sharon Schwartz’s witty phenomenology of telephoning, or Askold Melnyczuk’s piquant and passionate pensees or just about anything else in the collection-- will give anyone with an inner ear intense pleasure. But when the very existence of interiority is imperiled, I want to be hectored, not charmed.
Of course, even the most playful or wistful pieces are not merely charming Jonathan Franzen, narrating his “co-dependent” relationship with “a whole dysfunctional family of obsolete machines,” also communicates an affectionate sense of “America’s enduring raggedness and an astute sense of what threatens it. Robert Pinsky’s story of his remarkable father-in-law, a visionary handyman and (in his seventies and eighties) freelance science-fiction writer, becomes a parable of “the melancholy of American tinkering, gadgeteering optimism staggering on without the Enlightenment confidence.” Albert Goldbarth’s joyride of an essay, careering through family history and interstellar adventure, and Wulf Rehder’s extravagant fantasy of an evening with Ulrich (from The Man Without Qualities and Valery’s Monsieur Teste: these may not pack much polemical punch, but they keep one’s spirits up.
Birkerts’ contribution, “The Fate of the Book,” embroiders his earlier arguments, spelling out the ways in which our new electronic habits may, in time, get down into the grain of our mental life. Open-endedness, simultaneity, and functionality come at a price. “If the screen becomes the dominant mode of communication, and if the effective use of that mode requires a banishing of whatever is not plain or direct, then we may condition ourselves into a kind of low-definition consciousness, There may result an atrophy, a gradual loss of expressions that are provisional, poetic, or subjectively nuanced.” For us now, “the opaque silence of the page is the habitat, the nesting place, of the deeper self.” We’d better be sure our deeper selves can thrive in a new habitat before we move into one.
Electronic connectivity competes with solitary subjectivity. There is nothing apocalyptic or reactionary, nothing sentimental or alarmist, about this hypothesis. On the contrary, it requires a sober acknowledgment that nothing comes free and a coldblooded calculation of costs and benefits. It also requires, however, a little imagination. We are awfully fine-grained creatures, and bound to be fragile in unforeseeable ways-- just like the rest of the natural world, on which we’ve already wrought considerable, possibly irreversible mayhem. The direction of change is not the only vital question; for a biologically limited organism, the scale and pace of change may also be life—and—death matters.
We may be gods someday, as the techno-visionaries promise. But it will be a distant day. And even then, as St. Augustine asked, what will it profit us to be interlinked with the whole universe if we lose touch with our ineffable depths?