The Lenses We Can’t See: A Conversation with Howard Axelrod


Ancient mariners used to rely on the stars in the sky to guide their way. These days, we depend on our smartphones—“the stars in our pockets”—to help navigate it all. We use them to choose where to eat, who we’re going to vote for, and who we’re going to spend the rest of our lives with. But to what degree do we defer to these stars in our pockets too much? How are our smartphones and the digital age in general affecting us? Our perception? Our ability to pay attention, connect, empathize? Howard Axelrod tackles these questions in his new book, The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age.

Junior year of college, during a game of pickup basketball, Axelrod lost sight in one of his eyes, which made him really consider “how the world entered [him] and how [he] entered the world.” Soon after graduation, he moved to the woods of northern Vermont in hopes that “whatever shaped the way [he] saw would knit together again like so many broken bones.” In the woods, he had “no TV, no cell phone, and no computer.” And during that time, his sense of time, place, and the quality of his attention and memory changed. He returned to city life in 2001 just as smart phones took off and noticed a stark change in people. The Stars in our Pockets is Axelrod’s exploration of “how digital life is changing the way we orient—in space, in time, and also towards ourselves and each other.”

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Axelrod. We discussed “inner climate change,” “the hidden trades we’re making when we use our phones,” and other effects of the digital age.


The Rumpus: When you returned to city life after your hiatus in the woods, what was the most recognizable imprint of the digital age and smartphone culture on people?

Howard Axelrod: Just the physical part. Heads down on the sidewalk, heads down in the coffee shop. I’d come back excited to be among people again, but I started to feel like I’d returned to a ghost town, everyone wired to somewhere else, somewhere I couldn’t see.

Rumpus: It seems that with every technological advancement, there’s always fear of how it’s going to affect society. What makes the smart phone, in particular, legitimately worrisome?

Axelrod: The rate and scale of change. Television is the closest precedent, but it took nearly twice as long to be in most homes, and even then, people weren’t using TV to do business, date, navigate, shop (well, maybe some were, but not the way we shop online), talk to friends, discuss politics, etc. Try to think of a part of your life in which your smartphone plays no part. And yet, we don’t really know how smartphones change our brains or, more broadly, our orientation in the world. That’s what I wanted to examine: the lenses we can’t see because they’ve become a part of how we see.

Rumpus: In The Stars in Our Pockets (excerpted at the Paris Review), you refer to “inner climate change.” In a nutshell, how would you describe what that is?

Axelrod: There was a Nobel-prize winning biologist named Gerald Edelman who had this theory called “Neural Darwinism,” which basically took the mechanism of natural selection—species adapting to their environment over the course of generations—and used it to consider how our human brains adapt to our environments within our lifetimes. Just as adaptive traits get selected for in species, so too do adaptive neural networks get “selected for,” or strengthened, in our brains.

All of which has been great for the last forty thousand years. But now, for the first time in human history, we’re effectively living in two environments at once—the natural and the digital—and many of the traits that help us online don’t help us offline, and vice versa. So I came up with this theory of inner climate change as a way of thinking about what traits our new digital environment is fostering and what traits it’s endangering, and which traits we might want to try to protect.

Rumpus: When a person reads a work of fiction, in a way, they’re living in two environments at once. How would you differentiate a book’s ability to foster or endanger certain traits in a person versus the ways in which the digital world can?

Axelrod: This contrast showed up in a fiction class I taught last semester. The students read “Tiny, Smiling Daddy” by Mary Gaitskill. The story’s narrator is a sexist man who is emotionally and sometimes physically abusive towards his wife and daughter. He also loves them, and is pained and frustrated by not knowing how to love them.

The story made my students uncomfortable. When I asked them in what way, one student said, “The narrator’s such a sexist jerk, I wanted to stop reading, to cancel him. But it’s written so well, I kept turning the page.” Then someone brought up how Gaitskill could have written the story from the daughter’s point of view, but didn’t, could have left out the father himself being raised by an abusive father, but didn’t: Gaitskill’s choices called for a kind of uncomfortable empathy from the reader rather than a dismissive judgement.

In other words, the students had read the story well. And when I told them this, that the story wasn’t calling on them for judgement, that very few short stories do, but for that complex kind of empathy, they were relieved. The social media imperative to judge, and to judge correctly or face being subjected to judgement yourself, was on hold. They could relax a little and respond to the characters in the stories as flawed human beings, which meant, perhaps, they could respond to themselves with a little more empathy, too.

Rumpus: On the topic of putting things in nutshells, how do you think limiting character count on social media has impacted our ability to have dialogue about complex issues?

Axelrod: It’s tricky—social media helps call attention to complex issues, but then makes discussion about those issues harder to have. I used to think of social media as a massive bulletin board, where you could see posts by people who interest you, rally behind causes, and perhaps have your own posts seen as well. But it’s a bulletin board with a twist out of a Shirley Jackson story: it invites you to judge each post—to like, heart, comment, or repost, etc.—so you can’t help but post knowing you’ll be judged, and you can’t help but hope you might win attention for your judgements of others. So, the bulletin board opens into this weird stage, where necessary conversations are happening but with a spotlight set for moral posturing, which has a way of converting us into anxious performers and into judges who are performing.

Shrink this bulletin board down and put it in everybody’s hand across the country—especially during a presidential campaign, with bots ventriloquizing our growing hostility towards each other—and imagine, or just recall, what would happen. Limited character count, I think, just makes the process more efficient.

For what it’s worth, great literature, or even good literature, has precisely the opposite movement. It invites us to defer judgement, to allow for contradiction, to come to a far slower and more complex moral positioning, which isn’t made of judgement but of profound acknowledgement, sometimes reassuring and sometimes not, of who we are and how we treat each other.

Rumpus: In our digital age, what do you feel is most at risk? Or what do you fear most?

Axelrod: This is hard to answer. I guess it’s a way of being in the world. I’m afraid we won’t be able to hold onto a kind of attention that can wait for answers to questions we don’t know how to ask. I suppose that kind of attention is called wonder or awe or negative capability or simply patience… and in regard to each other, it’s called, or at least is part of, empathy.

Rumpus: What cropped up in your research regarding the impact of the digital age on empathy?

Axelrod: Empathy is down forty percent in college students over the last twenty years.

Rumpus: What information did you find about the digital world affecting our curiosity and attention spans?

Axelrod: The study that kept popping up was how our attention spans are now less than that of a goldfish. How you can test the attention span of a goldfish, I’m not quite sure—and it seems, not surprisingly, that the study might not be accurate. But there’s no question our attention spans are diminishing.

Curiosity, at least according to William James, is what drives attention span. Your ability to look at a leaf, or consider an idea, by asking yourself question after question as you look or consider is what enables you to go on looking or considering.

Rumpus: What do you think is the greatest value of boredom and of getting lost? 

Axelrod: With getting lost, it’s a heightened awareness, an openness to the unbidden, and the possibility that getting off the beaten path will get your brain off its beaten paths to reveal to you something new not just in the world but in yourself.

Boredom is a harder sell, of course. But it’s the same idea. If you’re bored, eventually your mind will want something to engage it. So, if you don’t pick up your phone, your mind will start to explore, to notice something around you, or notice a particular train of thought, and begin to follow. Curiosity is the surest door out of boredom.

Rumpus: How do you respond to those who say that smartphones are a social necessity?

Axelrod: I don’t say much. Really, what that person is saying is that their phone is a necessity to them. And it may well be, especially if they have kids.

I’m not on a crusade to get people to put down their phones. I’m just trying to figure out for myself what kinds of trades we’re making by using phones, and whether they are trades I want to make.

Rumpus: In your book, you note that the biggest collectors and analyzers of facts are no longer scientists but businesses like Google and Facebook who aren’t “harvesting our data to help us figure out how to lead the best possible lives but to help their companies figure out how to make the greatest possible profit,” that the designers of these platforms were “mostly young men, likely in skinny jeans, trying to make their first billion.” Who would be your dream-team docents and gatekeepers?

Axelrod: Marilynne Robinson (for grace), Mary Oliver (for wonder), Barack Obama (for politics), Henry Thoreau (for the apps… I have a list in my book), David Foster Wallace (for big-picture awareness of the dangers), Franz Kafka (for the company of David Foster Wallace and the horrible thrill of writing about technocapitalism—and, imagine him in skinny jeans!).

Rumpus: I’m going to ask you a question you pose to the reader: “How do you find your own way of looking at things?”

Axelrod: Spending at least a little time alone certainly helps.

Rumpus: What things have surfaced to the fore after you approved the galley for The Stars in Our Pockets that you wish you could have included in your book?

Axelrod: I was re-reading Crime and Punishment, and Raskolnikov’s dream in the epilogue, when he’s in prison in Siberia, struck me. In the dream, a plague of hyper-rationalism is ravaging the world:

But never had men considered themselves so intellectual and so completely in possession of the truth as these sufferers, never had they considered their decisions, their scientific conclusions, their moral convictions so infallible. Whole villages, whole towns and peoples went mad from the infection. All were excited and did not understand one another. Each thought that he alone had the truth and was wretched looking at the others, beat himself on the breast, wept, and wrung his hands. They did not know how to judge and could not agree what to consider evil and what good; they did not know whom to blame, whom to justify… The alarm bell was ringing all day long in the towns; men rushed together, but why they were summoned and who was summoning them no one knew. The most ordinary trades were abandoned, because everyone proposed his own ideas, his own improvements, and they could not agree. The land too was abandoned…

Rumpus: Your book is so rich in personal anecdotes and reflections. How did you determine how you’d corral it all?

Axelrod: There was no corralling, no having to ride the plains rustling stories into my pen. There was just a question I was trying to answer—and when associations came, if they promised to throw light on the question, I’d use them.

For instance, I remembered that William James was good on identity. So in trying to figure out how digital life is changing how we think about ourselves, I turned to him for an identity framework—and he had one: material self (our possessions and bodies), social self (our reputation and others’ responses to us), spiritual self (our inner “gatekeeper,” the unchosen part or ourselves that is moved or not, whatever the social consequences, by what we encounter). Then, for some reason, I started thinking about a poem by Czesław Miłosz called “Gift,” which I’ve always loved. I started writing about that, and I realized the poem’s progression moves inward through the concentric circles of identity James describes, then moves back up into the world with a profoundly unified sense of self.

This was a poem I’d loved and been rereading for the last twenty years. But the James stuff helped me appreciate the poem more deeply, the poem helped me appreciate James’s framework more deeply, and all of it helped me understand how social media obscures the spiritual self and makes it harder to find in ourselves and in each other.

Rumpus: Booklist refers to your book as a “meditation.” Kirkus calls it a “journey.” I could see some referring to it as a memoir, others as self-help. Do you have a preference on how you’d like it categorized?

Axelrod: A hot air balloon ride at an unlikely time of day that reveals the invisible. (If only literary categories took such flights of fancy!) The less high-flown answer: mercifully, the question didn’t occur to me when I was writing. I’d been amazed by Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts —how she pursued a personal and societal question by marshaling whatever she needed: personal anecdotes and reflections, philosophy, literature, critical theory—and saw in her fidelity to the range of her mind an approach that would work for me and my question, which was how digital life is changing the way we orient—in space, in time, and also towards ourselves and each other. That’s the invisible thing I hope the book reveals: the lenses we can’t see because they’re a part of how we see.

Now, on the publication side, the question of category trips me up. I really don’t know how to answer other than by genre, which isn’t sexy or even particularly helpful, as creative nonfiction is a catch-all defined by what it’s not. So, to be more specific, think books that have a distinctive narrator pursuing a question that’s both personal and universal, books like Rebecca Solnit’s The Faraway Nearby or Leslie Jamison’s The Recovering or Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City.

Rumpus: What is your hope for this book?

Axelrod: I hope it deepens our appreciation for ourselves as human beings—for the complexity of our brains, and for how our brains evolved in tandem with the natural world—and thereby deepens the conversation about the hidden trades we’re making when we use our phones.


Photograph of Howard Axelrod by Sophie Barbasch.

Amy Danzer manages several master’s programs at Northwestern University, including the MFA in Prose and Poetry program. She directs NU’s Summer Writers’ Conference and Chicago’s Printers Row Literary Festival. She serves on the Chicago Literary Hall of Fame’s Board of Directors and NU’s One Book One Northwestern Steering Committee. On the side, she writes book reviews and interviews authors for Newcity, The Rumpus, at book stores, and at literary festivals. More from this author →