Sven Birkerts’ Changing The Subject

My introduction to Sven Birkerts came with his 1994 eulogy to reading, The Gutenberg Elegies, which posited that the advent of the internet was severing us from our literary heritage. More than two decades removed from his initial hypothesis, Birkerts returns to refine his premise, and the result is Changing The Subject, subtitled (in my edition) “Art and Attention in the Internet Age,” a collection of essays describing or seeking to articulate the relationship between art and our inner selves. There is a profound difference, he argues, between engaging with our electronics and engaging with a book, and our collective conversation has been so focused on the benefits of the digital age that it has neglected to even consider the potential drawbacks. Changing The Subjects reminds us what is at stake when we cede ever more of our time and attention to the encroaching digital and technological world; it is an analog attack on the internet age.

The first thing that Birkerts notes, I think correctly, is that our transition from analog to digital has happened so quickly and so comprehensively that few of us have stopped to register the changes. The convenience of emails and text messages, of the instantaneous transmission of communications, being so self-evident, who would stop to defend letter writing? Friends have confessed to me their embarrassingly short attention spans, and conjectured that the internet, with its interlinking and constant updating, is to blame. Letters might be slow, but the time required to compose them trains us in a mode of self-expression that offers greater nuance and complexity than emails and emoticons ever could. He borrows from the Swiss writer Max Frisch, who defined technology as “the knack of so arranging the world that we don’t have to experience it,” a definition that seems to gain in accuracy as our technologies improve. Birkerts gives the example of using GPS for the first time, of being utterly at the mercy of a computer, but we are on the verge of virtual reality, and the sight of a helmet-strapped human navigating through a virtual world, invisible to third party observers, provides the ultimate proof of Frisch’s conception. Ultimately, what technology deprives us of is context. In the seeming interconnectedness provided by the internet, in the instantaneous question-and-answer replies of Google and Wikipedia, we are oblivious to the effort required to obtain information, and the convenience of the system masks this loss. We have the sum total of human knowledge in the palm of our hands, but the very ease with which we access answers to different questions – the years of the Napoleonic campaigns, or the price of the latest coveted gadget, for example – strips these questions of their surrounding meaning, as surely as the programs reduce them to alphanumeric codes. Birkerts gives the example of watching a special episode of television’s Jeopardy!, in which the most successful contestants in the show’s history were pitted against Watson, an IBM supercomputer, with disastrous results for humanity. But the machine did not understand the questions, in any meaningful sense; it isolated key words and phrases and searched a database larger than the sum of all human libraries for what it took to be the most likely solution. The human contestants, on the other hand, could not isolate key phrases from their context. To summon Charlemagne, for example, necessarily involved the context of European history, of the spread of Christianity, and these concepts have meaning to the human mind unmatched by any machine.

So, Birkerts asks, what happens to a population reared on these technologies? Will they be able to engage with a Moby Dick or War and Peace? Will they be able to focus their attentions in the peculiar way that literature demands? Will the collectivist message of the internet and social media, their insistence on our interconnectedness, work against great works of art, which insist upon – perhaps even cultivate – our individuality? The wide open nature of the internet is, in Birkert’s conception, the antithesis of a work of art, which seeks to direct our attention, to force us to focus on what we might otherwise overlook. The internet, by contrast, gives free play to our merest whims; one minute we are perusing a Wikipedia article, the next we are watching videos of adorable cats on YouTube. And as the internet grows in power, as we digitize more and more of human knowledge, we place greater emphasis on one particular skill set, technoliteracy, and neglect the powers of deep attention and curiosity that made that knowledge available to us in the first place.

So long as we have had machines of any sophistication, we have been at the mercy of their mysterious functioning. The difference is that now we live in a kind of seamless mesh of interconnected technologies, and the gap between their combined power and capability and our ignorance is a chasm beyond measuring. Though the odds against a total systems breakdown may be great, this does not banish the underlying – only veiled – truth of our powerlessness. We live most of our lives denying that fact – and this is our frightening hubris.

The price we pay for our hubris, for our refusal to recognize a tradeoff to the encroachment of technology, is a loss of contemplation; knowledge is no longer the product of meditative thought and reflection, but of a moment’s Googling. And to lose the ability to contemplate, or the time or the willingness to contemplate, mars our innermost selves, prevents us from cultivating our sense of self. The internet, Birkerts argues, has made us all harvesters of knowledge, and the harvest is bountiful, but it is not conducive to “the slow-orbit work that is contemplation,” and contemplation is our best buttress against existential dread:

Contemplation directs itself at the existential, which is to say, at that which pertains to the possible why of our being. It abuts the religious, but also has a powerful secular formation. Contemplation is what inevitably follows as soon as we allow the possibility that existence is neither trivial nor incidental; it is the mind, the spirit, looking to ask why not. It cannot survive where there is no solitude, or the time-as-duration experience, where there is not occasion for lingering among intimations and suppositions. And, so far as I’m concerned, its loss would be a banishment to the shallows – to the realms of the trivial.

It’s difficult, in looking at so many of our modern pleasures, not to conclude that he is right, that we are already swimming in the shallowest of waters, timid and unprepared to approach the depths.