June 11, 2011


The Room and the Elephant (Sven Birkerts, 6/07/11, LA Review of Books)

In the world according to 2.0, these are deemed to be some of the big changes of our moment. Expertise, authorship, individual creativity: out. Team collaborations, Wikipedia: in. Inevitably: “Knowledge is growing more broadly and immediately participatory and collaborative by the moment.”

And now I come to it, without as much of a drum roll as I’d hoped, the last word, the formulation that penetrated my stimulus screen. Bob Stein gets the last important words, but what an epigram they make. Simply: “The sadness of our age is characterized by the shackles of individualism.”

I leave a space here — a moment in which to re-read and ponder those words.


It may seem odd that I’ve spent so much time summarizing and quoting from a web-posted pro-Wikipedia polemic, but this piece struck me, got down under my skin more irritatingly than most, and I needed to understand why. I think I do now. Here, in one place, I find not only a number of the issues I have been worrying for some time, but also, as I’ve suggested, some of the attitudes and assumptions that inform the situation, compose the climate in which the transformations are taking place. This “climate” has been the hardest thing to isolate for reflection, for it is a totality, an environment, a cultural Zeitgeist. I have tagged it for myself with a re-phrasing of the outworn idiom. “What if the elephant in the room,” I ask, “is the room itself?” Reading Bustillos’ article was the closest I’ve come to identifying that vast intangible for myself. It was there, as much in her definitional jockeying, her style of differentiating between worldviews, as in the thematic implication of the ideas themselves. Reading it, I thought: here are the pieces I need.

“Wikipedia and the Death of the Expert.” The title is as good a place to begin as any other. I note the immediate polarization of concepts — Wikipedia and expert — and the arresting announcement of the death of the latter. And though Bustillos does not establish causality — she has not called it “How Wikipedia killed the expert” — some of that implication inevitably attaches. “The king died and then the queen died is a story,” wrote E.M. Forster in his well-known distinction between a story and a plot. “The king died, and then the queen died of grief is a plot.” What Bustillos’ title offers as a story, is, for me, a plot. A causal narrative. Whatever term we decide on, it is a serious matter, one that fills me with some of the queen’s grief.

Let me address the main business straight on. Big as the Wikipedia question is — the question of the collaborative production of information — there are deeper issues still, issues for which Wikipedia versus Britannica, Bustillos’ comparative point of departure, is only the outer sign. And indeed, Wikipedia versus Britannica is not really even a viable polarization. After all, both are, though in clearly differing ways, collectivized enterprises looking to deliver accessible expertise to users. Bustillos’ real agenda, which she gets at by way of issues of said expertise and of collaboration, is to lay out two diametrically opposed conceptions of the human and then, in effect, to cast her vote. Here we have the split, the road-fork issuing in two paths that would with every step take the pilgrim on one further from his counterpart on the other. There is no eventual convergence. The one is the path — the ideal — of the individualized self, the other is the path of the socially and neurally collectivized self, along which, at some undetermined point, the idea of “self” itself must blur away, become a term no longer applicable.

There have been various iterations of this latter idea, starting perhaps with theologian Teillard de Chardin’s spiritualized imagining that there will one day exist what he called a noosphere, a kind of rapture belt of merged human identity girdling the planet. Then there was Forster’s prescient depiction, in his story “The Machine Stops,” of a world of beings living in isolated cells, interconnected by a communications network that is uncannily like the Internet. And, much more recently, we have media theorist Kevin Kelly’s variously expressed ideas about the “hive,” a world in which the electronic connections between people have fused to become a quasi-nervous system, bringing about a kind of cognitive collectivism. It was Kelly, too, who has been most vigorous in advancing the idea of the universalized book: all the world’s texts and data scanned into one vast keyword-searchable database.

Kelly was most certainly the thinker Lanier had in mind when he spoke out against the dangers of the hive mentality. As he put it in “Digital Maoism”: “the hive mind is for the most part stupid and boring.” And: “The beauty of the Internet is that it connects people. The value is in the other people. If we start to believe that the Internet is itself an entity that has something to say, we’re devaluing those people and making ourselves into idiots.” Kant this is not, granted, but Bustillos exhibits nothing but sneering contempt for the expression, responding: “I guess if we started to believe that the Internet itself were writing Wikipedia we would be in some trouble, or maybe we would be Rod Serling, I don’t know.”


Electronic collectivism has very quickly gone from being a sci-fi imagining to being a plausible scenario that more and more people, at least those active in the computer-culture, would endorse for us all. It will be objected that the ambitions of the cyber-sector don’t have that much to do with the life of the culture at large. But one could similarly say that the decisions made by a few thousand members of the investment banking community don’t affect us either. In fact, there is a connection between the ideas held by that minority and the lives that the rest of us live. The connection is technology, and McLuhan framed it early on:

It is not only our material environment that is transformed by our machinery. We take our technology into the deepest recesses of our souls. Our view of reality, our structures of meaning, our sense of identity — all are touched and transformed by the technologies which we have allowed to mediate between ourselves and the world. We create machines in our own image and they, in turn, recreate us in theirs.

The sage of Toronto, quoted by Bustillos, encapsulates a great deal here, and it is exactly to the point. The cyber-sector, numerically a minority, could be said in important ways to have a majority voting interest so far as the development, promotion and implementation of technology goes. These are the engineers and marketers behind the enormously influential I-technologies, all of the daily-more-sophisticated screen devices that have come to seem indispensable to people the world over — from cell phones to tablets to reading devices of all descriptions. Backed by huge corporate interests, marketed through the global media, these interactive devices (and their consumer images) exert massive collective — and collectivizing — effects, and for the very reasons McLuhan hypothesized. We use them in prescribed ways and they determine not just our obvious external reflexes, our ways of doing business, but they also seep into our deeper selves, what McLuhan quite surprisingly calls our “souls.” And in this way, without even officially signing on to hive-oriented behavior and thinking, we begin to manifest it.

The point is that these technologies are not used in instrumentally isolated ways. Rather, they create a community of users and a complexly self-reinforcing culture of expectations. This culture, this environment — how well we know it — becomes ever more difficult to step away from; and it has various socially coercive implications.

We live in the midst of a set of processes that have, over the past several thousand years, universalized the God of Abraham, the English language, democracy, capitalism, protestantism, etc., and of which the Internet is just the latest instrumentality. But, we all want the moment in which we live to be profoundly unique so we inflate its importance beyond what it will bear.

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Posted by at June 11, 2011 7:41 AM

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