“To be sane in a mad time
is bad for the brain, or worse
for the heart.”
— Wendell Berry, “The Mad Farmer Manifesto: The First Amendment”
I’ve been reading a fair amount about the meaning and significance of place over the last several weeks, and in the course of that reading I encountered an observation made almost in passing by the renowned Chinese-American geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan. “In the past,” Tuan wrote, “news that reached me from afar was old news. Now, with instantaneous transmission, all news is contemporary. I live in the present, surrounded by present time, whereas not so long ago, the present where I am was an island surrounded by the pasts that deepened with distance.”
I find historical observations of this sort instructive. They need not be profound, and, upon reflection, they tend to have an “of course that was the case” quality to them. But, that said, they are not, in fact, the kind of thing we routinely think about. The value of such observations lies in the striking point of contrast they offer to our situation, which then allows us to perceive more clearly an aspect of our experience that is so thoroughly ordinary we are tempted to think that this is just the way things have always been and, hence, must always be. Until, that is, a simple observation suddenly reveals the historical contingency of our situation and, consequently, affords us the simultaneously obvious but potentially revolutionary realization that things could be otherwise.
In this case, Tuan reminds us that until relatively recently, roughly the middle of the nineteenth century, the speed at which news or information could reach us was meaningfully correlated to place—the greater the distance the longer it took for news to get to you. News from afar, like light from distant stars, was always from the past.
The results of this correlation could be unfortunate, of course—recall, for instance, the Battle of New Orleans, which was fought nearly three weeks after the War of 1812 was formally concluded. But, at the same time, place and distance acted as filters of sorts on reality, concentrating a person’s attention, by default as it were, upon the world before them, which may now strike us as a feature rather than a bug. In a recent conversation with a student about Tuan’s observation, she put it this way: place, and by implication distance, regulated our information intake. It was likely that we would know most, and first, about what was nearest (and likely dearest) to us.
The contrast with our situation could hardly be more pronounced, of course. Not too long ago, for example, regardless of where you were in the world, if you happened to be on Twitter at the right time, you would have seen several videos of a massive explosion in Beirut mere minutes after it happened, followed, of course, by wildly speculative real-time commentary about its causes and consequences. This is but one relatively vivid and memorable example out of the innumerable cases we encounter daily.
Our present digital deluge of indiscriminately instantaneous information is not altogether without precedent. It lies rather on a trajectory that has already taken us through the age of electronic media. In the mid-1980s, for example, Joshua Meyrowitz noted a familiar pattern. “Nineteenth century life,” Meyrowitz observed in No Sense of Place,
entailed many isolated situations and sustained many isolated behaviors and attitudes. The current merging of situations does not give us a sum of what we had before, but rather new, synthesized behaviors that are qualitatively different. If we celebrate our child’s wedding in an isolated situation where it is the sole ‘experience’ of the day, then our joy may be unbounded. But when, on our way to the wedding, we hear over the car radio of a devastating earthquake, or the death of a popular entertainer, or the assassination of a political figure, we not only lose our ability to rejoice fully, but also our ability to mourn deeply.
The kind of incident Meyrowitz described is, of course, no longer limited to moments when we have access to broadcast media like radio or television. Upon reading this paragraph I naturally thought about the emotional roulette we play each time we glance at our social media feeds, which are always with us. You never quite know what news you’ll encounter and how it will mess with you for the rest of the day. As a recent song I rather like puts it, “Turning on my phone was the first mistake I made.”
In other words, ubiquitous connectivity means that we experience very few “isolated situations,” in Meyrowitz’s sense, and that we inhabit a psychic realm of perpetual affective dissonance and discord, buffeted by unrelenting crosswinds of data and information.
It’s a small quibble, but I’m not sure the word isolated is the word I’d use here. We tend to think of isolation as a generally negative experience giving the word a pejorative connotation. I’d prefer to speak about the integrity of a situation, how it holds together as a distinct experience. What Meyrowitz is describing, and what digital media accentuates, is the loss of situational integrity entailed by the varieties of tele-presence enabled by digital technology. The boundaries of my situation are always fuzzy and permeable. My here is always saturated by countless elsewheres. Place fails to bound my now.
And it is not only a matter, as in his example, of experiencing the full and singular emotional depth of an occasion. To take another instance of the same pattern, it is also true, as has been frequently noted, that the boundaries between work and rest have likewise blurred so that we tend to do neither well, assuming we enjoy the sort of work which can and ought to be done well.
Meyrowitz premised his analysis of electronic media on a fusion of the frameworks provided by Marshall McLuhan and sociologist Erving Goffman, who theorized human identity as a function of the roles we play in a variety of front stage and back stage settings. But Goffman assumed these settings would be bounded in place with relatively clear and concrete boundaries, the door separating the seating area of a restaurant and the kitchen, for example. We knew where we were and thus how to be. McLuhan’s work taught Meyrowitz that electronic media dissolved boundaries of that sort, generating a measure of disorientation with regards to where and when we are, which in turn throws our sense of who we are and how we ought to be into a bit of confusion.
“The electronic combination of many different styles of interaction from distinct regions,” Meyrowitz concluded, “leads to new ‘middle region’ behaviors that, while containing elements of formerly distinct roles, are themselves new behavior patterns with new expectations and emotions.” It would seem that this middle region, as Meyrowitz puts it, is now more or less where we live, to the degree we adopt the default settings of our techno-cultural moment. Consequently, we are all, with mixed results, improvising and navigating our way through it.
But let’s come back to the idea that place and distance, which is another way of saying the parameters of experience drawn by the body, regulated our information economy with regards to the quantity of information we encountered and its quality. By quality I mean not only whether the information was good information, which is to say accurate or truthful, but also relevant, important, pertinent, or personally valuable. Whatever the relative merits of such a situation or whatever ills of provincialism it may imply, what strikes me is the degree to which such filters were simply given. We might think of them as default settings about which we would have been largely unreflective. We, on the other hand, bear the epistemic and affective burdens of information superabundance regardless of whether we deem information superabundance itself to be a blessing or a curse. Either way, we have to grapple with its personal and social consequences.
The burdens I have in view, of course, are those we now routinely associate with filtering and managing flows of information—a task which invites the constant deployment of new tools and techniques, which, in turn, often have counter-productive effects. Clearly, these are not altogether novel burdens, we may find complaints about the sort of thing we think of as “information overload” in connection with printing, but they are hardly getting easier to bear. And these burdens are not merely cognitive. They are affective as well. Tending to our information ecosystem, if we attempt it at all, requires a striking degree of vigilance and discipline. And as we noted at the outset, there is no given balance between place and speed, no natural context of relative meaningfulness to regulate the pace and quality of information for us. It’s on us to do so, daily, often minute by minute. We exist in a state of continuous and conscious attention triage, which can be exhausting, disorienting, and demoralizing.
Doomscrolling is one symptom of the general condition, but the habit predates 2020. It’s what happens when we give ourselves over to the flood of information and allow it to wash over us. Whatever else one may say about doomscrolling, it seems useful to think of it as structurally induced acedia, the sleepless demon unleashed by the upward swipe of the infinite scroll (or the pulldown refresh, if you prefer). Acedia is the medieval term for the vice of listlessness, apathy, and a general incapacity to do what one ought to do; ennui is sometimes thought of as a modern variant. As we scroll, we’re flooded with information and, about the vast majority of it, we can do nothing … except to keep scrolling and posting reaction gifs. So we do, and we get sucked into a paralyzing loop that generates a sense of helplessness and despair.
To further clarify our situation, consider W. H. Auden’s discussion, which I’ve cited before, of the idea that, as he put it, “the right to know is absolute and unlimited.” “We are quite prepared,” Auden wrote,
“to admit that, while food and sex are good in themselves, an uncontrolled pursuit of either is not, but it is difficult for us to believe that intellectual curiosity is a desire like any other, and to recognize that correct knowledge and truth are not identical. To apply a categorical imperative to knowing, so that, instead of asking, 'What can I know?' we ask, 'What, at this moment, am I meant to know?' — to entertain the possibility that the only knowledge which can be true for us is the knowledge that we can live up to — that seems to all of us crazy and almost immoral.”
Before the advent of electronic media, the limits associated with being a body in place made it more likely that the knowledge we encountered was also knowledge that we could live up to, in the sense that Auden is commending here. In a digital media environment, it is not simply the case that we might be tempted to deliberately, in some Faustian sense, search out knowledge we cannot live up to, we are, in fact, overwhelmed by such knowledge. The idea of knowledge I can live up to implies a capacity to discern a meaningful correlation among the knowledge in question, my situation, my abilities, and my responsibilities, but this is capacity is precisely what is overwhelmed in our media ecosystem. Hence the ensuing state acedia.
We have ordinarily thought of the dynamics I’ve been discussing under the rubric of information overload, but I think it’s worth pursuing a slightly different line of thought. To think in terms of information overload is already to think in terms of the human being as an information processing machine. I’d prefer to start with the recognition that whatever else we may be, we are bodies, and that the conditions of our embodiment present us with a set of limits we may choose to either respect or ignore. Relatedly, I’ve been contemplating a thesis of late: that the body has been the root of all human understanding, but that this has been changing. So the real challenge we face is that of inhabiting a human-built world wherein the body can no longer ground understanding and may even be experienced as a liability. I suspect there will be more along these lines in future installments. Stay tuned.
News and Resources
More from Frank Pasquale this time around. This one is an interview at Commonweal titled “What Robots Can’t Do.” I was especially heartened by reading this line: “There is a fundamental equality among them, a common dignity grounded in our common fragility.” In context, Pasquale is discussing the difference between having a human teacher and a robot “teacher,” but the idea of grounding a common dignity in our common fragility resonated with me.
Timely reading from Geoff Shullenberger, “Put Not Thy Trust in Nate Silver,” a review of Jill Lepore’s new book, If Then: How the Simulmatics Corporation Invented the Future, which might be summed up as #JeanBaudrillardWasRight:
”When reality and a model of that reality appear to be mismatched, in other words, we may discard the model, or we may discard reality. Baudrillard argues that we have collectively discarded reality. The cultural logic of simulation has altered the epistemic framework that determines what is real, leaving us with the hyperreal where the real once was.”
Back in July, Aaron Lewis wrote a widely-read essay on memory and our sense of time in the digital age, “The Garden of Forking Memes.” Regrettably, I’ve just recently gotten around to reading it because I kept waiting for a chunk of time to be able to sit with it for awhile, which, as you all know, isn’t always forthcoming these days. In any case, it’s an insightful piece and you should read it. As you may have noticed, any effort to understand our situation which focuses on how we remember (or don’t) will always get my attention:
“If, as Marx once wrote, the grievances of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living, the “perfect memory” of digital media has made this burden all the more weighty. Creating a stable political arrangement atop technologies of total recall will be a tall task. Our systems of governance were built for a world of extreme information asymmetry. Educated elites controlled the flow of information and kept old ghosts at bay. Now, the floodgates have been opened, and the Big Mood is one of temporal confusion and disorientation — we no longer feel like we’re marching steadily forward from the past into the future. There’s a massive subreddit devoted to documenting “glitches in the Matrix”; a new science of Progress Studies that’s trying to cure our End-of-History malaise; a whole entire subculture of Doomers who don’t believe there will be such a thing as history in the future.”
Kelly Pendergrast in Real Life on the temptations of anthropomorphized robots, “robot’s friendliness or cuteness is something of a Trojan horse—an appealing exterior that convinces us to open the castle gates, while a phalanx of other extractive or coercive functions hides inside.” More:
“The robot is not conscious, and does not preexist its creation as a tool (the zombie was never a friend). The robot we encounter today is a machine. Its anthropomorphic qualities are a wrapper placed around it in order to guide our behavior towards it, or to enable it to interact with the human world. Any sense that the robot could be a dehumanized other is based on a speculative understanding of not-yet-extant general artificial intelligence, and unlike Elon I prefer to base my ethics on current material conditions.”
In England, citizens have created hedgehog “highways” through enclosed properties in an effort to boost the declining hedgehog population:
”The highway is an eccentric delight – stone steps, hedgehog cutouts and little signs like ‘Church’ for any hedgehog that can read. The ramp at Peter Kyte and Zoe Johnson’s house is 85cm tall and believed to be one of the biggest in the country. Last year the couple put out their night camera and captured visits most nights. ‘One or two of them are quite tubby and got stuck at the bottom,’ says Peter. One video of a hedgehog using their ramp has been viewed 33,000 times.”
Sociologist Zeynep Tufecki recently launched a newsletter. I used to think that I got in on the newsletter thing a bit late; lately, it’s starting to feel like I actually got in early. In any case, Tufekci is a consistently sane, clear, and insightful writer. On the pandemic, she has been indispensable. I’d recommend subscribing if you’ve not done so already.
On human illumination as a source of pollution:
“Artificial light should be treated like other forms of pollution because its impact on the natural world has widened to the point of systemic disruption, research says …
”In all the animal species examined, they found reduced levels of melatonin – a hormone that regulates sleep cycles – as a result of artificial light at night. [Narrator: we humans, too, are an animal species.]
“At the heart of this is a deep-rooted human need to light up the night. We are still in a sense afraid of the dark,” he said. “The ability to turn the night-time into something like the daytime is something we have pursued far beyond the necessity of doing so.”
— From Ivan Illich’s “The Rebirth of Epimethean Man,” the essay which closes Deschooling Society:
To the primitive the world was governed by fate, fact, and necessity. By stealing fire from the gods, Prometheus turned facts into problems, called necessity into question, and defied fate. Classical man framed a civilized context for human perspective. He was aware that he could defy fate-nature-environment, but only at his own risk. Contemporary man goes further; he attempts to create the world in his image, to build a totally man-made environment, and then discovers that he can do so only on the condition of constantly remaking himself to fit it. We now must face the fact that man himself is at stake.
— This is C. S. Lewis writing in a letter to a friend dating from the middle of the last century. Naturally, I’ll leave it to each of you to navigate the religious element, but I think the general principle is widely applicable:
“It is one of the evils of rapid diffusion of news that the sorrows of all the world come to us every morning. I think each village was meant to feel pity for its own sick and poor whom it can help and I doubt if it is the duty of any private person to fix his mind on ills which he cannot help. (This may even become an escape from the works of charity we really can do to those we know).
A great many people do now seem to think that the mere state of being worried is in itself meritorious. I don't think it is. We must, if it so happens, give our lives for others: but even while we're doing it, I think we're meant to enjoy Our Lord and, in Him, our friends, our food, our sleep, our jokes, and the birds song and the frosty sunrise.
As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there's usually light enough for the next step or so.”
“As about the distant, so about the future. It is very dark: but there’s usually light enough for the next step or two.” I thought that line worth repeating, and, indeed, may it be so for all of us.
I’ve got the next installment, or possibly a dispatch, in the draft folder, so the pace might be picking up a bit around here this month.
As always, feel free to reach out via email. I can be a bit slow to reply depending on when the email catches me, but I very much appreciate hearing from you all. And, as always, please do consider passing this newsletter along to anyone you think might find it useful.