I remember when this was all fields

by Steve

Computer-generated images of man on phone, talking, at desk

Jonathan Franzen is telling us what he thinks is wrong with the modern world. Rebecca Solnit sees the changes to our world post-internet as profound and troubling. These are two recent examples of the personal essay as a wail against life today, particularly life with technology, the internet, etc. Both these articles, at least to some extent, look back to supposedly halcyon days and see technology etc as the destroyers of an idyllic past.

This post picks apart the Franzen piece pretty well, so I won’t try go through the specifics myself. Solnit’s piece probably warrants more analysis though.

She looks back wistfully to a time of radio, television, print:

“That bygone time had rhythm, and it had room for you to do one thing at a time; it had different parts; mornings included this, and evenings that, and a great many of us had these schedules in common.”

She sees this as a time before multi-tasking, short attention spans, a time when you could devote yourself to one thing to engage with that one thing properly. Yet, in the next sentence…

“I would read the paper while listening to the radio, but I wouldn’t check my email while updating my status while checking the news sites while talking on the phone.”

How is reading the paper while listening to the radio really any different to the modern multi-task/distraction experience? It is still not giving one medium your full attention. There were still attention deficit issues pre-internet, as Solnit inadvertently shows. Radio and TV and print have been considered the great destroyers of culture and attention in their pasts. What makes them immune now – nostalgia?

Channel-hopping on your TV is nothing new. Jumping from site to site on your mobile phone is just the evolution of this experience. People have never given over all their attention to phone calls – that was always an experience where you could pretend to pay full attention whilst watching TV/eating dinner/doodling/gazing out the window/whatever else. Let’s not pretend any different. A lack of focus on one thing is not an experience unique to the present day. It is just more visible now, and perhaps more common. But to suggest this is all the internet’s fault is just plain wrong.

“It’s hard, now, to be with someone else wholly, uninterruptedly, and it’s hard to be truly alone.”

This may be the case, but this is as much down to personal choice as it is to the circumstances of the modern world. It is all about how you use the technology – it can genuinely bring you closer to people, but when it stops doing that there is always the “Off” switch. I do, however, concede that it isn’t always that easy.

Solnit then paints a somewhat dystopian picture of us all wearing Google Glasses and not truly engaging with the world and muses about a reaction against technology, primarily as a regression or retreat to the past – a world of knitting and gardening and vinyl records. Surely if this new world of technology is of concern we should be engaging with it in more positive ways, railing against its failings whilst utilising its benefits? If we ignore it, it won’t go away.

These pieces seem to mistake personal reminiscences for universal experience. Not everyone thought their way then, and certainly don’t now. They yearn for a more nuanced, subtle, intellectual view of the world, yet fail to actually properly grapple with the complexities of the issues involved in today’s technology-focused society. Pre-internet, the mainstream media set the agenda, told us what it wanted us to hear and held back what it didn’t. It was state-funded, or commercially funded. Now we have the promise of citizen journalism, we have Twitter breaking stories, or correcting the media. Bloggers holding those in the public-eye to account. The internet has opened all this out. We can speak to more people than ever before. We can hear and read more opinions than ever before.

I’m not suggesting we’re living in some sort of utopia. All of the positive stuff above is still problematic. I’d love to read a full and balanced account of how attention spans are changing, and how that can be traced back through TV, radio, print etc. The vulnerability of the internet is a genuine concern, as is big business increasingly setting the agenda. Social media is not as human as it could be, it enables us to become personal brands more than it allows us to be real people. But these are complex issues – it is not just as simple as painting Google, Facebook, Apple or Amazon as “Evil”, or indeed as “Good”.

I can sympathise with the lower-level irritants, the constant checking of mobiles, the people filming experiences on their iPad rather than actually just experiencing them, or whatever else winds up you or your standard author/columnist. Yet even these kinds of things deserve more reflection and understanding. Are they genuinely new phenomena or just a new way of that human failing of self-centeredness presenting itself?

Perhaps the first step to a proper engagement with these issues is acknowledging that there isn’t some past time when everything was wonderful. Perhaps writers need to move beyond “let’s go back to the distant past” as a solution for the problems the internet and technology generally pose. You can’t write a robust essay through rose-tinted glasses.

And sometimes I wonder if writers don’t like the internet because now anyone can be a writer, anyone can communicate. Those gatekeepers of the press and media safeguarded writers. The internet breaks this down – there are now so many more narratives and so many more narrators. If I was a writer I’d feel uneasy too.

Image via the Reanimation Library