Sunday, January 3, 2016

Why Silicon Valley and Literature are Opposites: Kingsnorth, Birkerts, and the "Technium"

Some nuggets on technology and literature as school starts up again:

I came across a beautiful essay the other day, one of the best I've read in a long time online. It's one of those essays that, six or seven years ago, as print journals were just starting to upload content onto the web, I would have printed out and saved in a folder so I could have gone back to it later. That's how I knew a piece of writing had cut through the noise--if it had made the journey from the digital world through the messy ink of my printer and into the real one.

Now, it's rare not to be able to find something online, and I've stopped printing out articles, unless I'm copying them for my class. The articles I'd like to read later I'll save to my Readability list (a great tool, by the way, for seeing if your interest in an article is simply a distraction or if it's really worth reading--save it for the end of the day or the next morning and see if you still want to read it). Still, I miss not having the satisfaction of leafing through a folder of articles that I had deemed worthy, that had "made it." If I were still printing out articles, this one would have "made it," for sure. It's called "The Keyboard and the Spade," by Paul Kingsnorth in The New Statesman.

Kingsnorth weaves two strains together in his essay. The first is his planting several hundred trees on his land in Ireland (hence the "spade"); the second is the belief that the inevitable end of human Progress is that we'll all become walking, breathing, computer chips (hence the "keyboard"). The essay is less polemical than personal, and Kingsnorth does a masterful job of turning the same hard questions that he asks of the Silicon Valley mindset ("What is progress?" "What is a technological tool?") on himself. In the end, he challenges the assumption that technology is simply another tool, and asserts that there are real differences between things like spades and keyboards.

Kingsnorth emphasizes that the Silicon Valley powers-that-be are selling more than just gadgets and software services; in fact, they're peddling a pseudo-religion. Wired magazine's Kevin Kelly refers to the "technium," or the "living force" of "technology vibrating around us," a reference he makes without irony or jest. Ray Kurzweil, whose name I recognize from the high-end keyboards (of the piano variety) popular in the 80s and 90s, is even wilder in his enthusiasm for the Singularity, the point toward which all humans are progressing, a utopian existence where there will be no distinguishing between humans and computers. In other words, the goal of the human species is to go beyond the human species itself and (this is the scary part), beyond the individual self. As wild as all of this sounds, it's no longer a fringe belief. Kurzweil, as Kingsnorth points out, is the Director of Engineering at Google. Google may not advertise the Singularity as its motto on its homepage, but it's the idea that drives the company, and the entire Silicon Valley mindset. And we are all part of it.

Go ahead and read Kingsnorth's essay for yourself. It's long, but I'm pretty sure it won't disappoint.

I've been thinking about all of this quite a bit lately. Perhaps one reason is that I'm partway through a book I received for Christmas, Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age, by writer, teacher, and cultural critic Sven Birkerts. The book as a whole has been a bit of a let-down, though, not because I disagree with Birkerts' points,but because after Matthew Crawford's logical explanations, with clear examples of how technology changes us, Birkerts' collection of essays (which is really what the book is) reads more like a draft in comparison. His chapters are a series of meanderings that are, at their least effective, rants, and most effective, insightful observations. The book isn't bad--in fact parts of it are quite good--but after reading Crawford, I have pretty high standards for cultural criticism in this field, I suppose.

One of Birkerts' most trenchant passages comes late in a book, in a chapter entitled "Reading in the Digital Age." Birkerts here is talking about the same thing Kingsnorth is--the "technium," the mindset of unquestioned Progress through 24/7 access to information:
Metaphor, the poet, imagination—the whole deeper part of the project comes into view. What underlies my agitation is my long-standing conviction that imagination—not just the faculty, but what might be called the whole party of the imagination—is under threat, is shrinking faster than Balzac’s wild ass’s skin, which diminished every time its owner made a wish. Imagination, the one feature that connects us with the deeper sources and possibilities of being, thins out every time another digital prosthesis appears and puts another thin layer of sheathing between ourselves and the essential givens of our existence, making it just that much harder for us to grasp ourselves as part of an ancient continuum. Each time we get another false inkling of agency, another taste of pseudopower.
The real horror of the "technium" for Birkerts is its rejection of story. In "liberating" bits of information from their surrounding contexts and making them accessible to all, Silicon Valley hastens the decline of narrative, and the atrophying of whatever capacity for contemplation our silence-starved age may still have. Imagination is the lynchpin, the hub of the narrative wheel, as he notes in the quote above, and thus the enemy of technological progress.

Birkerts goes on to make a bold, and truthful, claim: "The Internet and the novel are opposites." The kinds of thinking they encourage are entirely polar. The first removes information from its context in order to give it meaning; the second seeks to embed information in a larger context in order to give it meaning. Allow me one more quote:
...we have been ignoring the true deeper nature of fiction: that it is inwardly experiential, an arena of hypothesis, of liberation, where mind and imagination can freely combine, and where memory and sensation can be deployed, intensified through the specific constraints that any imagined situation allows.
Fiction, stories, narratives--whatever you call them, they are the enemies not of our latest technological devices themselves but of the "technium," of the mindset of those who invent and market them. And so it's no coincidence that as we see more iPads in classrooms we also see less fiction in English curricula, not because one has caused the other, but because they are both manifestations of the same ideology, both heads of the same hidden Hydra.

I'll have more on my cryptic post on the lack of desire in modern education soon. But I think the "building skills" approach to education is connected to this whole idea of the "technium," for if we humans are progressing to a future in which we will be liberated to float around like dandelion seeds in the cloud of information, what's the purpose of fostering imagination, or desire, in our students? All they will need to know how to do is process data...

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