#123: TMI. Sven Birkerts, in his collection of essays Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf, 2015) assures us that he is not a “cranky Luddite,” and offers many acknowledgements of the goods, the options, the opportunities that have been brought to us by way of the internet. This might be a way of warding off the occasional head-bashing he got for an earlier book, The Gutenberg Elegies, dismissed in capital letters by some of the digerati, who reacted as if he had kicked a baby. But now, when more and more of my friends voice the exact concerns that form the substance of these essays, Birkerts’ moderate tone makes him all the more difficult to dismiss. Yes, the internet has brought the entire world of information into our house. But--you knew there had to be a but—Birkerts states the case for the losses involved with reason and urgency. You may well know the basics already, from your own experience: shortened attention spans; lessened ability to read through an entire book; a continual and worrying sense of being behind, due to the overwhelming glut of information; a maddening sense of dependence on the computer (the smartphone, the ipad, the GPS, the laptop) and the panic at its absence or unavailability; a loss of a sense of agency. These are now set topics for conversation and discussion, but Birkerts frames them in terms of concern for our intellectual, spiritual and contemplative lives—the parts that are beyond the beck and help of information. And Birkerts has, as his first line of defense, something that many of the social scientists don’t: books. By which I mean reading, by which I mean literature—the act of attention that centers and solidifies the self in the face of this scattering. Birkerts is a marvelous defender of the intangibles: what happens when we are reading (novels particularly, for him, but poetry as well), and the contemplative state. The digital age is here probably for a while, and the question will be how to get the good of it without disappearing into its maw. For Birkerts, this has to do with reading, and the safety net of our familiarity with the old values of humanism. These are at threat, and Birkerts delineates this threat with exactitude and felt concern; but the climax of the book is the lovely elegy for the poet Seamus Heaney, who cannily pretended to be ignorant of the ways of the computer, but who set the whole situation on its ear with his last message—a text—to his wife, two words of Latin (and no, I’m not going to tell you). We might be at threat but we’re not down yet.
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