Learning to read all over again in the digital age.
The Sven Birkerts of Changing the Subject, a collection of sixteen essays, is himself remarkably unchanging. Okay, so he’s changed a little bit: Birkerts confesses that he now totes a cell phone (although he is suspicious of GPS), uses e-mail daily (but he tires of it quickly), and has even joined Twitter (where he posts pictures of flora and quotes Walker Percy and John Milton). But his perspective is the same loosely McLuhanite one on offer in his 1994 book of lamentations, The Gutenberg Elegies: Media are environments that transform us, rather than instruments under our full and easy dominion.
Maybe it is better to say that Birkerts is a poster child for the conservation program for the old habits of attention his book promotes. In the Elegies, he prophesied a host of changes to human subjectivity that would result from the advent of new media. Changing the Subject, as its title suggests, is an exercise in stocktaking, personal and collective, on the other side of the epochal shift he detected two decades ago. Here’s an exemplary gobbet from the opening essay, “On or About” (alluding to Virginia Woolf’s famous argument that “on or about 1910 human character changed”), in which he describes the psychological effects of networked computers:
This is one of the features of being inside a network mesh: incessant peripherality, an awareness of the larger world at every moment a click away. And because of this I occupy a different gravity field; I’m lighter, more porous. The difference between old and new modes is not purely imaginary. The writing of the paper letter presumes the fact of physical transmission—real time, real space, and literally tangible message. The subliminal continuity corroborates my sense of being in the world, just as writing and receiving email puts me inside a kind of parenthesis—at a level of remove.
To use the new modes of communication, as I do—as we pretty much all do—is to accept the laws of the new system, both the changed sense of facility and access, and the subtle inner self-division, and, yes, a growing difficulty with the former ways.