Hey, all the kids are doing it. If you’ve ever read Sven Birkerts’ essays on 20th century literature, An Artificial Wilderness, then you know you’re in capable hands with this piece Reading in a Digital Age.
Information comes to seem like an environment. If anything “important” happens anywhere, we will be informed. The effect of this is to pull the world in close. Nothing penetrates, or punctures. The real, which used to be defined by sensory immediacy, is redefined.
FROM THE VANTAGE POINT OF HINDSIGHT, that which came before so often looks quaint, at least with respect to technology. Indeed, we have a hard time imagining that the users weren’t at some level aware of the absurdity of what they were doing. Movies bring this recognition to us fondly; they give us the evidence. The switchboard operators crisscrossing the wires into the right slots; Dad settling into his luxury automobile, all fins and chrome; Junior ringing the bell on his bike as he heads off on his paper route. The marvel is that all of them—all of us—concealed their embarrassment so well. The attitude of the present to the past . . . well, it depends on who is looking. The older you are, the more likely it is that your regard will be benign—indulgent, even nostalgic. Youth, by contrast, quickly gets derisive, preening itself on knowing better, oblivious to the fact that its toys will be found no less preposterous by the next wave of the young.
These notions came at me the other night while I was watching the opening scenes of Wim Wenders’s 1987 film Wings of Desire, which has as its premise the active presence of angels in our midst. The scene that triggered me was set in a vast and spacious modern library. The camera swooped with angelic freedom, up the wide staircases, panning vertically to a kind of balcony outcrop where Bruno Ganz, one of Wenders’s angels, stood looking down. Below him people moved like insects, studying shelves, removing books, negotiating this great archive of items.
Maybe it was the idea of angels that did it—the insertion of the timeless perspective into this moment of modern-day Berlin. I don’t know, but in a flash I felt myself looking back in time from a distant and disengaged vantage. I was seeing it all as through the eyes of the future, and what I felt, before I could check myself, was a bemused pity: the gaze of a now on a then that does not yet know it is a then, which is unselfconsciously fulfilling itself.
SUDDENLY IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE a world in which many interactions formerly dependent on print on paper happen screen to screen. It’s no stretch, no exercise in futurism. You can pretty much extrapolate from the habits and behaviors of kids in their teens and 20s, who navigate their lives with little or no recourse to paper. In class they sit with their laptops open on the table in front of them. I pretend they are taking course-related notes, but would not be surprised to find out they are writing to friends, working on papers for other courses, or just trolling their favorite sites while they listen. Whenever there is a question about anything—a date, a publication, the meaning of a word—they give me the answer before I’ve finished my sentence. From where they stand, Wenders’s library users already have a sepia coloration. I know that I present book information to them with a slight defensiveness; I wrap my pronouncements in a preemptive irony. I could not bear to be earnest about the things that matter to me and find them received with that tolerant bemusement I spoke of, that leeway we extend to the beliefs and passions of our elders.
AOL SLOGAN: “We search the way you think.”
I JUST FINISHED READING an article in Harper’s by Gary Greenberg (“A Mind of Its Own”) on the latest books on neuropsychology, the gist of which recognizes an emerging consensus in the field, and maybe, more frighteningly, in the culture at large: that there may not be such a thing as mind apart from brain function. As Eric Kandel, one of the writers discussed, puts it: “Mind is a set of operations carried out by the brain, much as walking is a set of operations carried out by the legs, except dramatically more complex.” It’s easy to let the terms and comparisons slide abstractly past, to miss the full weight of implication. But Greenberg is enough of an old humanist to recognize when the great supporting trunk of his worldview is being crosscut just below where he is standing and to realize that everything he deems sacred is under threat. His recognition may not be so different from the one that underlay the emergence of Nietzsche’s thought. But if Nietzsche found a place of rescue in man himself, his Superman transcending himself to occupy the void left by the loss—the murder—of God, there is no comparable default now.
Brain functioning cannot stand in for mind, once mind has been unmasked as that, unless we somehow grant that the nature of brain partakes of what we had allowed might be the nature of mind. Which seems logically impossible, as the nature of mind allowed possibilities of connection and fulfillment beyond the strictly material, and the nature of brain is strictly material. It means that what we had imagined to be the something more of experience is created in-house by that three-pound bundle of neurons, and that it is not pointing to a larger definition of reality so much as to a capacity for narrative projection engendered by infinitely complex chemical reactions. No chance of a wizard behind the curtain. The wizard is us, our chemicals mingling.
The rest is at the link. It might go without saying but, while you rest, others are linking. and some are writing and making, as you rest and others link; so when you wake, don’t just go read something, go and read many things. You’ll feel more rested when you wake again, a greater link to what is and more tired when it’s time for rest.