Writing Contra Technology

a review by Robert Detman

Birkerts, Sven. “Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age”
Graywolf Press
2015, 256 pages, paperback, $16.00

A concern for many individuals is that technology is destroying our ability to be alone. But what isn’t getting done in that lack of solitude is perhaps the bigger concern for technology users, as an almost addictive and insidious need for constant distraction in turn destroys our ability to be creative. In “Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age,” Sven Birkerts explores in seventeen essays his concerns about the dire impact to the creative mind that he believes is a result of our growing dependence on, and subservience to, technology.

Birkerts has made a career as an Emersonian voice calling out from the chaos of technology. He is a seer whose plaints are buttressed with a pessimist’s doubts; his statements have the force of hard won self-knowledge, and are the province of an intellectual autodidact. In a sense, Birkerts is preaching to the converted, and his stridency can often seem like he’s stuck in a groove, as if he resists technology at his own peril, or that he believes he is missing out on all the fun.

Most users probably understand that technology, the World Wide Web, smartphones, the endless array of apps to use on those smartphones, etcetera, are capable of wasting vast amounts of personal time, time that could be better used for unmediated creativity and contemplation. For many users, perhaps even a majority, technology can be reduced to merely novel ways for self-promotion, or for encouraging and maintaining a kind of dubious social popularity within their coteries. In a sense, technology stalwarts embody the notion that the consumer is the commodity. Indeed, it can feel as if the prevalence of technology within all areas of our lives has become a necessity above all else.

Social network sites like Facebook and Twitter cater to these uses. This could be the operative mode of what is known as disruptive technology, which might take its predominant purpose to anticipate specious needs. But needs, once discovered, become wants and desires in this self-cannibalizing industry. These are tools that we choose to learn to use—above and beyond their necessity. For those like Birkerts who managed to make substantial cultural contributions long before the existence of these tools, there might be little imperative for them. Birkerts’s concern, as related in the essay “The Room and the Elephant,” is that “We become more and more connected, and more and more dependent, on the dynamic interactivity achieved using tools that most of us don’t begin to understand.” It’s not a surprise that Birkerts might view those who are not only using technology but are avidly becoming dependent on it with despair; he may even see the pervasiveness of technology as a threat to his own lifelong commitment to belles lettres. This sounds vaguely elitist, but these technologies are impacting the writing and creative fields in seemingly irreversible ways. Birkerts is likely not alone with his concerns and questions as to their necessity and relevance.

It takes a bit of magical thinking to remember the era before e-mail and Google. I recall an unusual form of messaging via Prodigy, one of the first web portals, around 1993. I remember not knowing what the point of it was, beyond the novelty of communicating with strangers about random subjects on a connected network. And let’s not forget the old way of meeting a group (in my example, for a writing group, via classified ad in a local weekly, the Chicago Reader, circa 1996), or sending work out to journals, with snail mail and SASEs (in light of email and cloud servers, the notion of paper mail is coming to seem ever more passé, lately). Even more difficult back then was knowing how to do things the right way, for example, how to approach a publisher or properly format a manuscript. At the time, I consulted a book. Now, available on the web, there are far more opinions about what is considered the “proper way” of doing such things, as well as options—probably too many to be useful.

Yet equally, the rise of our ability to tap the web has probably made us more efficient, by giving us multiple libraries’ worth of resources. Yes, maybe it has made us smarter—or maybe it only seems this way. The immediacy of information retrieval lets us consider sources that we might never know otherwise. That many of these resources often prove indispensable, even occasionally enlightening, may be reason enough to not disdain them. Certainly, this often means digging in deep. An optimist might say that it’s difficult to not feel an ever-present fascination and curiosity about the technological future.

If one reads between the lines of his critique, Birkerts seems precisely caught up in this technology in just the way he fears, while simultaneously resisting, occasionally offering himself a mild rebuke. Though he refuses to have a smartphone, allowing himself the almost arcane limitations of a land line, or the old-fashioned serendipity of chance encounters. He does use his wife’s iPhone while exercising on a stationary bike, allowing Pandora’s music algorithm to select his workout soundtrack. This giving over of agency is, to him, nothing less than an existential crisis, as he explains in the essay “The Lint of the Material,” in which we confront “the larger tendency of our digital age, the movement away from the notion of the individuated ‘I’ and toward a more networked, which is to say collectivized, existence.” Caveat emptor be damned, he’s still using the technology, as we all eventually do. If we wish to engage in the contemporary world, we evolve into these technologies; they are becoming inescapable. It’s to the unwitting who may be developing habits that depend on technology that Birkerts seems to note wearying alarms. For so many, though they may be avid readers, the web exerts an inexorable pull that can feel greater than an available book with its presumably already dated message. Thus, the need to create a bulwark against technology for fear of losing sight of what matters—a refrain that Birkerts sounds with a note of tempered ambivalence—is perhaps, to some degree, valid.

Birkerts addressed some of these same concerns in prescient form in 1994 with his most widely read book, “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.” In that book, he considered the possibility of his own children overwhelmed by a hypertext future. I can relate to this as the parent of a child who, having been born in the new millennium, will only know this overly connected world. I find myself worrying that, as she develops, she may not have opportunities to explore the resources of her own mind’s capacity to solve problems creatively. That she could become too enamored with the ease of technology at the expense of connection with others is never far from my thoughts as I watch her engrossed in a video on a small screen that I’ve set in front of her in order to get some time for myself (even if it only amounts to checking email or reading an ever-renewing trove of online resources). At least, I convince myself that I may set an example when it comes to maintaining a curious mind.

Far removed from the exigencies of the web, many hang on for dear life to their reflective thought processes. Still, we might come to the web to post our opinions on a blog, or to read others in the desire to find some nourishment to engage, and possibly gain something in return. This might be the web’s novelty and the key to its perpetually renewing wonderment. The assumption of the internet culture is that all will want to engage and must. In the essay “The Room and the Elephant,” Birkerts offers the example of references such as Wikipedia, which operate on “the collectivist premise by which the private self is an outmoded concept, perhaps elitist, threateningly countercollective.” Birkerts then cites an essay in The Awl which attempted to argue that the ultimate result of the web—and crowdsourced references—should be to eliminate individuality. Such a proposition seems like an attempt to denigrate those artists who make their name by their individuality, but one can just as readily take a more realistic, less Machiavellian view and say for those who partake in Tumblr and Instagram, et al., their desire to belong, to get followers, doesn’t exactly hinge on the vanquishing of their individuality. Being “followed” or liked or marked as a favorite could rather be deemed a vote for their individuality.

Technology is frequently portrayed as a creative resource for its users, at least in the hyper-optimism of its advertising and promotion, and the suggestion is that anyone can have access to it. It’s safe to assume that Birkerts is skeptical of this insidious project. Though such claims for technology’s salvation may be doubtful, perhaps it’s worth considering the evolutionary tendency of progress, in particular where technology is headed.

Creative technologies are now more readily available to those who might not otherwise have them, regardless of the amount of craft or technique they have to utilize them. After all, people are still writing poetry and novels and screenplays, as well as painting pictures and making films. There will always be mediocrity in the arts, just as there are always those with the need, and potential, to delve deeper. Yet is Birkerts missing the point that so much of the source of his concern is merely about the option of making a willful decision to shut the technology off? For those who can consciously disconnect, a sense of individualism perhaps never goes away.

When Birkerts steps afield in his reasoning, it is to bemoan what this array of technology is doing to remove our capacity to imagine. In “Notebook: Reading in a Digital Age,” he uses as example a scene from “Netherland,” a novel by Joseph O’Neill, where the narrator uses an imagined perspective of a satellite eye stream of consciousness to describe a landscape. Birkerts argues that “The fact that such a power is available to the average user leaches from the overall power of the novel as genre. In giving us yet another instrument of access, the satellite eye reduces by some factor the operating power of the imagination itself.” His reasoning is that the web removes any such mystery by making information so readily available. There’s no need to wonder, just type your query into Google. This seems a limited outlook on individual creativity, which ignores that it still takes an expert to render such a scene in words.

Perhaps the non-artist world does not give much thought to the practice of attentiveness to the creation of art, though when has this ever been otherwise? In general, Birkerts’s personal appeal is a reaction to this supremacy of technology. Yet regardless of technological advances, there will always be a need for poetry and novels, and for their creators to attain the kind of focus and attention to the work that allows it to achieve—or aspire to—the sublime. All the technology in the world, then, won’t really matter. Birkerts holds on to this as the rallying cry of his polemic against technology, which is unmediated seeing—without technology:

The finest, deepest, most enduring work is that which grows out of a fresh beholding and presenting of its subject…The world, which is to say the part of the world that is presented, either nonfictionally or as created thing, has to be taken in anew. Taken in and processed and understood on many levels. Its elements cannot be presumed, but must be seen as if never before; they must be regarded; they must become the objects of attention. And then they must be represented—re-presented—in kind, through language.

Much of what Birkerts describes, with generous eloquence, is an appreciation for, and waxing rhapsodic about, reading—one of the last strongholds against tech creep, as he calls it. The other side of this is the process of writing as an art form, one of the highest aspiration one can have for their writing. Though of course, striving for art and achieving it, are two different things.

Birkerts, by his own admission, was once an aspiring novelist, and effectively grasps what makes the compulsion to write so satisfying:

Expressive literature by and large addresses the private self. Its impulse is directed, whatever the maker’s other stated ambitions, first at the “I” of its reader. Whether a book has one reader or a hundred thousand, it offers itself to—and invites and creates—the contemplative solitude of the individual. It can’t be otherwise. And if reading sometimes feels like the most intense possible self communion, it’s because this contemplative solitude is the purest version of self.

This could be said to be the case for any good literature. Describing the intrinsic desire for narrative highlights how essential the exercising of mind becomes, for writer and reader alike; maybe this only occurs after evading, if not quite escaping, a dependence on technology.

Birkerts might be too worried about the generations to follow to be sanguine enough with the mere salvation of literature. His terrific self-analysis of the process of reading a novel perfectly evokes and echoes sentiments that any serious reader can relate to about the immersive quality of the act. It’s the kind of curious self-interrogation that Birkerts excels in. What’s curious is Birkerts sounding as if he’s all alone in this passionate dialogue. The sense of intimacy he evokes in his writing can seem as if his message is being delivered, albeit unrelieved; yet it is in this measure that his vehement cry in the technological wilderness is probably successful.


Robert Detman has published fiction and reviews in dozens of journals. His short story collection was a semifinalist for the 2013 Hudson Prize from Black Lawrence Press, and he is the author of the novel “Impossible Lives of Basher Thomas” (Figureground Press, 2014).