“The storm is what we call progress”

Via Alan Jacobs at Text Patterns, I read the following excerpt from Arikia Millikan’s short piece “I Am a Cyborg and I Want My Google Implant Already” on The Atlantic’s web site:

By the time I finished elementary school, writing letters to communicate across great distances was an archaic practice. When I graduated middle school, pirating music on Napster was the norm; to purchase was a fool’s errand. At the beginning of high school, it still may have been standard practice to manually look up the answer to a burning question (or simply be content without knowing the answer). Internet connection speeds and search algorithms improved steadily over the next four years such that when I graduated in the class of 2004, having to wait longer than a minute to retrieve an answer was an unbearable annoyance and only happened on road trips or nature walks. The summer before my freshman year of college was the year the Facebook was released to a select 15 universities, and almost every single relationship formed in the subsequent four years was prefaced by a flood of intimate personal information.

Now, I am always connected to the Web. The rare exceptions to the rule cause excruciating anxiety. I work online. I play online. I have sex online. I sleep with my smartphone at the foot of my bed and wake up every few hours to check my email in my sleep (something I like to call dreamailing).

But it’s not enough connectivity. I crave an existence where batteries never die, wireless connections never fail, and the time between asking a question and having the answer is approximately zero. If I could be jacked in at every waking hour of the day, I would, and I think a lot of my peers would do the same. So Hal, please hurry up with that Google implant. We’re getting antsy.

Well, hard to beat honesty I suppose.  I did find it slightly ironic that the Google executive who is interviewed for this piece was named Hal.

Jacobs aptly titled his post “The saddest thing I have read in some time,” and he added simply, “There’s a name for this condition: Stockholm Syndrome.”  Well put, of course.

Perhaps it was reading that piece that prepared me to read Walter Benjamin’s IX Thesis on the Philosophy of History later on that day with a certain melancholy resonance:

A Klee painting named “Angelus Novus” shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating.  His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread.  This is how one pictures the angel of history.  His face is turned toward the past.  Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe  which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet.  The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed.  But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them.  This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward.  The storm is what we call progress.

In any case, I tend to agree with Jacobs — it was rather sad.

5 thoughts on ““The storm is what we call progress”

  1. I don’t see why you think it’s sad. It’s just a different way of living. I personally find it sad when I encounter people who don’t understand the benefits that a Wired life can bring to human beings. To each his or her own, I guess, but I love my life.

    1. I hope you didn’t take my comment to mean that I see no benefits to what you called a Wired life. Clearly there are benefits. I typed my comments on a laptop, and I published them on a blog that occupies an infinitesimally small corner of the Internet — so this is not exactly a rage against the machine. Although I sometimes play with the term, I’m not a Luddite. You’ll notice that Jacobs, whose sentiments I echoed, is not one either.

      But I do believe that technologies are rarely unalloyed goods and that it is best to cultivate a critical distance between ourselves and our tools in order to judiciously implement them in a way that both acknowledges the benefits and mitigates the losses. Much of what I write here is my own effort to think out loud as it were and in conversation with others about this kind of negotiated life.

      Many people much brighter and more thoughtful than myself, including some who have been intimately involved in bringing this wired world into existence recognize that there are trade offs and we do best to consider these and move forward with eyes wide open.

      Perhaps I misread, that is always possible, but your enthusiasm seemed encourage the collapse of the critical distance I’m advocating.

      So I suppose part of the sadness (I’m taking your first statement as a question) attaches to the sense of what is being lost in the momentous transitions we are undergoing. Do you think, I wonder, that nothing at all of significance will be lost as we emerge as the cyborgs you envision? What is more, I think there is a certain sadness in the realization that for people of a certain age, and I’m right on the borders of this group, there is not even the awareness of a loss. A whole epoch of human history, a whole phase in the development of human culture is being undone and replaced and there seems to be among some nary a notice, much less a wistful glance backward or an active effort of cultural conservation.

      Perhaps this is all because I am, in W. H. Auden’s formulation, more of an Arcadian than a Utopian. In any case, I would just ask that you not imagine that I write as one who merely dismisses what I cannot appreciate. I’m actually taking the digital world quite seriously precisely because it is so powerful.

      I hope that makes some sense. I’m quite glad that you enjoy your life, that is no small thing. I’m not necessarily interested in criticizing anyone’s life, I’m just trying to understand the world in which I live mine.

  2. Hi Michael,

    This kid might be an exceptional case. But the NY Times had a huge spread last summer on people texting in their cars – apparently there are many people out there, who can’t stop texting or phoning for anything. Why are people’s lives so empty? Sometimes, I think we are creating a society of electronic drug addicts . .

    T.

    1. You better watch out Sacasas…. if Google finds this post they will be none too pleased. And everyone knows what happens to blogs when they displease Google.

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