What is it about digital media that turns otherwise sensible journalists into latter-day Cotton Mathers? Case in point: Bill Keller’s recent jeremiad in May 22’s New York Times Magazine. His target: Twitter, that social media site where people meet and “tweet” to each other in 140 characters or less. Not only is Twitter making us stupid (or at least make smart people sound stupid, Keller waffles at the end), it threatens to destroy our very souls.
…my inner worrywart wonders whether the new technologies overtaking us may be eroding characteristics that are essentially human: our ability to reflect, our pursuit of meaning, genuine empathy, a sense of community connected by something deeper than snark or political affinity.
As with the predictions of the end of the world that failed to materialize the day this article arrived on my front porch, Keller’s fear for our imperiled souls is premature. We all may well be going to Hell in a handbasket, but I doubt Twitter is the cause. Demonizing the future –as we at Obsolescing have pointed out time after time, (sounding like that now-obsolete broken record) — is an old and tired journalistic habit. Quick copy. Instant controversy.
What’s maddening is that Keller seems to understand this. In the heart of his essay, he offers vivid examples of the trade-offs society is always making as the new replaces the old. He begins by discussing Jonathan Foer’s recent book about memory, which asserts that the invention of the printing press eroded human’s ability to memorize literature.
My father, who was trained in engineering at M.I.T. in the slide-rule era, often lamented the way the pocket calculator, for all its convenience, diminished my generation’s math skills. Many of us have discovered that navigating by G.P.S. has undermined our mastery of city streets and perhaps even impaired our innate sense of direction. Typing pretty much killed penmanship. Twitter and YouTube are nibbling away at our attention spans. And what little memory we had not already surrendered to Gutenberg we have relinquished to Google. Why remember what you can look up in seconds?
In other words: Thus as it has always been, thus it will always be. The obvious conclusion would be that, as a middle-aged parent of a 13-year-old daughter, Keller is behaving exactly like generations of parents before him. “And so he plays his part,” as Shakespeare wrote. With good-humored humility, Keller would then admit he’s entered the fifth age: “the justice.”
In fair round belly with good capon lined,
With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
Full of wise saws and modern instances …
But no. Somehow, even as he waves away his father’s concerns over his math deficiencies, Keller seems to believe that this time is different, that his own parental concerns are somehow more valid. The digital technologies of the current age pose greater threats and perils than ever before.
What he doesn’t understand is that the present is always the most arrogant –and most benighted– of perspectives. From that high perch, we can dismiss the follies of those who have come before (“I would certainly not give up the pleasures of my library for the ability to recite “Middlemarch.” Keller writes.) while making ominous pronouncements about the dangers ahead in the scary unknown.
To back up his argument, Keller concludes by quoting novelist Meg Wolitzer, who describes a teenage character in The Uncoupling as belong to “The generation that had information, but no context. Butter, but no bread. Craving, but no longing.”
Whether this quote reflects Wolitzer’s point of view or is quoted, out of context, from a middle-aged character’s mouth, I don’t know. I haven’t yet had the pleasure of reading The Uncoupling. Instead of Wolitzer, I turn to Jennifer Egan and her brilliant novel A Visit from the Goon Squad to counter Keller. Hailed as an “inventive investigation of growing up and growing old in the digital age, displaying a big-hearted curiosity about cultural change at warp speed,” by the Pulitzer-Prize committee, Goon Squad offers argument and antidote to any tiresome anti-technology sermons.
By following a loosely interconnected group of characters over a 40-year span, from the 1970s into a near future, Egan explores how we, as human beings, simultaneously embrace and flee from the changes that time – that “goon” of the title – inevitably brings. Like Shakespeare, she regards the various “stages of man,” the many parts we will play in a lifetime, with a detached precision and intimate sympathy.
Much of the change Goon Squad addresses is technological. Readers glimpse one character, a visionary grad student in the mid-1980s, experimenting with a prototype of the Internet (“Oh, we’ll know each other forever,” Bix says. “That days of losing touch are almost gone.”) We see a future iteration of Twitter, a corruptible tool for stealth marketing and a source of unexpected poetry. And there is one luminous chapter “written” entirely as a series of PowerPoint slides composed by a teenager. (Her Mom, a character readers know first as a wild, impulsive and sentimental young woman, is suspicious: “Why not try writing for a change?” “Excuse me, this is my slide journal.”)
Ultimately, time is the only medium that matters, the tough, tidal current keeps pulling us back and sweeping us forward. That tide surges inside us too. Goon Squad so richly explores themes close to Obsolescing’s heart, that I could go on and on (I will say Orpheus and Eurydice make a brief appearance). I’ll leave its delights for you to discover on your own.
The book’s final chapter (SPOILER ALERT) provides the most pointed retort to Keller. Set in a near-future Manhattan, a dystopia of buzzing surveillance helicopters, barricades against the rising sea, ever taller buildings blocking air and light, and a marketplace dictated by the whims of three-year olds and manipulated via paid “influentials” generating buzz, this chapter could be viewed as fodder for Keller’s fears. Except the airless, lightless Manhattan functions not just as dystopian vision but also a metaphor for the onset of middle age, that time when horizons vanish, even as the next generation, voiced by one character’s 3-year-old daughter, chirps “Up, up, up.”
That character, returning for the first time from the first chapter, is guiltily involved in engineering buzz for an “impromptu” downtown concert. New Yorkers pour into the streets and pack Lower Manhattan, oblivious to the fraud. But the concert, miraculously, transcends its suspect origins. The crowd, the excitement, the music itself — the human need for connection and expression and depth and uplift — work some kind of alchemy, transforming the fabricated into the spontaneous and genuine, the event into legend.
The novel ends wistfully, as it must. Egan might even agree with Keller (as I do): “…innovation often comes at a price. And sometimes I wonder if the price is a piece of ourselves.” What Egan gets and Keller doesn’t is that we’re always paying that price. We are all prisoners of the zeitgeist. We accept and absorb the tools and toys and various means our culture gives us and use them to distract ourselves, to wound each other, to seek quick fixes, gratification, acclaim. And we use them too, to connect, create, and delve deeply. Our souls (and our lives) are always in danger, Egan tells us, and always open to unexpected grace.
Maybe it’s unfair of me to pit a novelist against a journalist. We expect novels to be deeper and more subtle than newspaper essays have the luxury to be. But Keller, in quoting Wolitzer, neglects to mention that back when novels were, well, novel, they too were decried as corrupters of souls (see Bovary, Madame). As for journalism, wasn’t it once the most ephemeral of media?
As to Keller’s assertion that Twitter makes smart people sound stupid, I can only answer that as a writer I’m kind of proud of the Tweet I composed to summarize A Visit from the Goon Squad:
What Egan gets: We’re all prisoners of the zeitgeist. There will be casualties & survivors, corruption & transcendence in = measure.
In under 140 characters, I think I say it all.