A literary critic questions the effect of digital technology on minds, literature, and creativity.
Although he uses computers, email, and GPS, Birkerts (The Other Walk: Essays, 2011, etc.), director of the Bennington Writing Seminars and editor of the literary journal AGNI at Boston University, wonders how those technologies have changed both the content they convey and users’ connections to “the unmediated world…are these fabulous gains of access and ease really given without a counterbalancing sacrifice?” That choice of the word “sacrifice” reflects the author’s suspicion, reiterated in many of these previously published essays, that “new technologies and behaviors have a way of encroaching almost visibly” to change the way we think—usually for the worst. When we use a search engine, he asserts, “we give over any real sense of control over our contexts…making ourselves that much more fit to be nodes in a larger system, that much less our independent selves.” When we use GPS, we risk “floating weightlessly from here to there without a strong notion of origins or destination.” Birkerts points to studies in neuroscience that find “short-term adaptations and neural reconfigurings” as a result of “digital expansion.” Long-term effects, he acknowledges, are still unknown. The author worries, especially about the possibility that imagination may become compromised “every time another digital prosthesis appears and puts another thin layer of sheathing between ourselves and the essential givens of our existence.” He also worries that these prostheses give us a skewed sense of agency and power; in his opinion, agency is being diminished: “If being a Luddite has come to mean refusing to rubber-stamp without questioning everything that passes for progress, then where do I sign up?” Following the visual paths of paintings, listening intently to a musical composition, and reading books, he insists, are analogous to prayer.
Cogent and thoughtful, if nostalgic, essays urging our attention not to iPads and smartphones but to art.