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  • Is Cyberspace Destroying Society?

    An Online Conference with Sven Birkerts
    May 30, 1995

    The following is the transcript of a live online conference with Sven Birkerts as it appears in The Atlantic Monthly Online on the America Online network.

    Hosted, with an introduction, by Scott Stossel

    Sven Birkerts doesn't much like computers. In fact, it's probably fair to say that he hates them, at least in the abstract way that one hates the soldiers of an enemy army. It's not hatred for the individual computer that Birkerts feels, but a loathing of the threat to a way of life that the enemy's ideology poses. Birkerts considers himself a foot soldier in an urgent battle, "The Reading Wars," in which technology and the soul are locked in combat, and in which nothing less than the fate of society is at stake.

    Sound a bit dire? Is this just the hysterical hyperbole of a technophobe? Perhaps. Then again, perhaps not. In his new book *The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age*, Birkerts concerns himself with the implications of what both sides of "The Reading Wars" generally acknowledge is a momentous paradigm shift. In a series of essays alternately anecdotal and analytical, *The Gutenberg Elegies* argues that this shift is for the worst, and that we are living in a state of intellectual emergency--an emergency caused by our willingness to embrace new technologies at the expense of the printed word.

    Birkerts's book is, if nothing else, as sincere and rousing a paean to reading as you'll ever encounter. But it is also a call to arms, a lonely cry in the wilderness of our increasingly electronic and hyperlinked society. Birkerts writes, "We are hurrying to get on-line, and the natural corollary to this is that the idea of individuality must come under siege." Online networks, cellular telephones, satellite television, all these things, Birkerts believes, rather than fostering community in a positive way, threaten "to swamp us in an element of connectedness." We are losing that which makes us human, our individuality.

    Still not convinced? Consider some of what Birkerts feels to be the losses piled up by electronic postmodernity: a fragmented sense oftime; a reduced attention span and a general impatience with sustained inquiry; a shattered faith in institutions and in the explanatory narratives that formerly gave shape to subjective experience; a divorce from the past; an estrangement from geographic place and community; and an absence of any strong vision of a collective future.

    In sum, technological advances accumulate now at such a rapid pace that we can't help but uncritically absorb them into the mainstream culture. No one asks the important questions: Are these changes good for us? What are these technologies doing to us? "We have been stripped," says Birkerts, "of not only our familiar habits and ways, but of familiar points of moral and psychological reference." books, reading, and society in general are endangered by the impoverishment of discourse represented by new-fangled media like the online network that makes this conference possible. Or so Birkerts claims.

    Sven Birkerts is the author of the book review, "One for the Angry White Male," about William Gass's gigantic new novel *The Tunnel*, which appears in the current issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Birkerts, who teaches literature at Emerson College, is the author of three books of criticism and has won numerous awards for his essays and reviews. He neither owns nor uses a computer. At this conference (for which he has no choice but to use a computer), he'll talk to you about books, book-reviewing, and about the fate of reading in an electronic age.

    Sven Birkerts is a brave man. He appears before you tonight via a medium which makes him uncomfortable. And he will be conversing with an audience that is, almost by definition, hostile-- after all, you're all online. He is, ironically enough, engaging the enemy on its own terms. Tonight, Birkerts must fight impoverished discourse with impoverished discourse; the time and space constraints of an online conference often inhibit the nuance and expressive use of language that Birkerts values so highly.

    Do you love reading books and fear for their fate in an electronic world? Or do you think that new technology will bring about revolutionary improvements in our intellectual lives? Or are you torn between these two poles? Whatever your position on these matters, you're sure to find tonight's discussion an interesting one.

    StosselAtl: Welcome, audience! And welcome, Sven Birkerts. Thanks for joining us tonight.

    Birkerts: Thanks for admitting me to your precincts.

    StosselAtl: Sven, you've clearly been thinking about these things for a long time. What motivated you finally to write The Gutenberg Elegies?

    Birkerts: Like most of my writing, it grew from a series of small provocations. First I was thinking about TV, then, concurrently, about the change in our reading habits; then, suddenly, this whole computer thing began to sweep over us.

    StosselAtl: Here's the first question from the audience.

    Question: Your being here and having this discussion online is rather ironic, don't you think? But isn't this the kind of self-reflexivity any system of communication needs: to question or even subvert the medium through the medium itself? Or is that just more postmodern theoretical gibberish? How do YOU feel about being here?

    Birkerts: I feel like I'm wearing a large prophylactic over my whole being...but I think this stuff needs to be debated and debated and that's why I'm here.

    StosselAtl: An audience member screennamed ERMG asks a basic question:

    Question: Birkerts why do you think cyberspace is bad?

    Birkerts: I'm not convinced it's bad, but I don't hear anyone much making that suggestion, and since I'm sure it can't be all good I feel that I need to make some trouble. Seriously, though, there are many reasons why it might not be good for the world to have hundreds of millions of people spending untold hours pecking at little keyboards like this one.

    StosselAtl: The next questioner wants to know your thoughts on the idea of "connectedness."

    Question: What do you understand by the term "connectedness"? There seems to be something sinister about it in The Gutenberg Elegies, as though humans connecting with one another through new media threatens or even rules out the old modes of connecting.

    Birkerts: I don't think it's a question of ruling out, more a matter of gradual displacement. It is more and more common to accept an ersatz and mediated communication for a "real" one. Yes, I am suggesting that communication mainly happens between breathing individuals and ought to be as close to face-to-face as we can make it.

    StosselAtl: The next questioner has clearly read your book carefully.

    Question: At the end of The Gutenberg Elegies you make good use of Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in an Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Aren't books mechanical reproductions? Isn't an author's "aura" diminished as much by a printed page as by a computer screen? Isn't language itself the medium, transcending print, silicon, the human voice?

    Birkerts: Good question. BUT it matters tremendously how that language is transmitted. I've been thinking lately in terms of words chiseled on stone versus words written in skywriting versus words on a page...the medium is a part of the communication, its inescapable, and circuit communications do partake in mysterious ways of the circuit. This sounds fuzzy, sorry--I could elaborate over time.

    StosselAtl: Is audience member BEJF being a bit dire in asking the following question?

    Question: Does the end of reflective reading mean the return of barbarism?

    Birkerts: Depends on how you define barbarism--my great fear is of a society become perfectly civil, egalitarian and shallow. We need to founder in the face of difficulty, we need to suffer solitudes, we need to know how utterly weird it is that we're here, no?

    StosselAtl: You've touched on this a little bit already but you could elaborate in responding to this question from audience member Cor333?

    Question: Mr. Birkerts....I am a bit depressed on hearing your theory... Why do you see electronic reading as different than paper books?

    Birkerts: Because paper books dead-end you on the page and drive you back into yourself, while electronic writing sends you into the strange sorcery of the circuit.

    StosselAtl : BEJF asks:

    Question: Does the end of the novel mean the end of social reform?

    Birkerts: I worry much less about the end of social reform and much more about the death of the subjective individual. I don't really think much about social reform.

    StosselAtl : Hmm. Our next questioner seems to think that the obsolescence of books is a foregone conclusion...Do you agree?

    Question: Bottom line...how fast do you see books leaving our culture to be supplanted by video-books?

    Birkerts: I don't think they'll ever go away completely, but in twenty years books will be like old Jimi Hendrix vinyl...

    StosselAtl : What about some of the positive effects of online connectedness? People talk about a renaissance of letter-writing. Birsup asks:

    Question: Won't the use of the net increase rather than decrease reading skills, typing skills and grammar to make the written word clearer as the net grows?

    Birkerts: Hard question to answer--my intuition is that there will be much more 'TYPING;' and much less writing and that the effect of all this communicating will be to depreciate the stylistic and rhythmic qualities that are the very soul of communication.

    StosselAtl: Tough question, from AdamRCohen:

    Question: Sven, thoughts are electronic in the head. Why shouldn't they be electronic outside the head, too?

    Birkerts: I happen to think that thoughts are organic in the head and that they ought to be organic in their transmission.

    StosselAtl: I read once that television exhibits the symptoms of schizophrenia. BEJF asks:

    Question: Is the cybermind schizophrenic in the true sense of multi-minded, not centered?

    Birkerts: I think so, absolutely--even the progress of this conversation, a prime instance of electronic exchange, is nothing if not schizophrenic. Don't you agree?

    StosselAtl: And now for something completely different. JayW12 asks:

    Question: What are some good uses for Cyberspace?

    Birkerts: I think it's an optimum locale/set of operations (WHATEVER) for sending, storing, linking data, but that we mustn't confuse data with other kinds of information.

    StosselAtl: Sven, you're proving yourself to be adept at schizophrenic communication. RTaylor50 asks:

    Question: Don't you think cyberspace and the whole "on-line thing" are a natural evolution of the communication process? Is evolution a bad thing? First we spoke face-to-face, then we wrote letters, then we used the telephone, now we're communicating on-line

    Birkerts: Now that we see that it leads to Homo Sapiens---yes, evolution is clearly a bad idea. Kidding. I don't think we should blindly authorize big moves in our collective lives because someone says they are inevitable or "evolutionary."

    StosselAtl: We Atlantic Monthly people like to say that the online version of our magazine is a complement to our print version. Oceana218 asks:

    Question: Doesn't cyberspace offer another medium for the written word? It doesn't need to replace other media, but rather supplement them, no?

    Birkerts: Yes, so long as the supplement doesn't grow up, become a father, and put the old guy into a rest home. There are uses, yes. And hey, I just thought of something: Isn't the rise of all this concurrent with the decline of smoking? It's much harder to smoke and work on the screen. Not that I'm smoking, but I sure would like to be.

    StosselAtl: Hmmm. My feeling is that American political discourse was impoverished before the advent of mass online communication but BEJF asks:

    Question: Do you think online debate exposes the poverty of American political awareness?

    Birkerts: Interesting question. Are you asking whether the net is a means of looking more deeply and searchingly at things, or whether it might not just be a way of spreading the same quantity of manure over a wider surface?

    StosselAtl: I think he might be asking both. What's the effect of the online medium on non-readers and beginning readers? Algoldie asks:

    Question: What's with literacy; what is it and how does it suffer??

    Birkerts: I think that what we're talking about is a very different kind of literacy--I don't worry that people won't know how to read words in the future, but I do worry that they'll have no idea of what wisdom might be or where it might be found. The medium clearly privileges certain kinds of communication, the very kinds I wish we would evolve beyond.

    StosselAtl: Mightn't wisdom be preserved online somehow?

    Birkerts: No.

    StosselAtl: If you had to get rid of either television or online networks which would it be? MONAD asks:

    Question: Isn't it better for people to connect and spend time on the Internet rather than watch TV which is controlling?

    Birkerts: I don't fully get the question but let me try--TV is the more pernicious, if only because it laid the track that the train is now running along.

    StosselAtl: Tandavill has an interesting thought about the geographical reach of online. Your response?

    Question: I use my computer primarily to connect me with other like-minded people. for example, this event feels like a Q&A period after, perhaps, one of your lectures at Emerson. The only difference is that there was no lecture, but. . . . I live in NC. This medium is probably as close as I'll get to you. Would you agree that that is a real benefit?

    Birkerts: I wonder how close you're getting. I keep feeling my mind, my real mind, veering off the subject at hand and over toward some no-man's land. Still, something is better than nothing, though you would do better to read a few pages of Emerson the man.

    StosselAtl: But isn't an increase of community or communication, even of a superficial kind, good?...AJeetp, following up on an earlier response of yours, asks:

    Question: Yes, that is all true. But what you must understand is that were it not for the existence of the online medium, NONE of us we HAVE the chance to talk to each other. Can you possibly say that this increased interaction, and affirmation of identity is bad???

    Birkerts: No. Why do we think communication is so blasted important? I'm almost tempted to say that we would do better with less communication, the more so if communication becomes a kind of stand in for facing oneself inwardly. What was the rest of the question?

    StosselAtl: What about the fact that the online medium eliminates various forms of discrimination? Okie918 asks:

    Question: Don't you think online services create a greater sense of community by changing correspondence paradigms and leaving little room for discrimination on basis of sex, creed, race, etc.?

    Birkerts: Does it? It only temporarily blinds us--we're not getting to be better, less discriminating people just because we can't see who we're typing to.

    StosselAtl: Djlevinso has another challenging question for you:

    Question: I think that computers are actually making us "get back to the basics" of reading and writing--pursuits forgotten in the advent of the telephone when it was used to communicate. Now, students as young as 5 years old are communicating via the written word--not the "talkie". How do you feel about this?

    Birkerts: I wished I believed it was good. These kids should be out blasting m-80s or something.

    StosselAtl :We're going over some of the same ground here, but this question from Splasher raises some interesting questions--would you suggest that we get rid of the telephone?

    Question: People thought that the telephone would be the undoing of society by replacing physical interaction. However it's proven to be an ever useful tool. How do you know that the online technologies won't prove beneficial, especially to education?

    Birkerts: Should I be perverse? Yes, get rid of the phone, then the car, tend our own gardens. No, kidding here, too. There is no going back and it's foolish to want it. But there is going forward with full consciousness of what we might be once and for all waving goodbye to.

    StosselAtl: ElMike asks:

    Question: Didn't writing have the same deleterious effect on the mnemonist's trade?

    Birkerts: Absolutely and would you say that was good or bad?

    StosselAtl: Dfrederick asks:

    Question: Your desire to examine our embrace of technology reminds me much of Martin Heidegger's in The Question Concerning Technology. He thinks that technology is not inherently neutral, but rather is indicative of a whole way of framing the world. What do you think the advent of online services says about our society?

    Birkerts: I think it says that we are much more interested in becoming collectively linked selves than privately suffering selves. Which is both good and bad, right? I tend to focus on the bad.

    StosselAtl: You use a lot of the same terms--"hive", "mediated", etc. that digerati like Nicholas Negroponte and William Gibson use but you charge these terms negatively. They charge them positively. What accounts for the difference b/w them and you?

    Birkerts: Prisoner and warden charge the word "freedom" differently, too. They don't seem to fear the loss of the individuated self--maybe they have less of one to worry about, I dunno. My fear is, as I said, of creeping shallowness. We made a turn somewhere this past quarter century, away from the initiatives of the individual and it has made all the difference--to paraphrase R. Frost.

    StosselAtl: So are you the prisoner or the warden? (Kidding.) Next question:

    Question: One of the most interesting things you say in The Gutenberg Elegies has to do with how we define our concept of democracy, and you argue passionately that we're forced rethink our ideal of subjective individualism, to reconsider our private and collective selves. Why do you think online media threaten our "subjective self-awareness"?

    Birkerts: In part because they plunge us into an amniotic bath of ersatz communication which takes the edge off the search, which must always be solitary. Am I a romantic? Guess so.

    StosselAtl: Ellylon asks (echoing Djlevinson who says you can't curl up to a PC) in asking:

    Question: Don't you believe that people still like to have a "physical" object to hold in their hands, like cracking the spine of a book?

    Birkerts: Mr. Negroponte promises that soon enough all this will be dealt with, to the point of having flat, supple screens that give off the smell of old leather bindings. Dig it.

    StosselAtl : This conference was supposed to end at 7:45 but since we've got so many good questions we'll continue on for a bit. Sven, you must feel like you're being barraged. Gerbam asks:

    Question: Author Mary McCarthy, died at the time when the birth of "cyberspace" was on the horizon, she said that for humanity's sake it will a great loss if we lose the original mss. notes, etc. of great writers and other artists. Is this perhaps what you mean by a shallow society? One that cannot or has no desire to explore, use one's own mind?

    Birkerts: Exploring is part of what I mean, but to raise a dark subject, I also mean staring into the black hole that Beckett stared into, realizing and realizing again that the game has an end and that we need to figure out why we were playing. I can't say enough how much I think the core of things is private, solitary.

    StosselAtl: Cor333 follows up provocatively on one of your earlier responses:

    Question: I am excited about the revolution that is inevitable in this "perfectly civil, egalitarian and shallow" situation, aren't you? And as a follow up...are you merely afraid of computers, not familiar with them?

    Birkerts: Both. I am often urged to get to know the beast, but I feel that somebody needs to stand clear of it all to command that particular perspective. I'm sure I'd be intrigued, amused, sucked in, and that I would start to think it was a good thing. Did you ever see "Invasion of the Body Snatchers"?

    StosselAtl: ERMG wants you to define your terms. What do you mean, exactly, by the "sorcery of the circuit"?

    Question: Birkerts what do you mean by sorcery of the circuit?

    Birkerts: I mean the fact, for one thing, of instantaneousness, and the curious abridgment, devaluation of geographical constraints. These are, finally, illusions--at least as far as the body is concerned, yet we come to believe in the illusion.

    StosselAtl: You said a moment ago that the core of things is solitary, private. But connecteness doesn't.

    StosselAtl: Preclude inferiority or subjectivity or, finally, depth. GHahn asks:

    Question: I don't understand the leap you're making between the existence of circuit-based communication and the end of personal struggle and the quest for meaning. Why do you think this must be so?

    Birkerts: If I could be convinced that the net and its users had a genuine purchase on depth, on the pursuit of things which are best pursued in stillness, in dread, and by way of patiently articulated language, then I would open wide my heart. I just don't see it. I see the equivalent of --never mind, this is me getting heated up,

    StosselAtl: Tandavill asks (and we'll only have time for a few more after this):

    Question: In some ways your book seems like a meditation on the utterly destructive power of the concept of efficiency. Would you speak to this?

    Birkerts: How efficiency? I think I get you. Yes, in a way you're right. I keep thinking about this question: why are we not having a revolution of idleness? Why are we not seeing people just getting by and wasting time and breaking bread and drinking wine etc. I think efficiency masks dread, and that we are deeply afraid of what's going on behind door #3.

    StosselAtl : Would you prescribe corrective action? Or just vigilance and a critical distance on these things. Splasher asks:

    Question: What do you feel needs to be done? Do you feel that interactive networks be banned?

    Birkerts: Corrective action would take the form of ludditism no? K. Sale makes a case for this in WIRED but I think it's too much to hope for. Vigilance, yes, above all. And the willingness to break away from the Zeitgeist that is being sold to us on every side.

    StosselAtl: Next-to-last question here (and sorry we haven't had time to get to all of them):

    Question: I have to agree with Birkerts. Come on, we're using symbols instead of the written word to type out our meaning. What do you think, Mr. Birkerts, and have you considered that this is another "phase" in our society, and people will get bored with it.?

    Birkerts: Yes, they will get bored with it--like we're bored with TV--but does this mean that we will turn around in the forest and start back toward home--I doubt it.

    StosselAtl: Last question (and I'm trying to set you up with this one, Sven). One of your favorite authors (and mine) is Walker Percy. If he were alive and were to write a novel about the online medium. What would he write?

    Birkerts: He already wrote it, in a sense, in "Lost in the Cosmos." It's all there, in code. THANKS AND GOODNIGHT.

    StosselAtl: Thank you, Sven. And thanks, audience.

    Copyright © 1995 The Atlantic Monthly. All rights reserved.
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