Jonathan Franzen on the 19th-Century Writer Behind His Internet Skepticism

It connects with Kraus’s other line: “We were smart enough to build the machines, but not smart enough to make them serve us.” And boy, does that ring true. When you look at the actual content of our interaction with computers—plenty of good stuff, but a whole lot of hours spent looking at other people’s photos of their stupid parties on a Facebook page. I really don’t mean to say it’s all bad. I held out until 1996 against email, but now it’s part of the way I live and I actually appreciate it—I prefer it to phone calls. I don’t have a complete hard line on this. What I object to is the idea that just because we can do something, we automatically will do it. Now everyone is armed with a camera 24/7. Is that a good thing? A bad thing? There’s not really any discussion of that. This potential exists, and so it will be exploited. It will be marketed, it will be sold, and we will buy it. That’s the infernal machine.

Kraus was very suspicious of the notion of progress, the idea that things are just getting better and better. In 1912, when he was writing the essays that are in my new book, people were very optimistic about what science was going to do for the world. Everyone was becoming enlightened in a straightforward scientific sense, politics was liberalizing, and the world was going to be a much, much better place—the story went. Well, two years later the most horrible war in the history of humankind broke out, and was followed by an even worse war 25 years after that. Kraus was right about something: He was right to distrust the people who were telling us that technology was going to serve humanity and make things better and better. In the context of the crazy techno-utopianism and crazy techno-boosterism we’re now living through, it seems worth taking a look at a writer who was there at the birth of modern media and tech, being suspicious of the language of the people who were talking about how everything is getting better. I’m not convinced that I’m right about the things that I distrust in the new techno-media world. But I’m also not convinced I’m wrong, and so I’m disturbed by a rhetoric that aggressively dismisses people who are raising what seem to me quite reasonable objections—I see these dismissals a lot.

Are we getting better, thanks to the Internet? My position is this: the Internet is fabulous for a lot of things. It’s a fabulous research tool. It’s great for buying stuff, it’s great for bringing together people to work on communal things, like software, or people who share a passion or are all suffering from the same disease and want to find each other and communicate. It’s wonderful for that. But the Internet in general—and social media in particular—fosters this notion that everything should be shared, everything is communal. When it works, it’s great. But it specifically doesn’t work, I think, in the realm of cultural production—and particularly literary production. Good novels aren’t written by committee. Good novels aren’t collaborated on. Good novels are produced by people who voluntarily isolate themselves, and go deep, and report from the depths on what they find. They do put what they find in a form that’s communally accessible, communally shareable, but not at the production end. What makes a good novel, apart from the skill of the writer, is how true it is to the individual subjectivity. People talk about “finding your voice”: Well, that’s what it is. You’re finding your own individual voice, not a group voice.

Where Kraus spoke of an imaginative space, or implied that there was an imaginative space, he used the word Geist—the good old German word “spirit.” He found technological progress antithetical to that spirit. You’d have to be a German to truly buy into that particular formulation, but there are American ways to interpret this that I do think make sense as a critique of the Internet. Not as a useful tool for people, but as a way of life, and as a way of being a human being. Particularly, as I say, for certain types of artistic production for which the electronic world is actually very harmful, to the point of being antithetical.

You don’t have to be as extreme as Pynchon in eschewing the Internet’s capacity for self-promotion. But if I look around at the really great writers of the recent decades in North America, I think of Alice Munro, I think of Don DeLillo, I think of Denis Johnson. These are people who are not invisible, but they have clearly set up rather strict boundaries. Alice Munro, you know, she’s got work to do. She has the work of being Alice Munro to do. Same thing for Johnson, same thing for DeLillo. Pynchon’s self-isolation is so extreme that, as with Salinger, he risks producing the opposite of the effect that maybe is psychologically intended—it becomes a kind of reverse publicity to be absolutely publicity-averse. The writers who have become models for me are the ones who manage to have some public life—we’re all communal—but a restricted one. Writers have audiences and responsibilities to those audiences. But we also have a responsibility to remain ourselves. It’s a balancing act. And again, the Internet and social media are so seductive, are so immediately gratifying in that addictive-substance way, that you can get carried away from yourself rather easily.

I feel we’re at a moment when technology has far outstripped other human capabilities. You see this in so many ways—increasing economic disparity, the hatred and conflict and terrorism in the world, our own political dysfunction. It seems to me that, at some point, if we’re going to survive, we have to start to identify undesirable aspects of technological development and say no to them. It’s extremely unlikely, but it’s actually not inconceivable, that after an unintended nuclear explosion and a few more power plant disasters people will say, “We can split atoms, but we’re going to choose not to. We’re going to get together as an entire planet to ensure that this thing we can do, we’re not going to do.” With GMOs, and recombinant DNA in all its forms, we’re already hearing people saying “Just because we can do it doesn’t mean we should.” But our embrace of the new digital technology? It’s been headlong, despite obvious negative consequences. I mean, the Internet has almost destroyed journalism! How can you have a functioning, complicated democracy of 300 million people without professional journalists? The boosters are always saying, well you can crowdsource it, you can leak it, you can take pictures with your iPhone. Bullshit. You can’t crowdsource working the Capitol beat for 20 years. We need to think critically about the consequences of our machines. We need to learn how to say no, and how to support the vital social services, like professional journalism, that we’re destroying.

And this is true, especially true, for anyone who aspires to write serious fiction. When I first met Don DeLillo, he was making the case that if we ever stop having fiction writers it will mean we’ve given up on the concept of the individual person. We will only be a crowd. And so it seems to me that the writer’s responsibility nowadays is very basic: to continue to try to be a person, not merely a member of a crowd. (Of course, the place where the crowd is forming now is largely electronic.) This is a primary assignment for anyone setting up to be and remain a writer now. So even as I spend half my day on the Internet—doing email, buying plane tickets, ordering stuff online, looking at bird pictures, all of it—I personally need to be careful to restrict my access. I need to make sure I still have a private self. Because the private self is where my writing comes from. The more I’m pulled out of that, the more I simply become another loudspeaker for what already exists. As a writer, I’m trying to pay attention to the stuff the people aren’t paying attention to. I’m trying to monitor my own soul as carefully as I can and find ways to express what I find there. 

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Joe Fassler is a writer based in Brooklyn. His fiction has appeared in The Boston Review, and he regularly interviews authors for The Lit Show. In 2011, his reporting for TheAtlantic.com was a finalist for a James Beard Foundation Award in Journalism.

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