At the Concord station (for Leo Marx)

Leo Marx has died, at the mighty age of 102. His work, particularly The Machine in the Garden, inspired many people who write on the cultural consequences of technological progress, myself included. As a small tribute, I’m posting this excerpt from The Shallows, in which Marx’s influence is obvious.

It was a warm summer morning in Concord, Massachusetts. The year was 1844. Nathaniel Hawthorne was sitting in a small clearing in the woods, a particularly peaceful spot known around town as Sleepy Hollow. Deep in concentration, he was attending to every passing impression, turning himself into what Ralph Waldo Emerson, the leader of Concord’s transcendentalist movement, had eight years earlier termed a “transparent eyeball.”

Hawthorne saw, as he would record in his notebook later that day, how “sunshine glimmers through shadow, and shadow effaces sunshine, imaging that pleasant mood of mind where gayety and pensiveness intermingle.” He felt a slight breeze, “the gentlest sigh imaginable, yet with a spiritual potency, insomuch that it seems to penetrate, with its mild, ethereal coolness, through the outward clay, and breathe upon the spirit itself, which shivers with gentle delight.” He smelled on the breeze a hint of “the fragrance of the white pines.” He heard “the striking of the village clock” and “at a distance mowers whetting their scythes,” though “these sounds of labor, when at a proper remoteness, do but increase the quiet of one who lies at his ease, all in a mist of his own musings.”

Abruptly, his reverie was broken:

But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive,—the long shriek, harsh above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village,—men of business,—in short, of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.

Leo Marx opens The Machine in the Garden, his classic 1964 study of technology’s influence on American culture, with a recounting of Hawthorne’s morning in Sleepy Hollow. The writer’s real subject, Marx argues, is “the landscape of the psyche” and in particular “the contrast between two conditions of consciousness.” The quiet clearing in the woods provides the solitary thinker with “a singular insulation from disturbance,” a protected space for reflection. The clamorous arrival of the train, with its load of “busy men,” brings “the psychic dissonance associated with the onset of industrialism.” The contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness.

The stress that Google and other Internet companies place on the efficiency of information exchange as the key to intellectual progress is nothing new. It’s been, at least since the start of the Industrial Revolution, a common theme in the history of the mind. It provides a strong and continuing counterpoint to the very different view, promulgated by the American transcendentalists as well as the earlier English romantics, that true enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection. The tension between the two perspectives is one manifestation of the broader conflict between, in Marx’s terms, “the machine” and “the garden”—the industrial ideal and the pastoral ideal—that has played such an important role in shaping modern society.

When carried into the realm of the intellect, the industrial ideal of efficiency poses, as Hawthorne understood, a potentially mortal threat to the pastoral ideal of contemplative thought. That doesn’t mean that promoting the rapid discovery and retrieval of information is bad. The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in what Google calls the “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion.

Even as the printing press, invented by Johannes Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, made the literary mind the general mind, it set in motion the process that now threatens to render the literary mind obsolete. When books and periodicals began to flood the marketplace, people for the first time felt overwhelmed by information. Robert Burton, in his 1628 masterwork An Anatomy of Melancholy, described the “vast chaos and confusion of books” that confronted the seventeenth-century reader: “We are oppressed with them, our eyes ache with reading, our fingers with turning.” A few years earlier, in 1600, another English writer, Barnaby Rich, had complained, “One of the great diseases of this age is the multitude of books that doth so overcharge the world that it is not able to digest the abundance of idle matter that is every day hatched and brought into the world.”

Ever since, we have been seeking, with mounting urgency, new ways to bring order to the confusion of information we face every day. For centuries, the methods of personal information management tended to be simple, manual, and idiosyncratic—filing and shelving routines, alphabetization, annotation, notes and lists, catalogues and concordances, indexes, rules of thumb. There were also the more elaborate, but still largely manual, institutional mechanisms for sorting and storing information found in libraries, universities, and commercial and governmental bureaucracies. During the twentieth century, as the information flood swelled and data-processing technologies advanced, the methods and tools for both personal and institutional information management became more complex, more systematic, and increasingly automated. We began to look to the very machines that exacerbated information overload for ways to alleviate the problem.

Vannevar Bush sounded the keynote for our modern approach to managing information in his much-discussed article “As We May Think,” which appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in 1945. Bush, an electrical engineer who had served as Franklin Roosevelt’s science adviser during World War II, worried that progress was being held back by scientists’ inability to keep abreast of information relevant to their work. The publication of new material, he wrote, “has been extended far beyond our present ability to make use of the record. The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

But a technological solution to the problem of information overload was, Bush argued, on the horizon: “The world has arrived at an age of cheap complex devices of great reliability; and something is bound to come of it.” He proposed a new kind of personal cataloguing machine, called a memex, that would be useful not only to scientists but to anyone employing “logical processes of thought.” Incorporated into a desk, the memex, Bush wrote, “is a device in which an individual stores [in compressed form] all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility.” On top of the desk are “translucent screens” onto which are projected images of the stored materials as well as “a keyboard” and “sets of buttons and levers” to navigate the database. The “essential feature” of the machine is its use of “associative indexing” to link different pieces of information: “Any item may be caused at will to select immediately and automatically another.” This process “of tying two things together is,” Bush emphasized, “the important thing.”

With his memex, Bush anticipated both the personal computer and the hypermedia system of the internet. His article inspired many of the original developers of PC hardware and software, including such early devotees of hypertext as the famed computer engineer Douglas Englebart and HyperCard’s inventor, Bill Atkinson. But even though Bush’s vision has been fulfilled to an extent beyond anything he could have imagined in his own lifetime—we are surrounded by the memex’s offspring—the problem he set out to solve, information overload, has not abated. In fact, it’s worse than ever. As David Levy has observed, “The development of personal digital information systems and global hypertext seems not to have solved the problem Bush identified but exacerbated it.”

In retrospect, the reason for the failure seems obvious. By dramatically reducing the cost of creating, storing, and sharing information, computer networks have placed far more information within our reach than we ever had access to before. And the powerful tools for discovering, filtering, and distributing information developed by companies like Google ensure that we are forever inundated by information of immediate interest to us—and in quantities well beyond what our brains can handle. As the technologies for data processing improve, as our tools for searching and filtering become more precise, the flood of relevant information only intensifies. More of what is of interest to us becomes visible to us. Information overload has become a permanent affliction, and our attempts to cure it just make it worse. The only way to cope is to increase our scanning and our skimming, to rely even more heavily on the wonderfully responsive machines that are the source of the problem. Today, more information is “available to us than ever before,” writes Levy, “but there is less time to make use of it—and specifically to make use of it with any depth of reflection.” Tomorrow, the situation will be worse still.

It was once understood that the most effective filter of human thought is time. “The best rule of reading will be a method from nature, and not a mechanical one,” wrote Emerson in his 1858 essay “Books.” All writers must submit “their performance to the wise ear of Time, who sits and weighs, and ten years hence out of a million of pages reprints one. Again, it is judged, it is winnowed by all the winds of opinion, and what terrific selection has not passed on it, before it can be reprinted after twenty years, and reprinted after a century!” We no longer have the patience to await time’s slow and scrupulous winnowing. Inundated at every moment by information of immediate interest, we have little choice but to resort to automated filters, which grant their privilege, instantaneously, to the new and the popular. On the net, the winds of opinion have become a whirlwind.

Once the train had disgorged its cargo of busy men and steamed out of the Concord station, Hawthorne tried, with little success, to return to his deep state of concentration. He glimpsed an anthill at his feet and, “like a malevolent genius,” tossed a few grains of sand onto it, blocking the entrance. He watched “one of the inhabitants,” returning from “some public or private business,” struggle to figure out what had become of his home: “What surprise, what hurry, what confusion of mind, are expressed in his movement! How inexplicable to him must be the agency which has effected this mischief!” But Hawthorne was soon distracted from the travails of the ant. Noticing a change in the flickering pattern of shade and sun, he looked up at the clouds “scattered about the sky” and discerned in their shifting forms “the shattered ruins of a dreamer’s Utopia.”