Listening To Those At The Hinges

A passing thought this evening: we should be attentive to the experience and testimony of those whose lives turn out to be the hinges on which one era closes and another opens.

There are several ways to parse that, of course, as many as there are ways of understanding what amounts to a new era. We might, for example, speak of it from any number of perspectives:  a new political era, a new economic era, a new artistic era, etc.

I’m thinking chiefly of new technological eras, of course.

And obviously, I’m thinking of a significant transitions, those whose ramifications spill out into various domains of our personal and social lives. One might think of the transitions marked by the advent of printing, electric power grids, or the automobile.

In cases drawn from the more distant past—printing, for instance, or even the development of writing—it may be harder to pinpoint a hinge generation because the changes played out at a relatively slow place. The closer we get to our present time, though, it would seem that transitions unfold more rapidly:  within a lifetime rather than across lifetimes.

The most obvious case in point, one that many of us are able to speak of from personal experience, is the transition from the world before the commercial internet to the world after. I’m among those old enough to have a living memory of the world before the internet; AOL came to my home as I approached twenty years of age. Perhaps you are as well, or perhaps you have no memory of a world in which the internet was not a pervasive fact of life.

I suspect the development of the smartphone is also similarly consequential. There are more of us, of course, who remember the world before smartphones became more or less ubiquitous in the developed world, but already there are those entering adulthood for whom that is not the case.

I was reminded of a couple of paragraphs from Michael Heim’s 1984 book on the meaning of word processing technology. Responding to those who might wonder whether it was too soon to take stock of a then-nascent technology, Heim writes,

“Yet it is precisely this point in time that causes us to become philosophical. For it is at the moment of such transitions that the past becomes clear as a past, as obsolescent, and the future becomes clear as destiny, a challenge of the unknown. A philosophical study of digital writing made five or ten years from now would be better than one written now in the sense of being more comprehensive, more fully certain in its grasp of the new writing. At the same time, however, the felt contrast with the older writing technology would have become faded by the gradually increasing distance from typewritten and mechanical writing. Like our involvement with the automobile, that with processing texts will grow in transparency—until it becomes a condition of our daily life, taken for granted.

But what is granted to us in each epoch was at one time a beginning, a start, a change that was startling. Though the conditions of daily living do become transparent, they still draw upon our energies and upon the time of our lives; they soon become necessary conditions and come to structure our lives. It is incumbent on us then to grow philosophical while we can still be startled, for philosophy, if Aristotle can be trusted, begins in wonder, and, as Heraclitus suggests, ‘One should not act or speak as if asleep.’”

I’m thinking about this just now after taking a look at Christopher Mims’s piece this morning in the Wall Street Journal, “Generation Z’s 7 Lessons for Surviving in Our Tech-Obsessed World.” Lesson six, for example, reads, “Gen Z thinks concerns about screens are overblown.”

My point is not so much that this is wrong, although I tend to think that it is, my point is that this isn’t really a lesson so much as it is the testimony of some people’s experience. As such it is fine, but it also happens to be the testimony of people who may not exactly have at least one relevant, if not critical, point of comparison. To put the matter more pointedly, the rejoinder that flits into my mind is simply this: What do they know?

That’s not entirely fair, of course. They know some things I don’t, I’m sure. But how do we form judgements when we can’t quite imagine the world otherwise? It is more than that, though. I suppose with enough information and a measure of empathy, one can begin to imagine a wold that is no longer the case. But you can’t quite feel it in the way that those with a living memory of the experience of being alive before the world turned over can.

If we care to understand the meaning of change, we should heed the testimony of those on whose lives the times have hinged. Their perspective and the kind of knowledge they carry, difficult to articulate as it may be, is unique and valuable.

As I have typed this post out, I had that sense that I’ve tread this ground before, and, indeed, I have written along very similar lines a few years back. If it is all the same with you, dear reader, I’m going to close with what I wrote then. I’m not sure that I could improve very much on it now. What follows draws on an essay by Jonathan Franzen. I know how we are all supposed to feel about Franzen, but just let that go for a moment. He was more right than wrong, I think, when he wrote, reflecting on the work of Karl Krauss, that “As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity,” what he called our “personal apocalypses.”

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.

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