A Digital Balm for Our Angst: On Sven Birkerts’s ‘Changing the Subject’

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Rainer Maria Rilke once famously advised a young poet to live the questions.

Rilke did not have Google.

Culture’s conversation on technology tends to orbit around questions of responsibility and management: when is it rude to check our phones at dinner? Or, is it rude? Does social media intensify our loneliness? And Google, our stupidity? These questions are important and necessary; they aid us in the dailyness of living. However, Rilke’s advice concerns our desire to know, understand, and make sense of the world, and how we always find ourselves, in these efforts, more involved with mystery. It is maddening. And it is why we make art.

In Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age Sven Birkerts wants to protect our fragile attention to mystery, which is relentlessly confronted by technology. “To pay attention, to attend. To be present, not merely in body — it is an action of the spirit,” he writes. “Art is a summoning of attention. To create it requires the highest directed focus, as does experiencing it.” If our attention is at stake — and that seems likely given the exponential demand on it — then art and imagination are equally at stake, Birkerts argues. The question is not whether checking your phone at dinner is rude (it is) but what’s lost in every moment we recede from the present into the plastic.

“I pose for myself the two big questions that I am forever asking…namely, What is the transformation that is taking place? and What is it that I fear the loss of?”

In the mid-’90s Birkerts published The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age to wide acclaim and serious skepticism. (Such are the sides of the technology debate.) By ruminating on the harmful influence of electronics and entertainment on imagination, Birkerts then named a culture preoccupied with certainty and productivity. And that was just the ’90s, when the Internet was in infancy and “personal device” likely conjured images of Walkmans not phones.

A lot has changed. And some things have not. One thing is clear: while the 20th century ended amidst the ambiguities of entertainment, progress, and technology — notably the confluence of — we’ve now fully embraced their roles in our lives. Changing the Subject has a tough audience. But Birkerts’s tone is one of confession and concern; as entangled as the rest of us in the matrix, he self-describes as existential over utilitarian:
I am increasingly haunted — I suspect many of us are — by a sense of being inadequate to the world around me. I often worry about the extent of my immersion. I keep telling myself that if only I could purge myself of competing thoughts and awarenesses and pay more attention to what is directly in front of me, I would be more alive. Technology has interposed a finely woven scrim of signals and distractions between me and my physically immediate reality. That many of these distractions are invisible only makes them more insidious, harder to navigate.
Birkerts’s voice is not in isolation. Many lament the saturation of the digital into our physical living. There are studies on social media’s effect on our happiness and loneliness. Conversations on parenting methodology now include screen-time management. We bemoaningly utter the phrase “need to unplug” as if we’re addicts, or because we’re addicts. But it would be erroneous, negligent even, to frame Birkerts’s arguments as those of measurement. The essays of Changing the Subject — which vary from personal reflection to pointed cultural investigation — do not concern themselves with will and parameter but attention and desire.

“There is clearly such a powerful, and, it seems, increasing, desire to be in touch — to express ourselves, to hear from others, to be caught up in that pulse that for a time eases our essential loneliness” writes Birkerts. There is so much anxiety in the drama of being human. Digital culture’s misguided attempts at scratching that existential itch only exacerbate the numb tickertape blurring of one moment into the next. We sense all this distraction delivered constantly through our devices and screens is not living. There exists no tune or harmony, only hunger and worry, to our digital behaviors. So, what’s lost? How will art suffer, that is, if it even survives?

“More and more I believe art — via imagination — is the necessary counter to our information-glut crisis. I explain this by referring back to the root concepts of imagination and information” writes Birkerts, dichotomizing our modes of thinking into contemplative vs. analytic. As complex as our minds are — structured by cell, neuron, and synapse — our brains are not infinite machines. But they can be infinite wonderers. In this is an important difference. Birkerts laments not so much the increased emphasis on analytic thought — though there’s definitely some of that — but the loss of confidence in contemplation, that is, thinking for the sake of thinking and reading for the sake of reading. He continues:
Imagination is a formative inward power, independent and generative. Information, by contrast, and by original definition, imparts inner form from the outside. To be informed is to receive the print of ideas or — and again I heed the etymology — impressions. Imagination creates shape; information imposes shape.
Our struggle to make art is a good struggle — the use of the word “good” purposefully imposing an ethic — in all its demands on our attention, passion, and curiosity. Why do we go to art, as creators, engagers, or both? Does such creative drive have arbitrary origins, or could it be that art directly confronts our anxiety about being human? Are we trying to offer a digital balm to our angst? This is not accusation, but confession.

I think on our urgency to photograph countless moments. Whether attempting to capture aesthetic or emotional gravitas — mountains or first steps — we long to hold what is too fleeting or too vast to hold. “I do think that when we have those occasional deeper moments, when we look up at the night sky and experience reverence, what we are experiencing is the power of the immense unknown.” And so, it is human and not adulteration to take the photo, but it does expose the charged, pregnant experience of finitude, and the craving for longevity and solidification. This longing drives us to art and expression or it drives us to distraction. Birkerts pleads the former.

Rilke told that young poet, “Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer.” To which it’s worth adding Birkerts’s voice for us 21st-century humans: “We are not seeing the triumph over the unknown. We are seeing, rather, the differential between what we can achieve and what our superengineered machines can achieve. Where their reach concludes, the unknown resumes, and it is no less infinite than it was before. That truth we cannot afford to lose.”