• Naomi S. Baron. Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World. Oxford UP. March 2008.
  • Henry Jenkins. Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. NYU Press. August 2006.
  • Lee Siegel. Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob. Spiegel & Grau. January 2008.

The pages in Proust’s long novel describing a first-ever telephone call are often admired for their rare sensitivity to the experience of a new technology. The narrator is speaking, across the miles of cable, to his grandmother. More than speak, he listens. The telephone separates previously united aspects of his grandmother—her voice and physical presence—and through isolating the voice reveals something that the narrator had missed in the flesh: “having [her voice] alone beside me, seen without the mask of her face, I noticed in it for the first time the sorrows that had cracked it in the course of a lifetime.”

Proust’s passage has no equivalent in any contemporary fiction I know when it comes to an account of a first email read, or first social networking profile posted. Even so, it can’t tell us much about what we may really wish to know about technology: never mind losing your virginity—what is it like to live with someone? Proust seems to have recognized that domestication, as the technologists call it, was harder to describe than initiation. In a later volume, he refers in passing to the telephone as “a supernatural instrument before whose miracles we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order an ice cream.”

Marx long ago characterized capitalism in terms of “the annihilation of space by time.” But this of course was something different from a description of the experiential weft of a world transformed by the railroad and telegraph. Perhaps the most suggestive and sensitive account of the early industrial compression of space is Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s The Railway Journey. It was first published in 1977, or about 120 years after Marx coined his phrase. Still, if today everything else is speeding up, so, maybe, can our understanding accelerate of what is happening to us as senders and recipients of so many almost instantaneously transmitted electronic messages. It’s at least the case that some thoughtful books have begun to appear on the subject of our increasing intimacy with the supernatural devices—the laptops, the iPhones, the BlackBerries—at our fingertips. One of these, Naomi Baron’s Always On: Language in an Online and Mobile World, neatly summarizes the situation: “[I]t’s far simpler and less expensive to communicate with someone not physically present than at any time in human history. A second palpable change is the ease with which each of us can become an author or publisher.” The corollary to this increased ease of communication is of course an increased susceptibility to being communicated with. “Our relentless access to others—and them to us” is how Baron puts it. The grammatical slip (it should be “theirs to us”) offers a small confirmation of Baron’s fear that a superabundance of text and talk is driving out careful expression. It also suggests how hard it is keeping track of such changes.

In 1999, full internet service was made available, in Japan, for the first time on a mobile phone. With the advent of PDAs and smart-phones, you could produce a galaxy of websites from your pocket as a magician draws a menagerie from a flattened top hat; the everywhere of the internet could accompany the anywhere of cellular telephony. In this current decade, an “always-on” model of communication has become the advancing norm. Most internet users in wealthy countries now pay for web access at a flat monthly rate, and many popular mobile phone subscriptions allow you to talk yourself hoarse without incurring surcharges. (Laryngitis may not in fact be the thing to worry about; lately the British Association of Dermatologists warns of “mobile phone dermatitis” resulting from excessive use.) And if flat rates allow us to be always on, every day more “content” piles on with us. Notably, the displacement of dial-up by broadband service and continual refinements in microprocessing have permitted the downloading or streaming of large audio and video files.

Henry Jenkins, in Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide, warns against what he calls The Black Box Fallacy, or the notion that one day “all media content is going to flow through a single black box into our living room (or, in the mobile scenario, through black boxes we carry around with us everywhere we go.)” Nevertheless, if many of us still resort to the older black boxes of the TV, the stereo, and the bound codex, it seems clear that we spend more and more time fondling the interactive and multifunctional black boxes that are our laptops, phones, and PDAs. Jenkins himself describes the by now familiar difficulty of buying a mobile phone tout court—”you know, to make phone calls. I didn’t want a video camera, a still camera, a Web access device, an MP3 player, or a game system. I also wasn’t interested in something that could show me movie previews, would have customizable ring tones, or would allow me to read novels. I didn’t want the electronic equivalent of a Swiss army knife.” Of course he was out of luck.

Jenkins’ frustrated simplicity—he only wanted to make phone calls!—is worth considering a moment. Of course he could have used his new device as a phone and nothing else. But today we find it difficult, even where it remains possible, to order à la carte from the menu of our technological choices. Our experience more nearly resembles diving helplessly into an all-you-can-eat buffet: email, texting, G-chatting, phoning; video clips, audio clips, high-resolution photos; blogs and message boards, newspapers and journals in their on-line editions, novelty and commercial sites of every kind—they are all available all the time. None of this would matter much if we were simply behaving as we did before 1984 (when answering machines began to enter our homes) or 1994 (when people first went online en masse), but with sleeker machinery. Reading the press, watching moving images and listening to recorded music, ordering products from catalogues, talking on the phone, and exchanging correspondence are all modern habits of long standing. The distinction of newer communication technologies is really to promote a intense kind of semiotic promiscuity: more messages are sent and received, and more “content” posted and consumed, while all of these communications—often competing for our attention on one or two screens—tend to become shorter, more frequent, more spontaneous, and more casual. On that much probably everyone would agree.

Critiques, as opposed to mere descriptions, of internet culture emphasize the informality or (more judgmentally) the vulgarity of our promiscuous messages. These communications, in their ease, inexpensiveness, and abundance, suffer less pressure than before to be or seem important, meaningful, or definitive—in other words, to last in our minds. In their clamorous competition with one another, they more often strive to be the first noticed.

The critic and erstwhile blogger Lee Siegel, in Against the Machine, a polemic against online habits, makes a list of “five open supersecrets” about bloggers:

1. Not everyone has something valuable to say.

2. Few people have anything original to say.

3. Only a handful of people know how to write well.

4. Most people will do almost anything to be liked.

5. “Customers” are always right, but “people” aren’t.

Bloggers on the whole write carelessly, their ideas are commonplace, they curry favor with readers and one another, and their popularity is no index of their worthiness. Siegel quotes Spinoza: “All things excellent are both difficult and rare.” This seems inarguable, even if Siegel’s preference for professional skill and authority against the digital canaille leads him to champion the execrable ’90s sit-com Friends over an innocuous televised talent show like American Idol. In the days before the internet, he claims, “The audience for each medium knew its history, tradition, and development…. The creators of Friends knew the Dick Van Dyke show”: a curious nostalgia.

Still, the vulgarity of online life is impossible to deny. It seems merely bizarre when Henry Jenkins defines “lowest common denominator” as the “common idea that television programs appeal to basic human drives and desires—most often erotic or aggressive,” as if TV had anything on porn sites or the comments sections of blogs when it comes to the solicitation of lust or anger.

Digital life also clearly undermines the patience with which people used read and write. Naomi Baron proposes the notion of a linguistic “whateverism” abetted by email, instant messages, blogs, and texting: “The proliferation of writing, often done in a hurry, may be driving out the opportunity and motivation for creating carefully honed text.” Baron’s careless writers are also impatient readers. She recalls one of her students claiming that anything worth saying could be said in fewer than thirty pages, and quotes a fellow professor: “I can’t get my students to read whole books anymore.”

Both Siegel and Baron are plainly describing and ruing the same condition, one that is obvious to all of us. What may be less obvious is that its chief characteristic appears to be a lack of mental discipline. Siegel complains that “[o]n the internet, an impulse is only seconds away from its gratification,” while Baron cites with approval neuroscientists who “suggest a strong kinship between the effects of multiple pulls on our attention (thanks to information communications technologies) and attention deficit disorder.” As anybody with a router can attest, this tendency toward distraction and desublimation is for real. It naturally begs to be deplored by literary people. A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than for others; what has been written without effort is generally read without pleasure; and so on. But if jabbering semiotic promiscuity entails some familiar costs of social or sexual promiscuity—shallow and ephemeral relationships supplant deeper and more lasting ones—there can be no honest account of online and digitally interconnected life that denies the attractions of novelty, variety, excitement.

I can’t claim that my life is any richer since I got a high-speed internet connection. For one thing, I no longer send or receive letters. And I wonder whether I made my way through Proust over a few winter months a number of years ago in part because those were still the days of dial-up; I went online once a day for maybe half an hour to read and send emails, and that was that. Even now, I guard my solitude jealously enough that I have never owned a mobile phone—a fact that may end up ensuring me more solitude than I like. When I am forced to admit to a fresh acquaintance that I have no mobile number to offer, suspicion of eccentricity or poverty is the most generous response I receive; sometimes I get a look of frank alarm. But it seems I would rather raise a few eyebrows, curse the occasional payphone, and miss out on some parties than to spoil my necessary concentration and even boredom with phone calls I know I couldn’t resist fielding or placing.

Still, I have to admit that my life is more amusing with a broadband connection running through the computer on my desk. Quick communication tends to glibness, but also makes a special prize of wit. With one friend, I do a lot of G-chatting. Our volleys don’t rise to the level of Benedick and Beatrice, or of Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday, but they are sustained in the same spirit as theirs. 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.

As for the internet as a broadcast rather than point-to-point technology, everyone knows that it supplies a lot of information. Culturally, it has the charms and limitations of a variety show. For example, during the short-lived Diet-Coke-and-Mentos craze of a few years ago (it seems the substances combine like nitrogen and glycerin), I was cheered by going on YouTube to see Americans harmlessly blowing things up in disused weekend parking lots: it is not often that the American fantasies of pure destructiveness and pure innocence are so beguilingly combined. And the infamous clip of Miss South Carolina 2006 trying to answer a question about geography stands as a more concentrated indictment of the US in the Bush years than just about anything a documentary filmmaker has produced. The internet is a funny place. And then curiosity and amusement sometimes turn to wonder: a friend tells me how moving it was to watch footage of a kangaroo giving birth. The nature of the internet is such that all of these examples will seem out-of-date; but they have their this year’s equivalents, and will next year too.

The internet also supplies a platform for writers whose work we would otherwise know from only from books (most of which truly shouldn’t run longer than thirty pages) or not at all. Most Mondays, I visit James Howard Kunstler’s blog Clusterfuck Nation to watch him rub his hands with glee as he contemplates America’s evaporating paper wealth and its mounting energy bills. Kunstler is too irresponsible and acerbic ever to have been granted a column in a major newspaper, and I don’t claim that he is the best blogger out there—I would never go looking for such a thing—but he is a better writer, possessed of a more interesting mind and personality, than, for instance, two thirds of the New York Times‘ columnists, and I have the internet to thank for showing me as much.

Of course newspaper columnists now have their own blogs. And comparing their blog posts with their columns can reveal a special eloquence to the speech-like style that Naomi Baron notices infecting contemporary writing. On October 9, in the clammy depths of the financial crisis, Paul Krugman wrote on his blog: “G7 meeting tomorrow, IMF-World Bank over the weekend. Now is the time for major action—an announcement of coordinated capital injections, liquidity measures, and more. If we’ve had nothing except vague assurances by Monday ….” [ellipsis his; end of post]. The same day, in his twice-weekly formal column, Krugman wrote about the G7’s finance ministers, “They’d better do something soon—in fact, they’d better announce a coordinated rescue plan this weekend—or the world economy may well experience its worst slump since the Great Depression.” The telegraphic urgency and the ominous ellipsis of the blog post (If we’ve had nothing by Monday…), which hinted at the unspeakable consequences of inaction, made for a better piece of writing than the boilerplate that appeared in the paper’s print edition. Céline (master of the ellipsis) and Joyce (a dab hand at the telegraphic style) were among the modernists who exploited for literature the resources of speech-like effects; and the same discovery is made by bloggers and texters and chatters in a minor and disposable way all the time.

So I am glad, honestly, to have the old world of print and film supplemented by the new world of text and video. And I’m eager to stick up for casual and often vulgar online writing and culture as long as I’m not forced to defend them in grandiose terms. The internet often gratifies my curiosity and sense of humor, no small thing but nothing to confuse with whatever it is in me—something far more deeply interfused—that is gratified by poetry, philosophy, history, modes of writing that hardly exist online. What are the native species of internet prose? Op-eds, diary entries, aperçus, allusions, screeds, and scrawls of graffiti—worthy forms but marginal and perishable like little nodding flowers along a river. It is merely annoying when an internet booster like Henry Jenkins claims that various “participatory” phenomena—the “knowledge communities” surrounding reality TV shows, the fan fiction, the specimens of “Photoshop for democracy”—amount to some sort of popular seizure of the means of cultural production: “If we are to make this culture our own, render it legible, and make it into a new platform for our needs and conversations today, we must find a way to cut, paste, and remix present culture.” In election years, I like a pointed YouTube parody of a political ad as much as the next man, but parody and what the Situationists called détournement are fundamentally parasitic forms. If you want to make a culture your own, you have to make your own culture, and not just repurpose the productions of people with more capital (or contribute marginalia to news stories).

A problem since the inception of mechanical reproduction is that the cultural products which are often cheapest and easiest to consume (especially film and TV, and now video games) are the most expensive to create, while certain high-brow forms like painting and poetry require a very small outlay of funds, even as they’re passed over by popular taste. Popular music, in spite of high promotional and engineering costs for bigger acts, represents the rare cultural category where production and consumption are alike relatively cheap, and this is surely one of the reasons why popular music (from mainstream stuff to the obscurer reaches of hip hop, neo-psychedelia, and electronica) remains a more vital part of culture than probably any other. Literature, you might suppose, could flourish in similar democratic fashion, being cheap both to read and write—but literature appears to be crumbling. Evidently its demands on people’s attention have been become too great.

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. A passage in Lee Siegel’s book suggests the internet feels less like a machine than a monkey on his back:

In the pre-Internet age…there came a moment when you turned off the TV or the stereo, or put down the book or magazine … You stopped doing culture and you withdrew—or advanced—into your solitude. You used the phone. You went for a walk. You went to the corner bar for a drink. You made love … You wrote a letter.

Now, more often than not, you go the computer and on-line. There you log on to a social networking site, make an entry on your blog, buy something, try to meet a romantic partner, maybe have sex. Or sex of a kind. You might send an e-mail, but no one ever just sends an email…. Every online activity leads to another online activity.

With the internet, culture—I define culture broadly as any shared public expression—never ends.

Of course this doesn’t quite make sense. Sending an email to a friend is not a “shared public expression,” nor is making a purchase. So it is not culture that never ends on the internet; it is the internet itself that never ends. And yet the same might be said about any object of compulsion. Consider Siegel’s examples of pre-internet pastimes. There were always people who when they went to a corner bar for a drink ended up having ten. So did some people, as plenty still do, have sex—or sex of a kind—compulsively. There are (or were) even compulsive letter-writers and walkers. “No one ever just sends an email” is reminiscent of the old slogan, sinister and accurate, of Pringles potato chips: No one can eat just one. 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.

Toward the end of Always On, Naomi Baron alludes by analogy to this widespread compulsiveness: “Eating nuts is good for your health, but eat too many and you may grow fat.” She counsels restraint: “Now that email, mobile phones, and the BlackBerry follow us into our homes and even on vacation, it takes more than simply removing our shoes to leave the world of connectivity behind.” The diagnosis of epidemic connectivitis seems as sound as Baron’s proposed remedy—”What is needed is an act of will”—looks inadequate. I have noticed that it’s of no great use telling myself, when I go online, that I should muster my willpower against the sirens of amusement, distraction, and curiosity. I do better at not spending too much time at my computer if I remind myself how comparatively shallow and irregular my enjoyment of the internet is. The truth is that we are often bored to death by what we find online—but this is boredom on the installment plan, one click a time, and therefore imperceptible. And if it is worth noticing your boredom—not for the sake of your prose style or your attention span, but simply for the sake of your enjoyment of life—it is for the same reason worth recognizing the general sensuous poverty of online experience. The sound quality of the audio clips is poor, as is the resolution of the video clips. The prose (in addition to being musically and intellectually inferior to what is available in any number of ready-to-hand books) appears as pixels on plastic rather than ink on paper, and is much less pleasing to the eye. My buttocks and my back are also less than happy when I’m online; it’s much nicer reading in bed.

My hope is that these reminders will keep me from succumbing any further to a pastime that has already cut deeper into my more serious reading and writing than I’d like, and that has led me to participate in the great ongoing suicide (by freeloading content) of the intellectual class. Thinking of the internet, I remember the reflections of Proust’s Swann on his mistress Odette: To think I spent years of my life on a woman who did not appeal to me, who wasn’t even my type! Of course—one recalls that word domestication—he married her all the same.

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