Changing the Subject by Sven Birkerts

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Just about the time I was starting to read Sven Birkerts’s book of critical essays about digital technology and concentration, Changing the Subject, I scanned a Facebook post from Alexander Chee, a novelist and active social media user. He noted that his friend had lost his phone and ended up starting a novel:

A friend lost his phone for six days and on the fourth day an entire novel came to him. He started it, and has 7000 words. He’s a writer but has never written a novel before and hasn’t written fiction in years.

The post resulted in a stream of comments, most suggesting that we should all give up our smart phones, but only if we all do it at the exact same time, so, as one commenter put it, he wouldn’t have to miss any funny tweets.

High-tech gadgets have taken over most of our lives. Even people who love their phones whole-heartedly admit that they spend an incredible amount of time on them. But is that a bad thing? Not just the phones, but all our digital technologies? Wouldn’t we be better off putting it all aside, slowing down a little, and starting the novel that’s alive inside us, buried by all the digital distraction?

Writers, whose work relies on extended concentration, are one of the groups most impacted by all this digital detritus. Surely we all know someone who has chosen not to give herself over to the digital life, but I’ve been surprised by how strongly writers (at least on Twitter and other online venues, which of course is a biased sample) have been apologists for the new way of doing things. Whenever a writer like Jonathan Franzen says something critical about digital life, writers, not techies, are the ones complaining.

With all their anxiety about being left behind by a culture more interested in video games and internet memes than books, writers have often become champions of digital culture. Are we digging our own graves?

In Changing the Subject, Birkerts examines our anxiety about digital technologies, with close attention paid to their effects on literary life and culture. He doesn’t own a cell phone (much to his daughter’s dismay), but he does use email and reads websites like The Huffington Post. Which is to say, he’s not as far down the rabbit hole as many of the rest of us, but he’s implicated enough.

The cell phone bit gives you a sense of Birkerts’s perspective on tech in general:

Why don’t I hurry to buy a cell phone? Maybe also because I don’t want the edges rubbed away from the idea of contact. I want to keep an understanding of distance that has some relation to geography and obstacle. Not only do I not desire to be ever-accessible, but I also don’t wish to think I have ready access. I am not ready to hand myself over to 24/7—that most chilling pair of numbers.

But why not? Everyone’s available 24/7, his daughter might say. For someone raised on the internet and cell phones, life has always been about accessibility, even if that means constant interruption.

Sven Birkerts

Sven Birkerts

Birkerts says our ability to concentrate is diminishing. He refers to studies that have demonstrated this, though his method is not science reporting. He is an old-school essayist. He makes observations about his life and the lives of people around him. He refers to literature. He makes his way by association.

Birkerts’ real worry is about the diminishment of what he calls the “subjective individual.” Smart phones and the internet may take time away from reading, which is a bummer for readers and writers, but Birkerts sees the networks that the internet forms as a challenge to our individuality. “Modern living finds us enmeshed in systems that we think we require, that require us, from which it is every day more difficult to extricate ourselves,” he writes in “On or About”, the first essay in the collection.

A person cannot stand against such systems for long. Imagine trying to get a job if you’ve chosen not to use the internet. “We have shifted from an idea of self-sufficiency to one of dependence on complexly interlocked systems,” Birkerts notes, after re-reading Emerson’s Self-Reliance. And a little earlier, when thinking about Wikipedia:

But for those foot draggers among us who worry about the fate of the individual, the idea of the individual—who get stuck on the adjective human in human progress and who believe systems and selves to be opposing terms—it can be seen as a further migration toward the groupthink ethos.

While I’m sympathetic to much of what Birkerts has to say in Changing the Subject, I’m not sold that our biggest concern should be the loss of individuality. Tech may be making us more reliant on collective thinking, but it’s also giving rise to extreme forms of individuality. We may be part of multiple complex systems, but, just as often, we are isolated individuals ordering takeout by app while watching Neflix alone in our apartments.

In his defense of individuality, Birkerts either doesn’t see the process of social isolation happening or isn’t much concerned, which means he misses one of the most troubling aspects of digital life. It’s entirely possible that we should be concerned with the rise of systems and with the disruption of communities. I’d like to read an essay by Birkerts on that paradox.

Birkerts’s essays are important. They may not be the last word on digital life, but his is a much-needed voice in a conversation usually dominated by tech apologists. When confronting Utopian Tech, we need writers who are willing to think critically. There’s no app for that.

Kyle Boelte is the author of The Beautiful Unseen. More from this author →