A few weeks ago, during an eerily slow Tuesday afternoon, I skipped out of work to visit the Strand, one of the few remaining bookstores in Downtown Manhattan. My day job in digital media, two subway stops uptown, involves combing through the pulse patterns of the Web, analyzing the flow of traffic across different websites; escaping the endless cascade of numbers and content can be intoxicating—turning away from the screen, silencing the phone, losing myself in a sea of paper.
Over 18 miles of books line the tables and shelves of the Strand, according to the red sign above the storefront. That day, after beginning with the NEW FICTION PAPERBACKS table on the main level, my attention drifted towards the dusty back corner of the basement, where I discovered a used copy of The Paris Review Book for Planes, Trains, Elevators, and Waiting Rooms. The book, published in 2004, was mistakenly placed in the MISCELLANEOUS NONFICTION section and contained an alarming introduction.
“We are living in the middle of a [real-time] epidemic,” says novelist Richard Powers, in said introduction’s opening paragraph. He points to the surge in technological features—such as split screens, picture-in-picture modes, multi-tasking software—that enable people to “[cram] two moments…into one.” He observes that empowered with the ability to maximize every second of our day, society has developed such a mastery over time that “nanoseconds now weigh heavily on our hands.” He tells us that reading presents “the last refuge” from this epidemic; the collection of stories and poems that follow are assembled by “the length you might steal from the flow, and still get away with.”
Powers’s introduction expresses a sense that contemporary culture is accelerating towards some kind of metaphysical breaking point. In reality, he was writing two years before the launch of Twitter, three years before Apple put the first iPhone into our pockets, and six years before Facebook released the beta version of its mobile app. Powers is of course still alive today, at the ripe age of 58, and I hesitate to think about how he might be weathering the present circumstances. On a recent bus ride from Boston to New York, I sat next to a middle-aged man in a Tommy Bahama shirt who spent the duration of his four-hour trip submerged in the “real-time” flow of his smartphone, bouncing between apps like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Spotify, YouTube, Snapchat, Tinder.
When Powers laments the unsustainable pace of technological change, he is channeling an almost ancient paranoia that has become existential amongst literary circles, given the economic anxiety being wrought by the digital transformation.
Generations of “Gutenberg Men,” raised on printed books and first identified by Marshall McLuhan in 1962, assert that true literary experience necessitates people to actively unplug from the ether. If a book is being read on an Internet-connected device, the fight towards deeper, independent thinking may already be lost. Changing the Subject, the latest book from cultural critic and author of The Gutenberg Elegies Sven Birkerts, expands Powers’s metaphor into the blatant “language of the battlefield” (as described in Jenny Hendrix’s essay for the Boston Review), employing verbs like “confront,” “attack,” “strike,” and “win.”
Critics of the “print” versus “digital” debate consider this dichotomy to be not only foolish, but potentially dangerous: technology will inevitably alter the way that future generations gather knowledge and assign meaning to the world, and it’s vital that literature plays a role in those new contexts. “Most people walk around with some kind of device…that allows them to choose how to use their time,” said Russ Grandinetti, vice president of Amazon Kindle content, to The Washington Post in 2014. “In a world with…ubiquitous choice, books need to continue to evolve to compete for someone’s time and interest.”
The collisions between “print” and “digital” have indeed yielded positive developments, even given the vantage point of a Gutenberg Man living in a digital world. The combination of free online publishing and the massive scale afforded by social media has enabled more people to have access to literature and writing and well-regarded publications than ever before. The recent revivals in long-form, narrative journalism and radio-style podcasts—from organizations like Byliner, the Atavist, Longreads, Audible, Slate, and Gimlet—rippling across digital media, present an exciting development for any lover of language and narrative.
The Gutenberg camp has also received encouraging news from the old world of “print.” E-book sales slipped for the first time in 2015, reaching a plateau at around a quarter of the overall market, and the number of independent bookstores across the country has grown by over 30 percent since 2009. Many in the book trade claim they are witnessing “a reverse migration to print” (as reported in The New York Times). For all the paranoid speculation over the “The Death of Fiction” or “The Death of the Novel” or the way that “Books Are Losing the War for Our Attention,” the latest figures from Pew Research Center show “no indication that the intensity of book reading over the years has permanently shifted in one direction or another.”
But ever since last summer, maybe around the time that media journalist John Herrman’s column on “The Content Wars” began getting viral attention, there has been a creeping anxiety around the risk inherent to any kind of digital media interaction. Every major technology company in the world is trying to reconfigure the way that people discover and consume media on a daily basis. Projects such as Apple News, Snapchat Discover, and Facebook’s Instant Articles claim to serve users with a more “immersive” experience, while conditioning their broader media habits to coalesce around the culture and tempo of the platform.
Last month, several independent publishers—including Electric Literature, Pacific Standard, and The Awl—abandoned their stand-alone websites and migrated their digital presences onto Medium, a buzzed-about online publishing platform created by Twitter co-founder Evan Williams and popularized as the unofficial blog-of-choice for politicians, CEOs, academics, and other “thought leaders.” Medium’s minimal page design is meant to hide the platform and elevate the words, but in the corner of every article there is a timer that automatically predicts how long an article will take to read (rounded to the nearest minute). The announcement was covered by Digiday, a popular news source for me and my colleagues in the digital media trade, whose site now offers a feature called TLDR (an abbreviation for “too long; didn’t read”) that can be turned ON or OFF like a light switch, and displays a 50- to 75-word “summary” for an article instead of the full 500- to 700-word length.
The relentless pull of an always-on digital media environment inevitably brings us closer to a complete submersion in the flow and economics of “real-time,” making any attempt to look away from the screen feel like a radical and necessary act. Rather than compete with “digital” on its own turf, a wave of recent literary projects around the world are mobilizing Powers’s 2004 mission through some ingenious and unlikely tactics. Vending machines in downtown Grenoble, France, are dispensing short stories on narrow slips of receipt-like paper, organized into one, three, and five minute intervals. Chipotle is publishing two-minute essays by esteemed authors on its take-out bags, an idea first proposed by novelist Jonathan Safran Foer. Blockbuster crime author James Patterson is starting a new imprint called BookShots that will only publish stories that can be read in a single sitting, aiming to win over the 27 percent of Americans who haven’t read a book in the past year (according to Pew).
These projects may only excite the already-converted print enthusiasts, but they represent an important movement towards resisting the mechanics of “real-time” and recalibrating our relationship with digital media—if only temporarily. Social media theorist Clay Shirky has speculated that the so-called resilience of “print” may actually be the last calm before the final storm, the intermediate stage in a much “darker narrative” where the print industry is following a “fast, slow, fast” model of revenue decline, the extermination event very much on the horizon and likely imminent.
In her Boston Review essay about Birkerts’s book, Changing the Subject, Jenny Hendrix urges the literary community to move past the “print” versus “digital” debate, to stop working against the tides of technology and refocus our efforts on artistic projects that help us correctly see and better understand how our way of life is changing. She defers to creative tinkerers that are “approaching ones and zeros in the spirit of language,” building websites and Google Chrome extensions that help us investigate daily life, such as “tanglr,” an anonymous shared browsing extension. She hopes that such projects can represent a “new confession” in the American transcendentalism movement, following the tradition of those writers—such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller—who championed individual experience in the years following the Industrial Revolution.
Hendrix’s discussion is reminiscent of Ben Lerner’s 10:04, a semi-autobiographical, collage-as-story, self-described “novel” of a book, which is entirely obsessed with how people accept and reject different narratives in an age characterized by the confluence of overload and fragmentation. An emblematic scene from his book involves the narrator’s visit to a movie theater to watch The Clock, a video art installation by Christian Marclay. The film comprises a 24-hour montage of scenes from cinema and TV, each clip in Marclay’s master clock arranged and stitched together according to the “real” time in the “fake” narrative. Lerner writes that, “Marclay had formed a supragenre that made visible our collective, conscious sense of the rhythms of the day. When we expect to kill or fall in love or clean ourselves or eat or fuck or check our watch and yawn.”
Humans are by nature curious and distractible. There are plenty of published books that deserve less of our attention than vast swathes of the Internet. Before Upworthy and Distractify, there were gossip magazines and over a dozen issues of Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader. Language itself is fraudulent, as British writer Tim Parks recalls in his own review of Birkerts’s book, quoting Samuel Beckett’s contention that “language is of its nature mendacious and to be made fun of at every turn.” But in our attempt to piece together those precious stolen moments, a world apart from the flow of daily life, there is a distinction between diversion and immersion that transcends any particular medium. Miscellaneous trivia feeds a different part of our selves than an intentionally-crafted story, regardless of length or format—two minutes or two hours, text-based or visual, GIFs or emojis, ephemeral Snapchats or six-second looped Vine videos.
After getting lost in the Strand for over an hour, I returned to the office and hid in the men’s bathroom, reading poems from the ELEVATORS section of the Paris Review collection, pieces by Billy Collins and Jamaica Kincaid and Suji Kwock Kim and Agha Shahid Ali. I could hear people in adjacent stalls streaming live news clips and Snapchats and clicking through their social media feeds. Crumpled newspapers and magazines were tucked between the stall doors, the vestiges of our agency’s old-timers who still rifled through the pages of The Times or the The Journal every morning, while hovering over the admin desks and exchanging quips about the headlines. The act has become a well-rehearsed tradition. Passing interns and new recruits insist that the old fogies are reading yesterday’s news. The elders crack wise that the young people can’t remember anything that happened earlier than five minutes ago. Neither side is entirely wrong, and there is plenty of substantial territory for both camps to explore, as long as they decide to look for it.
Image Credit: Pexels/markusspiske.
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.”