2.25.2011

gopnik: how the internet gets inside us and why this is really ok

This is a tangent to my previous post, but it deserves an entry of its own. I want to point out this excellent article by Adam Gopnik in The New Yorker: "How the Internet gets inside us".

Gopnik reviews a pile of recent books about the internet and society, dividing them into three themes: technology is our saviour, technology is our demise, and technology has always been met with these same two responses. Gopnik calls them "the Never-Betters, the Better-Nevers, and the Ever-Wasers". It's a perceptive and entertaining assessment of how we conceive of technology in our lives.

Here are a few bits I especially enjoyed.
One of the things that John Brockman’s collection on the Internet and the mind illustrates is that when people struggle to describe the state that the Internet puts them in they arrive at a remarkably familiar picture of disassociation and fragmentation. Life was once whole, continuous, stable; now it is fragmented, multi-part, shimmering around us, unstable and impossible to fix. The world becomes Keats’s “waking dream,” as the writer Kevin Kelly puts it.

The odd thing is that this complaint, though deeply felt by our contemporary Better-Nevers, is identical to Baudelaire’s perception about modern Paris in 1855, or Walter Benjamin’s about Berlin in 1930, or Marshall McLuhan’s in the face of three-channel television (and Canadian television, at that) in 1965. When department stores had Christmas windows with clockwork puppets, the world was going to pieces; when the city streets were filled with horse-drawn carriages running by bright-colored posters, you could no longer tell the real from the simulated; when people were listening to shellac 78s and looking at color newspaper supplements, the world had become a kaleidoscope of disassociated imagery; and when the broadcast air was filled with droning black-and-white images of men in suits reading news, all of life had become indistinguishable from your fantasies of it. It was Marx, not Steve Jobs, who said that the character of modern life is that everything falls apart.

We must, at some level, need this to be true, since we think it’s true about so many different kinds of things. We experience this sense of fracture so deeply that we ascribe it to machines that, viewed with retrospective detachment, don’t seem remotely capable of producing it. If all you have is a hammer, the saying goes, everything looks like a nail; and, if you think the world is broken, every machine looks like the hammer that broke it.

It is an intuition of this kind that moves the final school, the Ever-Wasers, when they consider the new digital age. A sense of vertiginous overload is the central experience of modernity, they say; at every moment, machines make new circuits for connection and circulation, as obvious-seeming as the postage stamps that let eighteenth-century scientists collaborate by mail, or as newfangled as the Wi-Fi connection that lets a sixteen-year-old in New York consult a tutor in Bangalore. Our new confusion is just the same old confusion.

Naturally, I love this historical perspective. One of my minor academic triumphs in grad school has been a paper arguing that the print revolution of the 1600s was a greater communications shift - a more significant information explosion relative to what preceded it, and a more cataclysmic cultural shift by far - than the one we are living through now. (Thank you, Elizabeth Eisenstein!)

This bit on how our perception of television, relative to the internet, has changed made me chuckle. I loved Gopnik's resolution, suggesting we back away from all-or-nothing thinking and, if technology is bothering us, perhaps a few small changes are in order.
It is the wraparound presence, not the specific evils, of the machine that oppresses us. Simply reducing the machine’s presence will go a long way toward alleviating the disorder. Which points, in turn, to a dog-not-barking-in-the-nighttime detail that may be significant. In the Better-Never books, television isn’t scanted or ignored; it’s celebrated. When William Powers, in “Hamlet’s BlackBerry,” describes the deal his family makes to have an Unplugged Sunday, he tells us that the No Screens agreement doesn’t include television: “For us, television had always been a mostly communal experience, a way of coming together rather than pulling apart.” (“Can you please turn off your damn computer and come watch television with the rest of the family,” the dad now cries to the teen-ager.)

Yet everything that is said about the Internet’s destruction of “interiority” was said for decades about television, and just as loudly. Jerry Mander’s “Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television,” in the nineteen-seventies, turned on television’s addictive nature and its destruction of viewers’ inner lives; a little later, George Trow proposed that television produced the absence of context, the disintegration of the frame — the very things, in short, that the Internet is doing now. And Bill McKibben ended his book on television by comparing watching TV to watching ducks on a pond (advantage: ducks), in the same spirit in which Nicholas Carr leaves his computer screen to read “Walden.”

Now television is the harmless little fireplace over in the corner, where the family gathers to watch “Entourage.” TV isn’t just docile; it’s positively benevolent. This makes you think that what made television so evil back when it was evil was not its essence but its omnipresence. Once it is not everything, it can be merely something. The real demon in the machine is the tirelessness of the user. A meatless Monday has advantages over enforced vegetarianism, because it helps release the pressure on the food system without making undue demands on the eaters. In the same way, an unplugged Sunday is a better idea than turning off the Internet completely, since it demonstrates that we can get along just fine without the screens, if only for a day.

You can read the whole thing here. It's the same New Yorker issue with the much-talked about story about Paul Haggis and Scientology. I haven't read this one yet, but several people we know have recommended it and it sounds great. Why not thank a tree and print them both?

4 comments:

M@ said...

the print revolution of the 1600s was a greater communications shift - a more significant information explosion relative to what preceded it, and a more cataclysmic cultural shift by far - than the one we are living through now.

I absolutely agree with this, and I've gotten into big arguments about this before. In fact, I would argue that broadcast media (radio and television) were at least equal to the Internet in how they changed lives, because of how widespread and accessible they were. Radio and TV were what built mass culture; the Internet is breaking that culture up into smaller groups.

I'm not saying it's a negative aspect of the Internet; I do think that it's very easy to overestimate the impact of a change you're living through, and underestimate those things you've taken for granted since birth. The historical perspective is really useful in helping us understand that.

laura k said...

I absolutely agree with this, and I've gotten into big arguments about this before.

Cool! My guess is that people arguing on the other side haven't actually imagined the pre-printing press world, the world of the unique manuscript chained (literally, chained) to a shelf, only visible to scholars who could make a pilgrimage to read it. They may not realize what the reproduceable image meant to science, exploration, the dissemination of ideas.

I don't know what side of this argument I would have been on before reading Elizabeth Eisenstein, but after reading her - and some of her many critics - I was utterly convinced.

and underestimate those things you've taken for granted since birth.

Definitely!

M@ said...

They may not realize what the reproduceable image meant to science, exploration, the dissemination of ideas.

Not only that -- mass-reproducible text, and widespread literacy, utterly changed the way we think. The speed at which learning and knowledge progressed, the rate at which ideas could cut through a society, was stunning.

The thing that got me thinking this way was a documentary series which you might be familiar with, "The Day the Universe Changed". This episode is well worth watching for someone who's unconvinced -- a nice easy primer on the subject.

laura k said...

Not only that -- mass-reproducible text, and widespread literacy, utterly changed the way we think.

I agree. But the communications revolution I'm thinking of came before widespread literacy and mass-produced texts (the way we now think of mass produced). That would be the 19th Century - it came with the railroad.

I'm 250 years before that, when only scholars, scientists, clergy, scribes - a literate elite - used print. I'm talking print vs hand-copied manuscripts.

Eisenstein's The Printing Press as an Agent of Change is the place to go for this. It was originally a 2-volume, 750-page work, but she revised and condensed it for more general audiences.

Thanks for that link - I will save it to listen.