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The New Ludditism in Literature

June 26, 2009

In a recent essay in n+1, Benjamin Kunkel, in a wide-ranging consideration of technology's effects on contemporary culture and daily life, writes that the internet and its products feel forced upon us. For anyone who goes online daily—and increasingly that is most of us—there is a never-ending barrage of e-mail, articles of note (for their vulgarity or supposed profundity), amusing videos, invitations, profiles, photos, blog posts, news feeds, figurative "gifts," and the like—and most of it is free, available to be guzzled down with a click. It is nigh impossible to simply dip into the internet; the irony is that if you have any awareness of how to navigate it, this endless stream of content, digital companions, and e-communiques becomes more numerous and oppressive, its depths cavernous and alluring, rather than simpler and streamlined.

What does it take to separate us from these omnipresent digital phenomena, and will that separation one day be impossible, when gadgets, screens, and Wi-Fi are everywhere? Even now, the term "going off the grid" is often used as a jesting hypothetical, something done by eccentrics and believers in an impending apocalypse. As a regular feature of electronic social discourse, waiting a day or two to answer an e-mail requires an explanation, if not an apology. "You don't have a 3G-enabled phone with e-mail?" my friend asked me a few months ago (an eternity, in technological terms). He was joking, of course, but there was also some truth there, a frustrating and niggling feeling that with my once-cutting-edge Motorola, I was somehow missing out. To my irritation, it took a moment to focus, pull back, and realize that no, I didn't need that.

Kunkel is correct that self-discipline is one of the great casualties of the internet age, but as thinking, independent beings, we only have ourselves to blame, and it is up each individual to recover what might be lost. Not every technology is inherently neutral—consider Monsanto's "Terminator" seeds—but our laptops and e-mail clearly are. "No one is stopping you from stopping yourself," Kunkel writes. "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."

The fear, as Kunkel attests, is that our willpower is inadequate, that, like in Infinite Jest or other visions of death-by-technology (it is no coincidence that many of these scenarios are found in books), we cannot resist our own creations. Technology is our reflecting pool, and each one of us is a potential Narcissus—isn't a social networking profile or a YouTube video gone viral proof of such? What else to account for my Facebook friend, someone I barely know in fact, who has more than 2,200 pictures of herself online? The victims of this mania are—we are variously told—genuine emotional connection, privacy, attention spans, novel reading, and serious culture.

But not everyone is like this. Not everyone is as interconnected and digitally astute as those described in the previous paragraph, though a recent poll shows that only 14 percent of American adults don't use a cell phone or the internet. Yet if we don't consider the demographic, financial, and even geographic elements of the technology gap, we risk succumbing to the solipsism commonly attributed to our culture. After all, many of the elderly or the poor aren't regular computer users. A kid living in poverty in East L.A. or East Timor may not have access to a cell phone or internet-connected computer, though he might have a library card or a few books (hence some of the recent arguments that widespread adoption of e-readers could impinge on book access for the poor). However, the hopes of the digital age—and those techno-evangelists who abet it, from Steve Jobs's iPhone to President Obama's plan to bring broadband to rural communities—are tied up, at least in part, in leveling this technological gap. Perhaps it's not spoken of much because the proliferation of high technology seems assured; or, on the other hand, we may simply neglect those who don't have the means to connect. Because if you're not online today, can you be part of the conversation?


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