The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994
About 25 years ago, in The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age, I set out my various apprehensions about the arrival of computer technology. My views were strongly stated, for which I was branded a Luddite by some. I soon became an available contrarian asked to give my thoughts on the progress of digital culture. The invitations still arrive from time to time.
In the early days this was still fairly easy. I could point to whatever were the newest developments and reflect on their implications. There was no shortage of things to be said, of course, because every fantastic progressive advance in the processing speed of the microchip also marked the loss of something in some other sphere, particularly in the cultural web of deep reading, or what we like to call literacy. For me it all seemed very quid pro quo—until at some point early in the millennium the quid and the quo started to tangle and trip me. Two big things were happening that changed everything, and rendered my assertions in The Gutenberg Elegies not so much wrong as descriptive of an already bygone era.
One was on the personal front. I had to concede that I had, by degrees, become far too implicated in things digital myself to make any further pretense at disinterested observation. I was, after all, online, writing and filing electronically; I was e-mailing; I was streaming movies at night. I had joined the game: I was compromised.
Distressing as it was, however, this implicated state was not the disqualification it would have been before. Because the other big thing—the far bigger thing—was that somewhere in that time interval (there is no pinpointing a moment, no matter how hard we may try), the system of isolated parts, the emergent facets of technological change, had morphed into a totality. A seamless-seeming integration had taken place. The world was now effectively digital, its various systems all monetized and merged, every quotidian superficial need met, every kind of transaction or operation having its own cunningly engineered “app.” We were now all together inside a system and there were few, if any, viable non-digital perches to be had. There was no chance anymore for neutral descriptions, no Archimedean place to stand.
Overnight, so it still seems to me, everyone got on board with the new way of things—already there was a whole generation coming up for whom it was not even new—and the only question left was about the degree of engagement. Some users were fully immersed, welcoming each innovation; others were more selective. I put myself in the latter camp. I used the ATM but avoided online banking. I e-mailed but eschewed social media—that is, until one day someone guided me to Twitter and I found I quite enjoyed putting up literary quotes and seeing what responses came back. But I drew the line at Facebook, and still do. Enough was enough. We all need our private virtue markers. I was still fine, I reasoned, for at least I had not fallen into that locally minor yet cumulatively massive “time-sink.” That’s what everyone I knew called it. “You’re better off,” people said, even as they themselves indulged. And I took them at their word, so no Facebook.
No iPhone, either. That was my other big virtue marker, good for lots of private preening. I saw people driving and talking, or sitting isolated in public places focused on the little screens they were holding. I thought them pathetic. But then—well, we all know how this goes. Aging parents, teenaged children…the nearly inevitable capitulation so easy to predict, and solemnly understand. One might “autofill” the rest of this piece and make a cautionary tale—of pride preceding fall, of best-laid plans, of slippery slopes and the rest. But I would like to salvage some pride and describe a small turn of resistance instead.
When I was a kid I remember being intrigued by what I understood to be the principle of jujitsu: using an opponent’s strength against himself. I wasn’t sure how it was done—and I never took up the art—but the concept itself stuck. And I will make use of it soon.
For as I said, I did at last succumb to various pressures and committed what I saw as the big transgression: I began to carry on my person a flat little device that could make and receive calls, send and receive emails, do something called “texting,” take pictures—an apparatus outfitted with options that would allow me, if I chose, to stream music, call taxis, play games, do my banking, pay for items at checkout counters…. There was really no end to the options, and I found myself tormented by my capitulation even as I succumbed. Here I was, former digital scold—“Mr. Gutenberg” as my wife and kids mockingly called me—equipped with the distraction of distractions. I might as well have agreed to have a cluster of silicon chips embedded in my head.
I tried to be defiant. I held what lines I could. I used the telephone sparingly, and texted with my children only as needed (since there was often no other way to reach them). If I was away from home or work I would from time to time check e-mail, replying only if necessary. No banking, no use of apps, nothing—until the day when I was out walking and responded to a vibration in my back pocket. The phone was in my hand and by accident I tapped the camera icon, whereupon instantly some tall and strikingly sunlit reeds reared up in my viewfinder. I clicked the icon and discovered, right there and then, that I had taken what I thought was quite a nice picture. I, who had all my life admired photographers and done nothing to emulate them, had unwittingly achieved a miracle—me, a man in his 60s.
This is where the jujitsu idea gets relevant. For, obsessive individual that I am, I did not call a halt to my image-taking with that one inadvertent success. Instead, I went immediately overboard. I started taking iPhone pictures at every opportunity. Flowers, dry leaves, sunlight on cornices, folds in the drapery. I took photos all day long and at night I lay in the dark and brought the phone close to my face and studied what I had captured. I couldn’t stop, and I didn’t want to. This went on for months. And I found that not only was my way of looking at things affected, but my whole way of going through the day was also changing. I was at every moment on the lookout for interesting things to fix in my lens. I was also, more and more, calculating my path through the day, whether driving or walking, so that it might put me in the way of what I half-jokingly referred to as “photo ops.”
For a long time this was obsession pure and simple. I was eager and everything was grist. There was no jujitsu as yet; indeed, things got worse before they got better. For I somehow discovered that with another simple click I could post an image directly from my phone to Twitter, and then, not long after, I realized that I could do the same with Instagram. I was in a veritable flurry. I was having more fun than I’d had in ages. The business was threatening to lurch out of control.
Mercifully, there is with photography, as with every other mode of expression, a learning curve. I snapped and snapped, and gradually I started wearing out my more obvious subjects and got tired of my customary ways of framing. I looked at the postings of my fellows, but I also looked closely at the work of the truly gifted—Edward Weston, William Eggleston, Robert Mapplethorpe, Irving Penn, Sally Mann, Vivian Maier, Andre Kertesz, and others. And the more I studied, the easier it was for me to go back through my various prizes and discard. I got ruthless, declared war on images I saw as too easy or derivative. Every day I caught myself muttering “no, no…” under my breath as I moved past things that would once have had me stopping to take a shot.
I should note that at no point along this “curve” did I fancy myself anything more than a rank amateur, and I don’t think I ever will. But—and now we come to the turn—I did in time get a sense that something was changing in me, something fundamental. Because of this little apparatus and my own surprise engagement with it, I was learning to look. That sounds terribly pretentious, I know, but how else am I to characterize it?
“Look” is a loaded word, and I would like to linger on it, for itself, and also for its implications with respect to the topic I started with, which was the set of transformations brought about by digital technologies that have habituated us to ease and distraction, to multitasking, to mash-up aesthetics, and to the thousand and one siren songs that pull us away from a focused engagement with the things in our lives. Our innovations have become the very definition of that slippery slope—a nearly endless expanse of slick mud—which is by definition a one-way track.
But now the paradox. My iPhone camera, because of its own seductive ease, has in these past few years given me an instruction that I might not have gotten otherwise, an instruction that has, believe it or not, made me feel that I am reversing course; that I am beginning to push back against some of my previous capitulations. It is all connected to this business of learning how to really look, which has become, after that season of first promiscuous infatuation, a kind of discipline unto itself. It is a discipline that has many facets and, I’m sure, a long course of mastery, but I can already mark out three recognitions that have been deeply restorative.
The first, obviously integral to the traffic in images, is attentiveness. The more time I have spent contemplating photographs, whether mine or those of others, the sharper and more defined my seeing has become. This is, I’m convinced, a direct result of learning to hold a steady gaze on what is in front of me—which is not as easy or automatic as I might have imagined. That new learning became ingrained very slowly and was the result of a particular recognition I experienced over and over. For what I found was that after a certain time of keeping my eyes fastened upon some object, it would often reveal itself to me in ways I never imagined existed. I don’t mean anything particularly mystical here, though there is mystery: how something at first concealed behind habit and expectation suddenly seems to change, offers itself as beautiful, or at least interesting. And it was a transformation that held true for me once I had taken a photograph. I could look at the image and see it. How, I wondered, had I not experienced this before?
The second, which seems almost the opposite of focused attention, is something I think of as “the peripheral”—the phenomenon of the corner of the eye. I will be walking, or sitting somewhere, and I will feel something like a flash at the very edge of my field of vision—a movement, an anomaly of some kind. I have trained myself to act quickly—to turn, aim, and snap. More than a few times this proved to have been a justified call, and I realize yet again how astute the instincts are, how they short-circuit the more sequential operations of thought. I realize, too, that these instincts work best when we trust that they do work—the peripheral senses, our instinctual survival tools epitomized by the deep penetration of the world that we mistakenly call “mere” glancing, are fast and accurate.
Finally, I felt myself taking a step back toward things. This turns out to be another paradox. For as our digital living carries us ever further from our roots in the material world, so does our sense of the presence of things change. Unless we are made to regard them—to interact with them—they slip behind the virtual scrim. But as Rilke so presciently put it in his famous “Ninth Duino Elegy”: “We are perhaps here to say house, bridge, fountain, gate . . . .” Already a century ago he felt us growing away from the creature world and the thing world, and who will these days deny the truth of that? A big part of what this action, this looking, has brought back for me is a respect, an admiration, for the surfaces, colors, textures of things. The eye comes to rest on an object and by slow degrees engages its separate otherness.
The process by which this happens exemplifies that larger countering I’m talking about—the taking back of a kind of awareness that was not so unusual in earlier times, but which is now being threatened as never before by the systems and devices we live with. The great irony for me, so unexpected, is what I’m calling the jujitsu effect, the fact that it was a sophisticated technology that got me once more pushing against the stream created by our sophisticated technologies.
I have never regretted the assertions I made in the Gutenberg Elegies. It was a book of its time and I would not change a word. But I also know that it is a book that cannot be easily revised into a new edition—the changes of the past few decades have taken us well beyond any standoff between an old order and a new one. We are all, myself very much included, caught up in a new amalgamation of reality, one that challenges our reflexes as well as our former psychological certainties. Entirely new exertions await us.