Books and Arts

The Perils of Progress

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We had just heard a lecture by an exquisitely sensitive, painfully alert poet friend of ours about how we live today. She ranged widely and brilliantly and did not shy away from hazarding, ever so gently, a few doubts about what the Internet was doing to the feel of our daily life. These days, even a few well-considered, measured reservations about digital gadgetry apparently cannot be tolerated, and our poet friend was informed by forward-looking members of the audience that she was fearful of change, nostalgic, in short, reactionary with all its nasty political connotations. How, I whispered to my husband, is being pro- or anti-technology a political stance? It says nothing, I thought to myself, about where one stands on justice, equality, or freedom, except in the rather debased form of "access" to information. I was abruptly brought back to the lecture hall, however, when I heard an ardent champion of blogs speak the word "dinosaur" with equal parts conviction and contempt. How tiresome, I again whispered to my husband. How many times have I seen skeptics of progress (myself included) turned into dinosaurs? Was there really no way of responding to one's opponents except to doom them to extinction?

The other morning, I felt the same unfair stacking of the deck against my sensibility when I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times by Steven Pinker, a popularizer of evolutionary psychology, where he defended Twitter, e-mail, PowerPoint, and Google from the charge that they are "making us stupid." (Whether they are or not, typing that sentence, I couldn't help thinking that their silly names and broken punctuation have a decidedly stupid adolescent feel about them.) It is a tried-and-true strategy of boosters of progress, even if they don't know they are following in a well-established tradition, to offer a catalogue of what now appears to be irrational fears about earlier versions of whatever they are promoting, the better to discredit present-day naysayers. Pinker, true to type, opens his piece: "New forms of media have always caused moral panics. The printing press, newspapers, paperbacks, and television were all once denounced as threats to their consumers' brainpower and moral fiber."

Just as these, in Pinker's estimation, proved to be false alarms, so, too, he confidently predicts, will be the case with the current moral panic over new electronic technologies. When I read his list of "reality checks" that are supposed to mollify criticsfor example, "the decades of television, transistor radios, and rock videos were also decades in which I.Q. scores rose continually"I can't say that I felt reassured. Instead, I was struck, as I often am at such moments, by the thought that if intelligent, sensitive people have long and consistently been alarmed by a particular class of thing, instead of automatically assuming our superiority to them, we might better assume they were aware of something to which we have since become oblivious and that it is worth our while to attend carefully to their warnings.

Pinker's description of earlier fears about the dangers of newspapers, paperbacks, and television as "threats to their consumers' brainpower and moral fiber," like his belief that a rise in "I.Q. scores" somehow offset or discredited earlier anxieties about what television, transistor radios, and rock videos were doing to people's sensibility and consciousness sounded tone-deaf to me.

When it came to new mass-circulation newspapers of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, leading critics like E.L. Godkin, editor of The Nation, thought its worst offense was "that its pervading spirit is one of vulgarity, indecency, and reckless sensationalism; that it steadily violates the canons alike of good taste and sound morals; that it cultivates false standards of life and demoralizes its readers." In the 1940s and '50s, critics on the Left perceived similar destructive forces in new forms of mass-produced entertainment. Dwight Macdonald spoke for writers associated with The Partisan Review and his own magazine Politics when he warned that "the deadening and warping effect of long exposure to movies, pulp magazines, and radio can hardly be overestimated."

Pinker closes his piece by praising Twitter and e-books and online encyclopedias for "helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales." ("Manage, search and retrieve"when, I asked myself, had thinking taken on the character of an army reconnaissance mission?) "Far from making us stupid," Pinker triumphantly concludes, "these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart." In disputes about the consequences of innovation, those on the side of progress habitually see only gains. They have no awareness that there are also lossesequally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as "keeping us smart")and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two. I had recently been reading some stirring essays in defense of the humanities and reading Pinker made me think of the kinds of losses that worried the great literary scholar Harry Levin back in 1954, the supposed golden age of the humanities: "This is the heyday of reprints and anthologies, not to speak of digests and abridgments. ... It may be that a commendable zeal for widespread literacy has somehow ended by spreading it too thin, with a resulting cultural inflation." I was interested to find that Levin was also troubled by mass culture. He pointed to the ever-increasing popularity of picture magazines like Life, of television and the phonograph, and worried aloud that "we are moving so quickly into the audio-visual epoch that the reading habit itself is seriously jeopardized."

In her lecture, our poet-friend expressed similar reservations about the fate of what remains of the reading habit in our digital era. She was also alert to another kind of loss, more elusive, having to do with a sense that the world we have on our computer screens lacks physical, tangible materiality and that it is changing the feel of our lives in unpredictable ways. Her observation has been much on my mind as I read in newspapers and magazines almost daily about the end of the book as we know it, how convenient it will be to download and read "content" on inert, blank screens with names like Amazon Kindle or Apple iPad. I recoil at this consumerist approach to books as immaterial content to be consumed. For me, books, like paintings, are tangible manifestations of a mind, of a person

Camerado, this is no book,

Who touches this touches a man,

(Is it night? are we here together alone?)

It is I you hold and who holds you,

I spring from the pages into your armsdecease calls me

forth. (Whitman, Leaves of Grass)

Their physical being matters to us who pour our very being into writing and reading, we want the fruits of our labor to exist between hard or even soft covers in our own time and after us (and accept that the pages containing our being will turn brown and become brittle), it means something to us to see and speak of a book as a weighty tome or a slender volume, we like to be able to locate a passage we've already read spatially on a page, we are interested, even as we are dismayed, to discover that we are the first person in 61 years, eight months, and three days (according to the "due date" slip) to check a book out of the library, it pleases us to think of Whitman's leaves of grass as pages of a book, we are in awe of the perfection of the ending of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude where the reader's act of reading coincides with Aureliano's act of deciphering the pages of a mysterious set of parchments, and that as Aureliano comes to the end of his book"he began to decipher the instant that he was living, deciphering it as he lived it, prophesying himself in the act of deciphering the last page of the parchments, as if he were looking into a speaking mirror"so the reader comes to the last page and end of Marquez's novel.

All this to be lost for the sake of consumers who like the ease and efficiency of immaterial electronic "books"... But that is not all. The concrete, material presence of books on our bookshelves transports us back to the time and place where we first read them, we sometimes are pleased and other times shudder when we think of what a book meant to us then, what it has come to mean to us now, we are sometimes comforted to see the continuity of ourselves when we read our earlier marginalia, sometimes disconcerted by its now-alien quality, and occasionally we have dreams about books, like the one I had after my mentor died. When I was in graduate school, he used to lend me his books, their margins overflowing with neat, handwritten questions, objections, notes to himself (I can still picture the fine purple line quality of his felt-tip pen), teaching me how to read in conversation with the author, that is, when I paid attention to the author and not, as I was inclined to do, to the always more interesting thoughts of my mentor. When he died, I dreamt that he had left me a book that he had annotated especially for me and how grateful I was to have it ("who touches this touches a man") and how sorry I was to wake up.

Rochelle Gurstein, a monthly columnist for The New Republic, is the author of The Repeal of Reticence: America's Cultural and Legal Struggles over Free Speech, Obscenity, Sexual Liberation, and Modern Art. She is currently writing a book on the history of aesthetic experience tentatively entitled Of Time and Beauty.

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