Sven Birkerts: Literary culture in the electronic age

Google vs Gutenberg. Author Sven Birkerts asks: What is lost in the rush to embrace digital culture?

Sven Birkerts is the editor of the journal AGNI and the author of eight books, most notably “The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age.” He has reviewed regularly for The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Esquire and other publications, and has taught writing at Harvard, Emerson, Amherst and Mt. Holyoke. He lives in Arlington, Mass.

He spoke with Faith & Leadership while visiting Duke to participate in a public conversation about the future of reading hosted by Duke Magazine.

Q: You wrote a book called “The Gutenberg Elegies” about digital culture and concluded it with a call to refuse it. I imagine you’re not in favor of digital culture.

The book was written right when the first great wave of electronic technology was rolling in. People on many fronts were very quickly turning against stodgy old print. I had an investment in print culture as a teacher, writer and bookseller. I began to wonder what we were so happily abandoning and jumping on board with. The resulting series of meditations raised a lot of questions and ended on a very skeptical note. 

Some years later, the publisher wanted to do a new edition. Ten years had passed. In traditional time, 10 years is nothing. In terms of what we’re going through culturally, it’s an enormous time period. 

Things had also changed for me. Since I had argued against the “salvation” offered by all that is digital, I had been identified as a Luddite. Many people imagined me living in a cabin with no electricity, making my own ink. But I live in the contemporary world, including as a writer. In order to carry on with my writing life, I had to make concessions. This book was written originally on a Selectric typewriter. When I wrote the introduction to the revised edition it was on a laptop.

Q:  Some of your concessions have been due to being a parent, but you certainly don’t make them without circumspection and sadness.

I tried to adopt a tolerant approach, but also made clear that lifestyle decisions have effects. Even though we gradually acquired more gadgets, our house is also wall-to-wall books. The children saw us reading and living the life of the book. We hoped to model one thing while not holding them back from electronic culture.

Both of my children read intelligently, but sadly both read books as just part of the menu. I am deeply invested in the idea that books represent something else besides the transmission of knowledge, so I feel that they’re losing out.

Q: What’s your argument against our consumption of technology?

There are several ways to look at this. One is the immediate utilitarian function of any particular device. Our electronic tools are supremely efficient and grant access to wide connectivity. I can’t argue against that. But these things don’t come in isolation. They are part of an encroaching system that comes with a set of behaviors and expectations. It’s not so much that you do any great harm to yourself by reading a text on a screen versus a page.

You make a change in your fundamental being, however, when you sign on to a life. That form of life carries implications that threaten solitude, the self, subjectivity and a certain picture of how the individual life is lived. Even 50 years ago we had a completely different psychological and cognitive environment.

There is a hugely significant shift going on in our model of the self. The self now is much more a network and collectivized entity. Almost everything we do now is systemic and it’s interconnected. We spend our whole day in an environment of links and connections via phones and email. I don’t believe that we have just stepped out of the old world into the new with no significant changes. I’m basically asking what is being threatened.

Q:  Western tradition of reading and writing that you’re worried about has a religious origin. Wouldn’t it make sense that, if you want to participate in that culture, you would be able to use its language?

It’s also available in philosophy, Greek culture and humanism, which either make an end run around religion or are adjacent to it.

I make a distinction between duration time and sequential, surface time. The vital human transactions are more inward and spiritual. They always take place within the realm of duration time. That’s time that is no longer aware of itself as time. It is immersion. Any creation of any work of art comes out of duration. It doesn’t come out of clock time.

Simone Weil speaks of prayer as attentiveness, or pure attention. We might also speak of pure duration. It’s an awareness of being. If I study myself engaging with the layers of contemporary digital life, with attention distributed by multitasking, I see that those things are essentially inimical to duration time. You can’t be living in that culture and experience the meanings of art. If you want to experience the meanings of art, you have to set that world to the side. I don’t see them inter-penetrating. The proselytizers of the ultimate digital see it as moving toward a seamlessness between the two. I see a standoff.

Q:  Haven’t there always been reactions to new technologies? Plato worried about writing because it would cause our memories to atrophy. The Roman Catholic Church worried about the printing press because it would allow people to read whatever they want.

Those worries were well founded. Memory did atrophy, and the church was put in a very different position, especially with the Enlightenment.

Everything we do is a complicated system of trade-offs. The question is what we view as priorities. One model is a managed, efficient culture that is better for the many than what used to be. Another is to look for the individual self to forge meaningful connection with existence. We may be succeeding tremendously at a social level, but at the same time be putting other things under threat. There is an evolution away from demanding, difficult works of art, even in institutions like universities. I’m not a knee-jerk defender of “the great works.”  I’m just asking what we have left in the dust.

Q: Your story is almost solely of decline. But isn’t it the case that new inventions like digital technology can also yield creative things that we couldn’t anticipate? What about  the democratizing effect of the media through things like camera phones or Twitter?

Oh yes. I see a decline only in terms of a particular notion of individual subjectivity.  There are other frames in which we’re seeing an exciting openness. But those possibilities point almost inevitably toward a collectivized conception of being human. I also see the creation of systems that manage the global population running according to these new paradigms.

I see a turn for the worse in decisionmaking increasingly happening through a kind of consensual group mind. Such decisions can come in a positive direction because they push against the power structures of autocratic governments. There’s a democratic possibility here. But it’s a democracy that comes with a pricetag that says, “You’re going to be a little less of an ‘I’ in the old sense.” Many people may welcome that. But there’s something in me that digs my heels in at the thought of being assimilated into more of a system.

I do not want to give up that deepest private volition and sense of the “I.” I don’t want to sacrifice that to anything that smacks of group mentality. I don’t want deeper art to decline further into entertainment art because that is what the majority prefers. The beacons of art that tell us who we are and what are our human possibilities are becoming fewer and fewer.

Q: What are some specific habits you try to cultivate to keep at bay this invasive, collective culture?

There are little refusals: I don’t have a cell phone. Everyone else in my family has one and I certainly rely on them. I confine my screen dealings either to writing, necessary bits of research, and direct email communications. I don’t do anything that is group-based or systemic. I’m not on any website or network. I don’t do Twitter. This isn’t much, but it gives me a little zone. I’m not completely falling in.

Q: How would you suggest that a leader might create space for creativity in the souls of the people who work for them?

We need to recognize that the kind of flourishing that any creativity requires doesn’t happen automatically. You can’t just go into the other room and say: “Be creative.” It has to be environmentally nurtured.

We see this with MacArthur and Guggenheim grants. These say, “We recognize that you are distinguished. We want you to do more. We are going to set you free. We’re going to give you time and space and the solitude that you need in order to bring what you’re doing to fruition.”

Q: Lauren Winner here at Duke Divinity School teaches spirituality and requires her students to unplug for a week from email and the Internet. Would you advocate that kind of digital fast?

I expect that’s going to catch on. We’re going to a saturation point where people can’t stand this anymore and need to step away. I can’t get up and spend my whole day crazily moving between signals and links. People will want a respite, a replenishment. On vacations we recognize things that we had forgotten. We make little vows and we immediately break them when we go back. But we can’t just stop going to the screen. It’s an entire system of life, and we’re not gaining from it.

Q: Even monasteries use the web, both to sort of pursue new vocations and to sell products. But they don’t break the liturgy of the hours. They still pray eight times a day.

Maybe the alternative we’re looking for is to replace the interpenetration and meshing with a model of adjacency so that people can move between. We can’t get rid of this completely, but we don’t want to be subsumed in it. We want a place to stand from which to see what it is that we’re doing and how it’s affecting us. We have to move into the other room, the quiet room. Institutions have to find ways to make that possible. Mothers can go on maternity leave. All workers might be able to go on contemplative leave.

Q: Are you surprised to find yourself as a contrarian or prophetic figure holding out for something when everyone is rushing the other way?

It wouldn’t make sense if I were just doing it for its own sake. But the main thing I do isn’t thinking about the impact of digital technology. I live a writer’s contemplative life in which I’m writing about many facets of existence. Those things predate this culture. They fill me up.

I’m happiest when my mind and sensibility are clear enough to allow me to pursue meaningful activity: writing and trying to make meanings and connections out of my experience. I can only get to that place when I’m not doing the other. Inevitably I then have to write it on my laptop. If I submit it to somebody, I send it as an attachment, and then wait for an email telling me what they thought of it. But the actual generating of whatever it is that gives me my sense of purpose happens without that, though later I have to plug in.

All expression is under the constraint of the now. What artists and thinkers do is engage the world of the present and wrestle it for meaning. That’s what I do. I may be concluding that the values of the past are not to be dispensed with readily, but I get to that by engaging what I see as I observe people now. I’m drawing from the tension of both past and present as I negotiate toward a viable common ground.