Our Little Apocalypses

An incoming link to my synopsis of Melvin Kranzberg’s Six Laws of Technology alerted me to a short post on Quartz about a new book by an author named Michael Harris. The book, The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection, explores the tradeoffs induced by the advent of the Internet. Having not read the book, I obviously can’t say much about it, but I was intrigued by one angle Harris takes that comes across in the Quartz piece.

Harris’s book is focused on the generation, a fuzzy category to be sure, that came of age just before the Internet exploded onto the scene in the early 90s. Here’s Harris:

“If you were born before 1985, then you know what life is like both with the internet and without. You are making the pilgrimage from Before to After.”

“If we’re the last people in history to know life before the internet, we are also the only ones who will ever speak, as it were, both languages. We are the only fluent translators of Before and After.”

It would be interesting to read what Harris does with this framing. In any case, it’s something I’ve thought about often. This is my fifteenth year teaching. Over the years I’ve noticed, with each new class, how the world that I knew as a child and as a young adult recedes further and further into the murky past. As you might guess, digital technology has been one of the most telling indicators.

Except for a brief flirtation with Prodigy on an MS-DOS machine with a monochrome screen, the Internet did not come into my life until I was a freshman in college. I’m one of those people Harris is writing about, one of the Last Generation to know life before the Internet. Putting it that way threatens to steer us into a rather unseemly romanticism, and, knowing that I’m temperamentally drawn to dying lights, I want to make sure I don’t give way to it. That said, it does seem to me that those who’ve known the Before and After, as Harris puts it, are in a unique position to evaluate the changes. Experience, after all, is irreducible and incommunicable.

One of the recurring rhetorical tropes that I’ve listed as a Borg Complex symptom is that of noting that every new technology elicits criticism and evokes fear, society always survives the so-called moral panic or techno-panic, and thus concluding, QED, that those critiques and fears, including those being presently expressed, are always misguided and overblown. It’s a pattern of thought I’ve complained about more than once. In fact, it features as the tenth of my unsolicited points of advice to tech writers.

Now while it is true, as Adam Thierer has noted here, that we should try to understand how societies and individuals have come to cope with or otherwise integrate new technologies, it is not the case that such negotiated settlements are always unalloyed goods for society or for individuals. But this line of argument is compelling to the degree that living memory of what has been displaced has been lost. I may know at an intellectual level what has been lost, because I read about it in a book for example, but it is another thing altogether to have felt that loss. We move on, in other words, because we forget the losses, or, more to the point, because we never knew or experienced the losses for ourselves–they were always someone else’s problem.

To be very clear and to avoid the pedantic, sanctimonious reply–although, in all honesty, I’ve gotten so little of that on this blog that I’ve come to think that a magical filter of civility vets all those who come by–let me affirm that yes, of course, I certainly would’ve made many trade-offs along the way, too. To recognize costs and losses does not mean that you always refuse to incur them, it simply means that you might incur them in something other than a naive, triumphalist spirit.

Around this time last year, an excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s then-forthcoming edited work on Karl Krauss was published in the Guardian; it was panned, frequently and forcefully, and deservedly so in some respects. But the conclusion of the essay struck me then as being on to something.

“Maybe … apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal,” Franzen wrote,

“I have a brief tenure on earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at fifty-three, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending.”

But, of course, he wasn’t. He was born in the modern world, like all of us, and this has meant change, unrelenting change. Here is where the Austrian writer Karl Kraus, whose life straddled the turn of the twentieth century, comes in: “Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse.” Perhaps. I’m tempted to quibble with this claim. The words of John Donne, “Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone,” come to mind. Yet, even if Franzen is not quite right about the historical details, I think he’s given honest voice to a common experience of modernity:

“The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that the key values have been lost and there can be no more posterity. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity. Kraus’s rage and his sense of doom and apocalypse may be the anti-thesis of the upbeat rhetoric of Progress, but like that rhetoric, they remain an unchanging modality of modernity.”

This is, perhaps, a bit melodramatic, and it is certainly not all that could be said on the matter, or all that should be said. But Franzen is telling us something about what it feels like to be alive these days. It’s true, Franzen is not the best public face for those who are marginalized and swept aside by the tides of technological change, tides which do not lift all boats, tides which may, in fact, sink a great many. But there are such people, and we do well to temper our enthusiasm long enough to enter, so far as it is possible, into their experience. In fact, precisely because we do not have a common culture to fall back on, we must work extraordinarily hard to understand one another.

Franzen is still working on the assumption that these little personal apocalypses are a generational phenomenon. I’d argue that he’s underestimated the situation. The rate of change may be such that the apocalypses are now intra-generational. It is not simply that my world is not my parents’ world; it is that my world now is not what my world was a decade ago. We are all exiles now, displaced from a world we cannot reach because it fades away just as its contours begin to materialize. This explains why, as I wrote earlier this year, nostalgia is not so much a desire for a place or a time as it is a desire for some lost version of ourselves. We are like Margaret, who in Hopkins’ poem, laments the passing of the seasons, Margaret to whom the poet’s voice says kindly, “It is Margaret you mourn for.”

Although I do believe that certain kinds of change ought to be resisted–I’d be a fool not to–none of what I’ve been trying to get at in this post is about resisting change in itself. Rather, I think all I’ve been trying to say is this: we must learn to take account of how differently we experience the changing world so that we might best help one another as we live through the change that must come. That is all.

9 thoughts on “Our Little Apocalypses

  1. Michael:

    I wish you could watch me as I read your essays because I think you’d find it humorous. I sit there reading every line and nodding approvingly to much of what you’ve written. But then the beautiful prose concludes and I find myself with a look of puzzlement on my face and with my palms pointed upward to the sky, muttering things like: “Wait, is that it?” “Finish your thought, please!” “What do you want to do about it?”

    Such was the case again today when I came to the concluding paragraph of this essay in which you say, “we must learn to take account of how differently we experience the changing world so that we might best help one another as we live through the change that must come.”

    I find that statement to be, at once, both soothingly beautiful and frustratingly open-ended. After all, I think all civilized people would agree that, normatively speaking, we should take into account how a world of constant change affects others, and we should consider ways to help others cope with technological disruptions. Practically speaking, however, I find myself wondering what this means in terms of concrete advice or a plan for action. Needless to say, I’d love to see you write more on the latter.

    For what it’s worth, in my recent journal articles and essays, I’ve suggested that some educational approaches can help people think through the consequences of technological change and perhaps even develop some coping mechanisms. For example, formal media literacy and digital citizenship efforts can help encourage ethical online behavior and promote online civility and respect both narrowly (like how to respond in specific situations) and broadly (regarding how to adjust one’s self and their families to new technological realities).

    At the same time, I’ve also suggested that resiliency and coping mechanisms typically develop in a very organic fashion, making it challenging to study and define how the process even works. The mysteries of how humans adapt will never be reduced to a simple formula; it’s different for each of us.
    I look forward to reading this new book from Michael Harris that you’ve highlighted here. It sounds like it would make a wonderful compliment to “Hamlet’s BlackBerry: A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age,” by William Powers. You may recall that one of our earliest interactions followed the release of that book when I posted a short review of it [http://techliberation.com/2010/09/06/coping-with-information-overload-thoughts-on-hamlets-blackberry-by-william-powers] and included a link to an excellent essay of yours on “Technology Sabbaths and Other Strategies for the Digitized World.” [https://thefrailestthing.com/2010/08/05/technology-sabbaths-and-other-strategies-for-keeping-our-humanity-intact]

    Rereading that old exchange made me realize that one reason we can debate these issues in such a civilized fashion (while others all too often devolve into shouting matches about them) is because we find ourselves just slightly to either side of the “glass-half-full/half-empty” line. That is, we can both see the upsides and downsides of technological change, and we both want people to put a lot more thought into how we might better cope with such change. I tend to be a bit more optimistic (probably too much so at times!) about our collective ability to make those adjustments and move on and generally find ourselves in a better place *despite what has been lost in the process.* Of course, that is not true in every case, but I would argue it is true more generally: innovation and technological change have created not just more choices of a wide range of goods and services, but it has produced more wealth and better health for society over time. It has been the primary source of our modern prosperity.

    Of course, as you say, “it is another thing altogether to have felt [the] loss” associated with technological change, and we would all be wise — especially those of us who lean in the ‘glass half-full’ direction — to consider what has been lost in the process. We’d also be wise to consider how what may have seemed to just be “someone else’s problem” in the past could be our own plight in the future, as you suggest.
    But that leads me right back to the question I started with: “What do you want to do about it?” As a philosopher of technological change, you are (rightly) focused on framing the issue and the questions to be asked. Alas, I sometimes get frustrated with the lack of specificity regarding how we might go about answering some of the very legitimate questions you are asking!

    I think when I became a parent 12 years ago, I found myself moving very quickly beyond the old philosophical questions and quickly defaulting to a more pragmatic, problem-solving mode. I started searching for practical solutions for what to do about (in no particular order): general screen time over-exposure, commercial messaging, Net porn, online bullying, excessive “selfies” (my daughter!), excessive gaming (my son!), etc., etc. Sure, I could ask profound philosophical questions about all this that would sound like they were ripped right from the pages of Plato’s “Phaedrus”! Namely, are we better off for having all these new forms of media in our life? And what has been lost in the process? While those questions still weigh heavy in the back of my mind, I’ve moved on and, with each passing year, I’ve looked more aggressively for practical solutions to each “little personal apocalypse,” to borrow your phrase. None of them are easy to deal with, but deal with them we must!! And these are just the parenting issues associated with technological change! I’m not even getting into the many other social, cultural, and economic challenges.

    But when we deal with these and other issues, I would argue we must not forget that, on net, technological innovation has provided steady improvements in human welfare over time. It is my hope that we can find ways to address the “little personal apocalypses” without creating a much bigger apocalypse — namely, the derailment of the primary engine of human improvement.

    Cheers – Adam T.

    1. Ha! Humorous indeed. I was wondering if this piece might spur a comment from you. I’m actually heading out now, so a fuller response will have to wait, but I wanted to at least let you know that I was thinking the same thing after I hit publish. What now? More later.


    2. Adam,

      I deeply appreciate the care and interest with you read the stuff I write. And I appreciate your pressing for solutions, practical wisdom, etc. I do not have any children, but what you write about how parenting has affected the way you think about these matters makes a great deal of sense. For my part, I think what you’re picking up on is a reflection of a few different factors. The first is simply a matter of time, you may have noticed that over the past couple of years, my posts have been a bit fewer and farther between. Often I’m able only to get out a few thoughts that have been kicking around my brain. It helps me to work through them enough to put them to words, but the approach leads to posts that are not as thorough as they might be and which do tend to content themselves with raising questions. Part of it also is a function of my own intellectual habits and inclinations; I’m perfectly content with a division of labor wherein some of us ask questions and others work on the solutions (although, of course, I’d like to think about answers too). So often I find that part of the problem is that many people haven’t yet raised the questions for themselves. So, formulating the questions and getting them into people’s head is, I think (rather self-servingly!), rather important. It is, for example, in an important part of the more or less organic muddling through that you’ve written about.

      All of that said, it may also be the case, at times, that there is no “solution.” Sometimes we face tragic choices, and all that we can do is mourn our loss while embracing our gains. I wonder, too, (and this will be quite undeveloped) whether our whole way of thinking about these questions is not already compromised. In other words, may be the cost/benefit analysis mode of thinking through all of these issues is part of the problem and what we need to imagine is a new way of thinking altogether. Maybe.

      In any case, when we do try to think about solutions, I’ve been thinking in terms of scale. Is it a problem that admits of a personal solution, an institutional solution, a local solution, a societal solution, or a global solution? Obviously it is a lot easier to address the issues at the front end of that list than those on the far end. Indeed, those at the far end may be so complex that even our thinking about them will be thwarted.

      More specifically, given the theme of this post, I think it would go a long way if we did not, for examples, demand that others meet us on our own media terms. I remember a NY Times tech writer a couple of years ago complaining about the voicemails his father would leave. He wouldn’t listen to them because of the time it took to do so. He was demanding his older father meet him on his media terms, with text messages for instance. One application of what I’m writing is that we should not force others to conform to our new media practices. This would be a personal level application.

      Kerry’s comment below points to an institutional level example. A couple of years ago I commented on a story about school district that used layoffs to “weed out” the teachers who were most reluctant to get on board with sweeping program designed to bring laptops to every student. As Kerry rightly suggests, education is often one of the place where new technologies are deployed, often top down, rather recklessly, often with little evidence of improved outcomes. I’d suggest that there might have been a better way to incorporate the practices and strengths of these teachers that were weeded out because they were not quick to adopt to the changes, particularly if they had strong, principled reasons for opposing the change.

      Those are just a couple of examples that come to mind. We might, as a third example that now comes to mind, also be a bit more open to hearing how others think about technology. We are too quick to dismiss those who either criticize technology we like or those who use technology we dislike.

      So much of this, too … and now I’m in full stream-of-consciousness mode … has to do with our disposition. The old Greek lessons about hubris still stand, I think. If we are supremely confident that we can always control technology and use it toward good ends without remainder, then I think we’ll be less likely to perceive potential problems and make the necessary course corrections, etc.

      All of that said, I think you’re right. We are just on just the other side of that pragmatic middle (I do remember that early exchange, by the way). I certainly don’t wan’t to belittle the gains that new technology may bring. I read just a few moments ago about a 12-year old bone cancer patient who received 3-D printed vertebrae. Remarkable. Nor do I necessarily think that regulation is always the answer. Not at all. Many of these issues do not admit of regulatory fixes in any event. And defaulting to the regulation of a technocratic state may very well be a symptom of the problem. Etc.

      As always, I appreciate your comments; they always push me to think more clearly and deeply.



    3. But Adam, then how would you propose we adapt to the speed of change accelerated by the ‘net?

      For example, you mentioned the “loss of X” and dealing with that “loss of X” because of technological change. But if we keep “losing X” … because technological change is progressing so quickly … how do we ever optimize our “use of X”?

      (e.g. our “frame of some technological view,” just as we get used to it, changes because of another advance in tech, losing the opportunity to optimize our frame)

      Change just “because ‘net is so good for society” falls a little short of effective, optimized change, doesn’t it?

  2. Margaret Mead talked about prefigurative and postfigurative cultural situations, the former referring to ‘traditional’ societies in which the knowledge and skills of the adults were those the youth needed to learn in order to adapt to their world, the latter those societies in which neighborly invasion or environmental degradation (or other rapid change) quickly invalidated the experiences of the adults, leaving the youth rudderless and thrown on their own devices. She concluded that the most valuable thing any generation can do for the next is help them learn how to learn, not what to learn. I fear we have failed to do this in our time. We who straddle the pre-digital and digital worlds have not put up much of a struggle for the enduring concepts and values of our culture, and have thrown ourselves on our devices, rudderless, along with the youth. As a university professor for over 30 years, I have watched students become disconnected from the natural world in favor of their ersatz connection with the virtual world. In the din of digital talk in which they live, they are not socially skilled or particularly close to other people. They have substituted scattered messages and images for sustained conversation and serious reading. In The Spell of the Sensuous, David Abram associates our civilization’s first disconnection from nature with the printed word, interposed between a person and all the things there are to read in the physical/spiritual world. The consequence of this further digital distancing is very evident in our ability to deny the climate change and environmental devastation all around us, or not to care. I am not against technology, though I resent being told ‘resistance is futile’; I just want us to use it wisely, in awareness of how it is changing us and whether it is good. Thank you for your work.

    1. Thanks for the comment. That distinction drawn by Mead is quite useful. Also, I’ve made a note of that book by David Abram, sounds interesting. Finally, if you’ve read some my Borg Complex posts then you’ll know that being told “resistance is futile” is something I also resent!

      Thanks for reading.

  3. Hello Michael: Once again you are threatening to derail my Saturday morning plans with a thoughtful and thought-provoking comment on issues which have been roiling around in the back of my mind and find more articulate expression in your writing. It says something about your posts that they so often engender mini-essay responses.

    I wonder many things about our new condition of constant change — does it create an inward pressure to increasingly retreat into our selves — a place which may be more manageably constant? Is this contributing to a break down in communication? Is it related to the current vogue for tattoos amongst the younger generations? I know this last suggests a wild swing into silliness on my part, but, as I have never seen a tattoo I liked, their popularity and new demographic mobility puzzles me, and I wonder if they function as reassuring markers of permanence in the current quicksand of existence. All of which I could go on about for some time about, but, in the interests of everyone else, won’t.

    What I did want to mention is another idea I have had, which arose from very particular and practical interaction with changing technology. As a teacher, I have, for the last ten years, had to adapt to a never ending parade of new technology — at least one new program, system, or new piece of hardware a year, if not a semester. Occasionally, as a result of some department hopping, I have managed to miss a new technology altogether — it having flashed in and out of vogue in my absence. Each has been a powerful and to a greater or lesser extent, useful tool whose potential may have been intuited, but never plumbed — basic competence being all that could be hoped for in the time allotted for its ascendance. I am often plagued and frustrated by new, creative ideas which occur to me, but in terms of the no-longer-available technology, and which can never be realized because even the current technology will have changed before I can master it to the depth required for the project. Constantly occupied with adaptation, I can never truly USE the technology — i.e. experience/comprehend/plumb it and then bend it to my own imaginative, creative ends. Might it be the same with life? Might one important thing that is lost be the permanence required for a deep, comprehensive relationship with one’s own times, and the ability to then creatively and imaginatively mine the potential of one’s particular time and place? Could this be what the younger generation, constantly skimming life’s surfaces, a-surf on the wave of technological change, constantly adapting, is missing? (I don’t mean this to be dismissive, as if they have a choice and choose to be vapid. I, in my work, have no choice but I do have a knowledge of something different.) I have a vague sense that this more profound experience and comprehension of one’s own times, and, therefore, the ability to shape a more profound response, to situate oneself more distinctly, certainly and creatively (which speaks, of course, to identity and voice) may be a key ingredient in the nostalgia of those old enough to feel it, and the general malaise haunting our society at present.


    1. Kerry,

      I hope your Saturday morning got quickly back on the rails! I’ve been weaving replies to the comments on this posts through my Saturday afternoon.

      In short, I think you are definitely on to something. The illustration you use is quite apropos. It very practically illustrates what I was trying to get at when I wrote that we can never quite be at home because the world begins to fade away just as it was finally coming into focus … always adapting, never using, much less being. The skimming way of being (I’m echoing some poet’s line there, but I can’t remember which, only the syntax comes to mind) leaves us out of sync, detached, alienated, etc. Just so.

      A lot of talk about education seems now to focus on teaching students to skim/surf successfully. Maybe that’s an important skill, but increasingly I’m focusing on teaching students how to dive deep, trying to give them an opportunity to slow down, reflect, etc. Extending that beyond the classroom to the rest of life might be the crucial skill to be learned.

      Thanks as always for taking the time to post your thoughts!


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