I’m ordinarily reluctant to complain. This is partly a function of personality and partly a matter of conviction. I’m reticent by nature, and I tend to think that most complaining tends to be petty, self-serving, unhelpful, and tiresome.
That said, I’ve found myself complaining recently. I’m thinking of two separate incidents in the last week or so. In one exchange, I wrote to a friend that I was “Well enough, in that stretched-so-thin-people-can-probably-see-through-me kind of way.” In another conversation, I admitted that what annoyed me about my present situation, the situation that I’ve found myself in for the past few years, was that I was attempting to do so many things simultaneously I could do none of them well.
I teach in a couple of different settings, I’m trying to make my way through a graduate program, I’ve got a writing project that’s taken me much too long to complete, and I’d like to be a half-way decent husband. I could list other demands, but you get the idea. And, of course, those of you with children are reading this and saying, “Just you wait.” And that’s the thing: most people “feel my pain.” What I’m describing seems to be what it feels like to be alive for most people I know.
I was reminded of Isaiah Berlin’s famous discussion of the fox and the hedgehog. Expounding on an ancient Greek saying — “the fox knows many things, the hedgehog knows one big thing” — Berlin went on to characterize thinkers as either foxes or hedgehogs. Plato, Hegel, Nietzsche, for example, were hedgehogs; they had one big idea by which they interpreted the whole of experience. Aristotle, Montaigne, and Goethe were foxes; they were more attuned to the multifarious particularities of experience.
Berlin had intellectual styles in mind, but, if I may re-apply the proverb to the realm of action in everyday life, I find myself wanting to be a hedgehog. I want to do one thing and do it well. Instead, I find myself having to be a fox.
The more I thought about it, the more it seemed to me that this was, in fact, a pretty good way of thinking about the character of contemporary life and competing responses to the dynamics of digital culture.
Clearly, there are forces at play that predate the advent of digital technologies. In fact, part of the unsettled, constantly shifting quality of life I’m getting at is what sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has called “liquid modernity.” The solid structures of pre-modern, and even early modern society, have in our late-modern (postmodern, if you prefer) times given way to flux, uncertainty, and instability. (If you survey the titles of Bauman’s books over the last decade or so, you’ll quickly notice that Bauman has something of the hedgehog in him.)
The pace, structure, and dynamism of digital communication technologies have augmented these trends and brought their demands to bear on an ever larger portion of lived experience. In other words, multi-tasking, continuous partial attention, our skimming way of thinking, the horcrux-y character of our digital devices, the distraction/attention debates — all of this can be summed up by saying that we are living in a time where foxes are more likely to flourish than hedgehogs. Or, put more temperately, we are living in a time where foxes are more likely to feel at home than hedgehogs. This is great for foxes, of course, and may they prosper.
But what if you’re a hedgehog?
You cope and make due, of course. I don’t, after all, mean to complain.