In an essay in The American Interest, Sven Birkerts offers a thoughtful survey of some recent writings on the internet and culture, including John Palfrey and Urs Gasser’s Born Digital, Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget, my own The Shallows, and a Clay Shirky post celebrating the post-literary mind.
Here’s a maxisnippet:
Modern but Pre-Digital Man was different in untold ways from his counterpart in the Athenian agora. Millennia of history had altered his psychological structure, mentality and even his neural reflexes. What Lanier raises but then ducks is the inevitable question: If change and adaptation have been a constant all along, whence this sudden urgency about a changing “us”? Why not see the digital revolution as just the latest wave of technology, no less a boon than steam power or electricity and hardly an occasion for a top-to-bottom reconsideration of all things human?
If Lanier sidesteps the question, we may at least thank him for raising it. Change may be constant, but the gradations are hugely variable, with degree at some point shading into kind. Consider that the transformations of the human to date have all been dictated by social shifts, inventions and responses to various natural givens: modifications of circumstance, in short. We have adapted over these long millennia to the organization of agriculture, the standardization of time, the growth of cities, the harnessing of electricity, the arrival of the automobile and airplane and mass-scale birth control, to name just a few developments. But the cyber-revolution is bringing about a different magnitude of change, one that marks a massive discontinuity. Indeed, the aforementioned Pre-Digital Man has more in common with his counterpart in the agora than he will with a Digital Native of the year 2050. By this I refer not to cultural or social references but to core phenomenological understandings. I mean perceptions of the most fundamental terms of reality: the natural givens, the pre-virtual presence of fellow humans, the premises of social relationships.