Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Perils of the Internet

"After several generations of ‘technological improvement’… we have become a people who cannot think about anything important.”—Wendell Berry

The Internet is widely celebrated as a democratic, informational, and connective blessing. But what if it also exacerbates the “American malady” that the poet Stephen Spender bemoaned back in 1949?—“The commercialization of spiritual goods on an enormous scale, in the same way as material goods are commercialized.”

What if the Internet poses a threat to the cultivation of a rich, reflective inner life? What if Internet-mentality endangers Art—its creation, its place in our culture, and our ability to appreciate it?—or the cultivation of real knowledge?

Ridiculous! you say. The Internet as a cultural negative?! You’ve gotta be crazy!

Well, I do see the self-destructive irony of using the Internet to blog about the potential damage the Internet is wreaking on our spiritual lives. But here goes anyway.

I’ve recently sunk my teeth into three books that deeply and compellingly question the real nature of online culture, and the price we may be paying in our eagerness to embrace the Internet as a godsend. (Don’t get me wrong: I want you to keep reading the words on this screen).

1. Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob by cultural critic Lee Siegel. Published earlier this year, Siegel’s volume makes the most curmudgeonly arguments of the books I’m discussing today—but Against the Machine also advances a number of salient points. The most arresting, and hard to dispute, is Siegel’s assertion that culture on the Internet—that is, the ‘cultural offerings’ most readily available to browsers through Google rankings, etc—is often qualitatively of the lowest common denominator.

Though the Internet promises freer access to information or culture than older mass-culture media, Siegel contends that it does so by using the same mass-culture formula used by network TV: Popularity = Value. And a trawl through mainstream primetime offerings will immediately show the cultural folly of such a formulation.

Siegel is not alone in complaining that the Internet as we know it actually lowers the cultural bar, rather than raising it to accommodate a refined cultural hunger in the American public. It’s a concern being echoed in numerous places these days.

The effect on American youths of prolonged Internet use is a point of special worry. Recently the Los Angeles Times featured a prominent review of writer Mark Bauerlein’s new book, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future. Bauerlein argues that the intellectual atmosphere of the Internet is one of information detrimentally streamlined. Consequently, instead of nurturing real curiosity and undertaking real inquiry, students reared in the Internet age adopt a kind of intellectual tunnel vision fixated on results and indifferent to substance. They “seek out what they already hope to find, and they want it fast and free, with a minimum of effort. … Going online habituates them to juvenile mental habits.”

Similarly, the cover of the current July/August issue of the Atlantic Monthly bears the bold words, Is Google Making us Stoopid? Affixed to the article is the telling subtitle, What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. Writer Nicholas Carr begins the piece with a confession:

"I’m not thinking the way I used to think. I can feel it most strongly when I’m reading. … The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle. I think I know what’s going on. For more than a decade now, I’ve been spending a lot of time online. … And what the Net seems to be doing is chipping away at my capacity for concentration and contemplation. My mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles."

Carr’s article is interesting and well worth taking in, but his insights have their antecedents in an eloquent book which receives nary a mention in the Atlantic article—the second in this three-book profile...

2. The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age by Sven Birkerts. Published in 1998, well before Internet addiction became a societal norm, Birkerts’ book was astonishingly prophetic—and hence destined for the honorable obscurity allotted to things well ahead of their time. A decade ago Birkerts foresaw the ominous consequences of our rush to move our existences online—the many dangers the Internet posed to the spirit, and correspondingly to the rich stuff of the spirit, such as art:

"Our lives are busy, distracted, multitracked, stressed. We may have altered our cognitive apparatus—speeding up, learning to deal with complex assaults of stimuli—in such a way that we can no longer take in the [printed] word [of literature] as it is meant to be taken in. …

While circuit and screen are ideal conduits for certain kinds of data—they are entirely inhospitable to the more subjective materials that have always been the stuff of art. That is to say, they are antithetical to inwardness. …

Being online and having the subjective experience of depth, of existential coherence, are mutually exclusive situations. …

What I fear is a continued withering-away of [artistic and creative] influence. … My nightmare scenario is not one of neotroglodytes grunting and wielding clubs, but of efficient and prosperous information managers living in the shallows of what it means to be human and not knowing the difference. I fear a world become sanitized and superficial.

Digital/Internet culture is collective or ‘horizontal,’ says Birkerts. It is a world of disembodiment, fragmentation, and abstraction, predicated entirely upon instantaneousness. And though it was not yet so at the time Birkerts wrote The Gutenberg Elegies, the Internet has since become a realm of rampant commercialization too. It therefore stands opposed to the real culture, creations, and relationships which give meaning to our lives.

In contrast to our online mentality of today, says Birkerts, our pre-Internet mentality allowed for a greater number of deep, personal (‘vertical’), and cohesive experiences. The old fashioned acts of reading or experiencing art entailed the “slow, painful, delicious excavation of the self.” Today, however, we are reducing—if not abandoning—these rich, subjective experiences in favor of constant connectivity and the light-speed acquisition of data. In other words, we’re trading inward cultivation for the collection of lifeless information.

“We will bring our terminals, our modems, and menus further and further into our former privacies; we will implicate ourselves by degree in the unitary life, and there may come a day when we no longer remember that there was any other life. …

To me the wager is intuitively clear: we gain access and efficiency at the expense of subjective self-awareness. …

We have created invisible elsewheres that are as immediate as our actual surroundings. We have fractured the flow of time, layered it into competing simultaneities. We learn to do five things at once or pay the price. …

We are experiencing the gradual but steady erosion of human presence."

The Gutenberg Elegies and Against the Machine share an important central message, which, for all our connectedness in the Internet Age, has been much too rarely transmitted till now. It is this:

As our personal time becomes more and more ‘virtual,’ as we become increasingly enmeshed in 24-hour connectivity, our individuality—our very identity—comes under threat, for the psycho-physical experience of staring at a terminal is the same for everyone. Individuality, personality, and independent thought are deeply conditioned by varied experience—there is no changing that. Of course, information and ideas have a role in shaping us as individuals—and these are accessible through a computer terminal—but they alone cannot sustain individuality. Contrary to popular belief, the democratization of information cannot itself liberate people. And what power it possesses to do so may well be countered, even dispelled altogether, by the dangerous flattening of psycho-physical experience produced in all of us by prolonged ‘screen-time.’

This brings me to the third book in this discussion.

3. The Twilight of American Culture by Morris Berman. Published in 2001, Berman’s volume takes aim and fires at a relatively new American culture in which “community life has been reduced to shopping malls,” and “endless promotional/commercial bullshit…masks a deep systemic emptiness.” He presents engrossing parallels between the onset of the European Dark Ages and the consumer decadence subsuming our national culture.

His societal critique is broader than the subject of the Internet, but it inherently takes up the soul-damaging aspects of the Internet Age, and sounds notes similar to those of Siegel and Birkerts.

"Mass culture [is] not culture, but entertainment, and…to believe a society could become cultured via this process [is] a fatal mistake. … [Nevertheless] the drift in the United States today is toward the submergence of the self into the Mass Mind, a trend that is powerfully encouraged by corporate culture and the new technology. Along with this—as in the early Middle Ages—we see the dissolution of interiority, and the loss or denigration of individual judgment and achievement. All this is a major factor of the disintegration of American culture, which, popular opinion to the contrary, is a herd culture, not an individualistic one."

Berman’s argument builds to an inspiring discussion of what he calls a “New Monastic Individual,” a kind of person who quietly ‘checks out’ of the “total commercial environment” and espouses habits or causes that will help to sustain our culture through its coming ‘twilight’ in the same way that a coterie of monks preserved the Western world’s cultural treasures during the Dark Ages.

"[New Monastic Individuals] belong to no class, have no membership in a hierarchy. They form a kind of ‘unmonied aristocracy,’ free of bosses, supervision, and what is typically called ‘work.’ They work very hard, in fact, but as they love their work and do it for its intrinsic interest, this work is not much different from play. In the context of contemporary American culture, such people are an anomaly, for they have no interest in the world of business success and mass consumerism. … [But] the new monastic individual is the purest embodiment of the human spirit."

Against the Machine, The Gutenberg Elegies, and The Twilight of American Culture form a beautiful triumvirate on the themes of Technology versus the Soul, Commodity versus the Spirit, Creativity versus Commerce. The reader will find valuable counsel embedded in each book.

(Against the Machine: Popularity does not equal value; Log off; Go outside; Have a face-to-face conversation.

The Gutenberg Elegies: Information is not everything, neither is connectivity; Plumb the present moment; Be cautious toward electronic devices; Protect and nourish your subjectivity; Spend more time with the printed page.

The Twilight of American Culture: The cash value of things is not their only value; Avoid mistaking the “tools of the good life” for the good life itself; Defy the “commodity culture”; Be “monastic.”)

This post also appears at Soul Shelter.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful. I'm particularly touched, or frightened, by the notion that what is popular is not culture. For a shocked moment I sat by the screen and asked, "then what is?" And I still haven't found an answer.

    I'm unconvinced that the internet is the root of the problem. It's dismissive of humanity itself to say so. I'm formulating this argument as I go, but I'd be willing to say that the internet is simply the next invention which has enabled humans to quicken experience. From the use of the horse to the wheel, to the automobile. I wonder if it's a bad thing, truly, something that we can attach value to in such a way. Certainly we regret this progression. But I think it's inevitable. Interesting stuff, and I thank you for sharing it.