Reading in an Electronic Age
by Sven Birkerts
It was my son’s bass teacher, Dave, who recently re-framed the technology issue for me. He pointed to the slogan on my son’s T-shirt and said, “What does that mean?” Long story short, years after I wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, a book seen far and wide as a Luddite manifesto (not without reason), my sister had custom-printed some T-shirts with “Refuse it” emblazoned on the front. Those were the concluding words of the book. They represented an adjuration to myself to turn away from the digital feast that was being offered to all of us back in the early 1990s.
I explained as much to Dave, who happens to be my age. “I thought we should try to resist”, I said. He nodded. I could see him trying to be polite, but all at once we looked at each other and both started laughing. And if that doesn’t say it all, it at least says something—not that resistance is impossible, only that the notion is now quixotic at best.
This was, admittedly, a casual instance of self-review. I had undertaken a more sober reassessment a few years earlier that served as the forward to the 2006 re-issue of the book. There I both corroborated some of my essential intuitions and, not without wincing, allowed that I had ultimately failed in my refusal. I gave reasons, practical as well as theoretical. As to the former, I had children, a career, a social life. What had been a rapidly emerging set of tendencies a decade before had quickly become a fait accompli, a reality that one ignored at the price of almost complete social irrelevance. I was forced to admit that I had underestimated the pervasiveness of the transformation. But as to the latter, I remained, and remain still, impenitently sure of my skepticism. We may have hurled ourselves into the electronic age, but we have done so with our eyes wide shut to the larger social and, I’ll dare say it, moral implications. In our zealousness we have taken on more than the boon of instant communication and connectivity, more than access to information and the algorithms of linkage. We have accepted the terms of a larger and more worrisome transformation.
I can’t think of another global-scale technological development that has entrenched itself so immediately upon arrival and then proliferated as remorselessly as digital technology. It has completely transformed not just the way we live and do business, but also the way we think. It shapes even the implicit assumptions we make about our place in the world.
Indeed, I measure the totality of the transformation by its enormous supplanting power, the fact that it’s now hard even to conjure up the pre-digital world in our active imagination. Who were we? How did we live? I feel a slightly stunned sense of stunted verisimilitude when I try to recapture the impetus behind my writing, the urgency I felt in the early 1990s when I undertook The Gutenberg Elegies. The personal computing revolution was still new: I wrote that book and much of my next on a Selectric II typewriter, and only as I was finishing the latter did my mode of production start to feel quaintly outdated, my quotidian process a gesture of stubborn defiance. In the early 1990s, it was not yet a foregone conclusion that the world would go completely digital, that computer networking would be the order of the day. The technology was making rapid inroads, yes, but totality had not yet been achieved, and so it remained barely imagined. For that very reason it was possible to see certain tendencies in sharper relief: Our diverse systems had not yet blurred together into the techno-sphere we all inhabit now. I could still isolate what I thought were some of the salient attributes of the new, and raise questions—concerns, really—about their possible impact.
These concerns had a certain paternity. I had grown up listening to dinner-table discussions about Marshall McLuhan and had absorbed the basic conviction that media exert profound shaping effects on their users, among other things altering what McLuhan called our “sense ratios”, our fundamental spatial and temporal orienting reflexes. That this should apply to the digital transformation seemed undeniable. Moreover, the ubiquity of the new devices, their essentially neural nature, and the responses they required and persistently reinforced in all users—these all had to have even more profound altering effects than radio and, later, television images. This is why, when people said to me, as they often did, “Technology is just a tool, so relax”—I couldn’t relax. The Gutenberg Elegies was my way of thinking out loud about what these effects might be.
The book was necessarily speculative, an exercise in identifying tendencies and projecting their possible consequences. Some of these, the more obvious, included: a large-scale flattening of historical perspective in the face of the incessantly iterated present; a loss of linguistic nuance in expression—a natural casualty of changing priorities in communication from precision to speed, and from contextual meanings to merely utilitarian ones; an erosion of an integrated sense of time in the face of the emergence of the fragmented, multi-layered consciousness required by screen interactions; and, possibly most worrisome, a displacement of natural subjectivity through the constant submergence of the “I” in a complex of anonymous interactive linkages.
I was, of course, called a Luddite, a reactionary, as if somehow the digital revolution was at root a populist emancipation and not, at the same time, a new form of social leverage for the power elite. The Gutenberg Elegies addressed itself primarily to the effects that the new technologies were wreaking on reading and the practices of print culture, upending the model of cumulative progression and turning literature into just another subset of the larger digital flow. And my sense now, 15 years later, is that most of my anxieties were well-founded. Most of us in technologically adept societies have enslaved ourselves to our screens, suffered eroded attention spans (or, more charitably, opened ourselves up to multi-tasking), and seen our language become increasingly pre-fab. Reading is in crisis, with bookstores closing and an array of publishers in fiscal receivership. Only some of this is owing to the digital transformation, but the point stands: Our new electronic “tools” have brought enormous changes over a very short period of time.
I do not feel that I was unduly pessimistic in my conjuring of outcomes. But now, merely one stride into a new millennium, I realize that I was only getting the first inkling of what the change was about. My sights were fixed then on assessing impacts in book culture, reading culture, even though The Gutenberg Elegies spoke often about the “total” nature of the shift, how everything was necessarily bound up with everything else. I failed then to grasp the full implications of that. Now I think I get it: The true effects of the digital tsunami on the cultural sphere are wrought not by the more obvious and immediate technological factors, but rather by the systemic changes in outlook that the larger transition is bringing. Our implicit assumptions about the very nature of reality are being smelted down and re-cast.
The re-making of our cognitive world involves more than a broad range of technical improvements in communications and information management. Those improvements, by themselves and in complex linkages, are steadily modifying both our most basic sensory reflexes and also our deepest assumptions about private and social reality. We are in the midst of a sea-change that has left no separate and stable platform upon which we might stand to describe and measure relative degrees of change. To amplify suggestions I made in Gutenberg, I would point to a very rapid collapse of formerly stable conceptions of self, individuality and subjectivity, and the imposition in their stead of a rapidly ramifying culture of linkages, group initiatives and social collectivization. I’m talking about Wikipedia and Facebook and decision-making driven by interactive tabulation—voting on everything with our digits. Emersonian self-reliance has gone out the window. In its place, a new rough beast is slouching toward Bethlehem to be born, though perhaps “slouching” gets the posture right only at the cost of misrepresenting the pace.
The PC was only the leading edge, the calling card, of a larger phenomenon, and while the PC remains now a central agent of ongoing change, its sphere of influence has been vastly augmented by an array of linked technologies: cell-phones, Blackberries, GPS systems, smart banking machines, and ubiquitous chip-powered devices that are woven into the fabric of our daily lives. These implementations are approaching both near-invisibility and near-ubiquity simultaneously. Sometimes it seems that our whole surround is a watchful, pulsing entity in which everything can be located and in which everything has the power to locate us. Privacy, once a given, has become an endangered human resource. We willingly surrender privacy through social network sites like Facebook. We surrender it often unknowingly by shopping online and by allowing others to collect our data—an operation we assist by re-arranging our lives around the digital devices on offer. As digital intelligencers are able to read and process our behaviors and whereabouts with ever greater precision, our composite individual identities are increasingly disaggregated into our information. We become that residual of ourselves that can be turned to profit. This turns out to be a rich field: The Internet is only beginning to harvest its users.
What is true of our public, social existence—this wholesale tearing down of boundaries—is reinforced in the other information sphere, the intellectual culture I focused on 15 years ago. What began in the 1980s and 1990s as a widespread initiative in academia to level hierarchies and deconstruct systems of authority now continues on another level, embodied in the very structure of information technology. Books will be written about Google—not just about the corporation but the ethos, and the vast consequentiality of its implementations. The algorithms of retrieval and ranking have completely altered the procedures of intellectual life, partly through the ease with which searchable data displaces thought, and a narrowly-defined retrieval command short-circuits creative browsing. Again, information is atomized, re-commodified as useful outside of its so-called explanatory narratives. It is all too often searched into place rather than generated as the product of thought. And Google then becomes the handmaiden to a new systematized processing of materials, the new ideal being the honey-bee work that results in Wikipedia and similar ventures.
In this emergent dispensation, ordering and presentation are achieved by consensus, with the relative weight and importance of facts assessed by computation and frequency of usage. Where in all of this algorithmic ritual is the place of the lone scholar? Where is his or her authority, and what are the implications for the individual of an intellectual culture driven by consensus?
What is striking, and perhaps a new thing under the sun, is the extent to which formerly separate (or separable) spheres of activity are knit together, maybe not to the extent that a butterfly flapping its wings in China affects the sub-Saharan ecosystem, but getting there. The deep interdependency of global economies is one example, but even that only scratches the surface. The congeries of linked effects that I am contemplating has as much to do with internalized worldviews as with external events. And not just worldviews—for those are big-picture understandings—but how we as individuals subjectively process and comprehend our realities.
I come back here to Google, to ubiquitousness and the impact of digitally filtered information. Our technologies, taken together, provide an almost total interface between ourselves and a world we move in that is now significantly comprised of technologies and their elaborate patterns of functioning. Consider high-end cell-phones, those “supplementary” gizmos. The way we have woven their capabilities into our daily social lives models the alteration of the deep psychology of all human exchange.
McLuhan wrote of the transformation of the “sense ratios”, by which he meant the physiological reconditioning of our reflexes based on reinforced exposure to new media. To this I would add the psychological counterpart: a revising of those proportions and alignments that govern our private and social sense of ourselves. In a very few years, as I’ve already suggested, our digital devices have affected our sense of privacy. They have also transformed solitude, the inalienable aloneness that has for millennia been a human given. And from that transformation must follow some radically revised conception of what might be called the ‘specific gravity’ of the self. How could it not? A person in complex and frequent contact with others by phone and screen is manifesting a different self than did the relatively isolated individual of the pre-digital communications era. We need to rethink and redefine what we mean by such elusive concepts as presence, focus and intimate versus public behaviors.
Every technology taken by itself raises questions that are then ramified by the reality of merged technologies. It is one thing, for instance, that a large part of our population can take cell-phone photographs wherever and whenever owners want: That already creates a changed awareness, giving rise to a visual (and perhaps voyeuristic) predisposition, as opposed to one more oriented to sound and touch. It is still another that we can now transmit these photographs in a flash to wired-in people anywhere in the world. How does this documentary porousness alter our sense of the public sphere or our sense of events? What does the ease of transmission do to our basic conception of geographic distance? And what of the ease with which a few key taps on Google can bring us street-level access to ever more parts of the world, or Skype the real-time image of our former college roommate now living in Nepal? What understanding do we preserve of the formerly absolute authority of place? What are the large-scale effects of its erosion?
Consider, too, the precipitous decline of newspapers and the rise of blog culture and Internet information sources that feed off our newly enfranchised voyeuristic culture. As with Wikipedia, we see the hierarchical, authority-invested model very quickly yielding to a consensual collectivism. Some would argue that this represents a gain in the infosphere—more news, more views. But what happens when we begin to cede the idea of institutional authority as embodied by our newspapers of record? Are we ready for a world characterized by the open flow of information and innumerable catch-basin filters that niche-sort data for us based on what we claim we want? To what degree should preference be a societal determinant of facts? Do we really want to digitally enact the postmodern claim that there are no facts or truths, only narratives more or less persuasive?
I’m just scratching the surface here, noting developments that have either arrived or accelerated since I wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, and raising briefly only the most obvious questions. A whole new field of study is open to us—many fields, indeed. All of my skimming and swooping is only meant to convey the extent to which things have changed in a mere 15 years, and to underscore that the consequences, present as well as impending, now seem far more profound than I once supposed. Then, I was writing primarily about literary and intellectual culture; now I see that things are, to use Wordsworth’s phrase, “far more deeply interfused.” But the central issue remains the same: What is the place of the self, of the subjective “I”, in a world that has become an interdependent system of information and impulse exchange?
We have scarcely begun to ask the necessary questions. Before we can do this with any rigor we will have to figure out how to pry ourselves loose from our immersion, if only temporarily, in the relativistic flux into which we have cast ourselves. There is no way to judge the momentum of a speeding object while one is riding in that object. So what, in a context of near-total transformation, can we use as a standard against which to take our readings? I don’t know that there is such a standard now, though it seems like there used to be. Would I still dare make my T-shirt proclamation: “Refuse it!”? To do so I would have to be able to say in the name of what, and I’m not sure I can. That calls for an elegy far more encompassing than the one I offered 15 years ago.