Vices of the Virtual (II)
In N1BR, the new online book review of the literary journal n+1, Benjamin Kunkel reviews three books about the impact of new digital media on our culture. I posted excerpts of another essay Kunkel wrote on this subject a few months ago. The review is less ambitious but more personal than the essay. Kunkel writes about still not having a cell phone, about the difference – some of it good, much of it bad – a high-speed internet connection has made in his life. He isn’t blind to the advantages of the new techonologies that are quickly replacing paper and ink. He laments that he doesn’t write letters anymore, but he points out that emails and text messages aren’t only faster than letters; they also favor certain valuable qualities of expression. “Quick communication tends to glibness, but also makes a special prize of wit…. Chatting-by-text and email are not only convenient when it comes to making plans and arrangements; they favor repartee as nothing else, and afford the accompanying pleasures.” Still, Kunkel is worried:
Naturally everyone wants to believe that by spending time online we are not steadily depriving real art, thought, and journalism of the attention and—since so much online “content” is free of charge—the money these would need to survive. It would be nice to feel that the gratifying shallowness and diversity of digital life can be balanced with fidelity to great and challenging writing and art, that our chatting won’t get in the way of our attempted masterpieces. There is no giving up the internet now. And truly no logical reason exists why you couldn’t be a thorough reader of both Proust and Gawker—both, after all, are interested in gossip—or couldn’t exchange, by snail-mail, long, unbosoming letters with the same friend with whom you trade ticklishly glib text messages. A regular visitor to YouTube—a realm of mostly short, grainy clips pitched to amusement—can in theory also be a fan of Tarkovsky’s long, eidetic, and solemn productions. The internet, as its proponents rightly remind us, makes for variety and convenience; it does not force anything on you.
Only it turns out it doesn’t feel like that at all. We don’t feel as if we had freely chosen our online practices. We feel instead that they are habits we have helplessly picked up or that history has enforced, that we are not distributing our attention as we intend or even like to. The experience of being online has at least as much to do with compulsiveness as with liberty. [...]
You could write just the single email. You could discover the single piece of information you wanted online and then log off. You could make sure that that your blog-reading and clip-watching didn’t encroach on the hours set aside for Tarkovksy and Proust, or that your social networking didn’t get in the way of your face-to-face socializing. No one is stopping you from stopping yourself. It’s just that many users of digital communications technology can’t stop. An inability to log off is hardly the most destructive habit you could acquire, but it seems unlikely there is any more widespread compulsion among the professional middle-class and their children than lingering online.