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Stage 2

by Sven Birkerts

(welcome to the website)


AGNI
on-line. In the right mood I could laugh myself silly over the irony of it all. Had you given me the crystal ball ten years ago, when I was putting out anti-technology jeremiads one after the next, I would have thought about going into the next room with my service revolver and doing what used to be called “the right thing.” Luckily there was no crystal ball—nor, if truth be told, would I know how to load a service revolver if I had one. But here we are and here I am, and it seems some reflective comment is in order.

The question is how to offer that reflection without sounding defensive. I don’t know that it’s possible. I am not by disposition a man who enjoys the taste of crow, and considering the intransigence of my original assertions, I have fallen far. Obviously I will be trying to put a good face on the situation, at least the part that concerns my own capitulations to the electronic juggernaut. But lest this cheer any of my former adversaries too much, I will quickly (and defensively) add that I remain philosophically unregenerate. I don’t step back from or retract anything I said in The Gutenberg Elegies—for me the analysis of causes and consequences still holds. I only rue that there was no viable alternative course of action—I did not want to end my days as a righteous crank—but it became clear, stage by painful stage, that certain refusals would not work. If I wanted to teach, e-mail was essential; if I wanted to keep writing for certain journals, I would have to learn to file my essays and reviews electronically. The slope was slippery, and everyone was on it, sliding.

This fact, that all of us were pretty much compelled to fall in with the new way of things—wiring our lives, accepting the rhythms and protocols of e-mail culture, adding on the portability of the cell phone (this I still resist)—has become, I think, the central theme of the digital revolution: It was very nearly total, a rout. To protest, as I did a decade ago, before it had stamped its fait accompli on our lives, made some sense: it was a position on behalf of certain endangered ways of life. To resist now would be, for me anyway, outright hypocrisy.

This does not amount to enthusiastic acceptance, however, and by no means does it signal an end to the discussion. Indeed, now that the great saturation is underway, now that we are adjusting everything about how we live, it is more important than ever to understand what we are doing and the possible implications.

I was recently invited to Williams College to talk to a class on this very subject, how I see things as having changed since I first wrestled with the subject a decade ago. For me it was an important occasion, a return. For although I had not stopped watching the culture and reflecting, I hadn’t been moved to formulate a new overview. I was, frankly, burned out on the whole business. Forcing myself to think about the questions again, though, was eye-opening and strangely energizing. Years had passed. My sense of context—and audience—had shifted. I’d talked about these things with students, but not in a long while, and I had never addressed a whole group of people who had grown up essentially after the second coming, who had never been without computers and all the various technologies of connection—those who had to take the word of parents and other adults that there had been a different world before.

That startling innocence about what to me feels the very recent past changed everything about my presentation, and in making the necessary shifts of perspective I found I was seeing the situation from a new angle myself. I understood more clearly than before that there are profound discontinuities in what we optimistically call the evolution of culture, and that the electronic shift may mark as profound a rift as the one Henry Adams saw a hundred years ago between what he called the Virgin and the Dynamo—the spiritual and the mechanized. I think the scale of change warrants the comparison.

I already remarked on the enormity—easily underestimated—of our collective acquiescence. The speed and avidness with which our whole society got on-line and retooled itself to new rhythms and procedures almost suggests that we were at some level already willing that change; that we were, most of us, tired of the old way of things. True? False? That was not for the Williams College undergraduates to decide. All they knew was how easy and natural the whole business was, and they laughed readily at any reminders I offered of how things had until quite recently worked.

I tried to give the event some graphic contour. I explained how fifteen, even ten years ago, these changes could still be viewed as moving in from the outside. I used the metaphor of an encroaching weather system, explaining how easy it was, then, to theorize the transformation. Boundaries were yet fairly clear, differentiated. Computers were still essentially add-ons, supplements—at least for the general population. Basic comparisons and gain/loss calculations could be ventured.

Not now, of course. In a decade’s time—truly the historical ‘eyeblink’—those systems have insinuated themselves warp and woof into the fabric of things, so much so that it can sometimes seem like they in fact are the fabric of things. The person who would study the transformation quickly finds that there is no Archimedean point, no place outside the circuited culture from which to offer a detached assessment. Electronic saturation has happened, I told them, and we need to think about it deeply and critically; the fact that the microchip is not about to go away makes this not less, but more important than it was before.

I spent most of my time setting out perspectives and suggesting ways of thinking—ways of thinking that were, I argued, difficult, even counter-intuitive. For while the sudden arrival of the information age has been in many ways a true revolution, it is one that has left its surroundings essentially intact. No smoldering ruins, no vast new organizational edifices. Information itself is invisible in its journey from source to destination, its pathways nearly so. The basic face of things looks much like it did before, and one could be forgiven for asking “What revolution?” But in fact the inner workings of our society have been replaced, and everything has changed. We live our lives in new rhythmic patterns, with new reflexes and expectations; our social and private behaviors have shifted in countless ways. (Imagine standing in a line to present a bank teller with a withdrawal slip.) And yet we hardly think to question it.

There are other reasons beside invisibility that explain our curious silence. One is that the information revolution has been a linked—a total—phenomenon. Change has not been overtly imposed so much as subtly and complexly distributed. Everything rearranges itself. What's more, much of the transfer has been in the direction of ease. To add exponentially increased processing power to a computer, new enabling software packages; to acquire a mobile phone or access to fifty new channels—these feel like expansions and augmentations, and we take them in our stride, one by one, mostly unaware that we embed ourselves ever more deeply in a mesh. And unaware, too, that at a certain point that embeddedness is comprehensive enough to mark a significant change in our way of living. We need to grasp this fact of saturation if we are to make any headway in understanding our situation.

To this end, I proposed several thinking exercises to the Williams students: visualizations of the most basic sort, gestures of detachment that might, with luck, become habitual reflexes. The first was a simple diachronic prop—a timeline. I went so far as to draw a long horizontal line on the blackboard, marking it with a single perpendicular intersection near the right end. “This,” I proclaimed dramatically, indicating everything to the left of the mark, “is all of recorded human history: millennia upon millennia of life lived without electricity and the connectedness it allows.” And I asked everyone in the room to imagine, for a minute, a world bounded by the limits of the biological senses, a world in which immediate communication was directly constrained by the reach of the human voice. Nearly all of our history, I reminded them, unfolded in a world where messages passed directly from mouth to ear, or else from pen to paper to hand to eye, leaving a distinct trail in our common space.

Then I pointed to the marked off segment at the end of the line. Our world—us now. Compressed within this small space are all of the developments of the modern age, from the harnessing of electricity to our present impulse-saturated moment. The point of the exercise? To step outside of the box of the familiar, the assumed, to grasp the extraordinary velocity of transformation. And to understand, as well, that nearly all of what we understand as our history—everything that has shaped our culture and its institutions—is the product of the former way of things.

Without lingering, I then offered up the complementary—synchronic—exercise. I asked the students to think about how they might immerse themselves imaginatively in the former, pre-electronic world. My own recommendations: read a novel by Jane Austen or Charles Dickens, say, and pay attention not so much to the plot development as to the mechanics of daily life; project yourself into the daily rhythm of the represented world. How do people get from place to place, how do they communicate with each other, how are time and space rendered? Or else: Stare at a painting by, say, Constable or Ruisdael; let the landscape absorb you slowly; think, as your eye meanders from point to point, that behind this nature were no wires, no invisible impulses moved through this air.

These invisible impulses are the crux of the matter, yet they are so difficult to apprehend, both literally and in terms of their subtle transformative effect. I therefore asked the students, as a third thinking exercise, to picture two outwardly identical houses, one equipped with all of the electronic amenities we take for granted—phone, computer with internet access, television, radio—the other, not. Even if all the electronics in the wired house were inactive, I said—radio and TV and computer off, phone not ringing—the experience of sitting in otherwise identical rooms in each house would be completely different. And this would be because of potentiality.

Electronic communications devices are, whatever else their function, engines of potentiality. They bring us the promise of a connection—and the rhythm of frequent connection—to the collective now, and that promise underwrites every aspect of our late-modern lives. Take that away and we are instantly back in the world of Austen, or Ruisdael, of the whole long timeline to the left of that vertical dividing stroke.

What am I getting at? I am simply hammering home—again—the idea of total cultural sea-change and of our understandable tendency of looking right past it, of believing the tired assurances of op-ed pundits and pop apologists that the more things change the more they stay the same. If the contrary assertion—that all has changed, that our world is being internally remade—is less tired, it's only because we don't hear it as much.

Which brings me back to my point of origin: the attempt to account for my apostasy. How do I now justify using and promoting a technology which, just a few years ago, I deplored? Do I no longer deplore it? What can I offer to explain myself? I would say—short answer—that the digital age has arrived and that, at least in immediate retrospect, it has the feel of inevitability about it. Who knew? Well, clearly some people did. They read the signs, trusted that it was our collective will to move forward into connectedness and the radically changed private and public space that connectedness makes inevitable. I'll admit it took me a while to accept this—not the fact of the technology, but the zeal of people everywhere to embrace it. But I have made my correction; I have accepted that there is now a new way of things.

What I will not concede is that with this the game is over. To the contrary: We have only just begun to orient ourselves to the new, its possibilities as well as its liabilities. And there is a great deal to think about. Not least the fact that, as suggested above, the entire context of our living has been altered and that inwardly—psychologically, expressively (artistically)—we need to start redrawing our maps. That is what, in a sense, this web-site will be about. It will assume a world in radical transformation and create a field in which to reflect on this—through works of fiction, poetry, images, interviews, commentary, and whatever else we deem relevant.

I assume that the look and feel of AGNI on-line will change and evolve, and for that reason set no calming agendas before you. We will try to use the opportunities created by connectedness in order to reflect on and question the meaning of connectedness. And a good deal else besides—including, of course, the traditional subjects of literature and art (i.e., everything). The site is a counterpart, an adjunct, to the print journal, possibly its younger sibling. But though you will recognize traces of family resemblance, true legitimacy is still being contested. Thankfully bastardy is no longer the public kiss of death. Readers of this inaugural reflection are invited to share their views on the question. Welcome.

—SB


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