Wednesday, January 03, 2018

Digital technology and the disconnect with reality (Birkerts and Borgmann)

One of the books that have influenced me the most over the years is "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" (1994) by Sven Birkerts. I read it the first time when it was published and I have returned to it regularly since then. Birkerts takes on what he sees as a fundamental shift in the history of humans. The shift is caused by the introduction and spread of digital technology. His eloquent arguments and examples lead to disturbing questions and reflections concerning the role and impact of technology. I have always felt that Birkerts is right in his observations.

In 2015, Birkerts published a new book filled with essays on the same topic and theme as in "The Gutenberg Elegies". I did buy the book when it came out but have not really read it until now. The title is "Changing the Subject: Art and attention in the internet age".

In this newer book, Birkerts returns to some of the fundamental issues he identifies with the way digital technology is influencing our society. Even though the overall idea of the book is similar, I find these essays to approach the issue in a more precise way. This does not mean that the arguments are clearer or stronger, actually, Birkerts was more forthright and direct in the earlier book, instead, here he takes a more poetic and delicate approach. It seems as if he is trying to capture what it means to live in a world that is not only 'using' a new technology but that is fundamentally shaped by it in a way that is mostly invisible and subtle.  He returns to what it 'feels' like to live today, what the 'system' does to you. For instance, he writes about e-mail:

"For one thing, to send and receive e-mail is also to move into the system of e-mail, to become implicated in the network. As a user I get both the frictionless burst of the contact -- the immediate breaching of the space-time divide-- and also the sensation, slippery but real, of taking a half step back from myself." (p 13).

He continues with a statement that speaks to me personally as true.

"This is one of the features of being inside the network mesh: incessant peripherality, and awareness of the larger world at every moment a click away. And because of this I occupy a different gravity field: I'm lighter, more porous." To me, this position resonates strongly with what Albert Borgmann is arguing with his 'device paradigm' and the loss of what he calls 'focal practices'. Focal practices keep us grounded, they connect us to place, time and community. Digital technology is extraordinary in its ability to disconnect us with place, time and community. It is exactly this ability that makes digital technology successful. Every time someone says "there is an app for that", it usually means that you can do something without having to connect to place, time and community.Both Birkerts and Borgmann argue that technology disconnects us from something more real, something more fundamental. I think that a lot of people on some intuitive level may agree with that argument, even though it is not clear what it means or what could or should be done about it.

It is possible to argue that the book, with all its essays, revolves around this idea that digital technology has "interposed a finely woven scrim of signals and distractions between me and my physically immediate reality". One of the exciting and scary aspects of Birkerts' ideas (and Borgmann's) is that the shift he is trying to capture and describe is not only invisible, it is slow moving, and has fundamental consequences. But we also have to remember that it brings new and wonderful powers to us all. What price do we pay for it? Who can resist it? Should we? Can we?

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