Anarchy and Hierarchy, by A. Griscom

Digital Media and the Internet

The future of the Net

Sven Birkerts, a modern-day Luddite, is feeling uneasy about all this rapid cultural change. He longs for the slow elegance of print culture. So much so, in fact, that the cover of his new book, The Gutenberg Elegies, features a fuzzy caramel-colored snapshot of a naturally-lit library which houses the endangered species of digital modernity: a leather armchair draped with an afghan, droopy lace curtains, and shelves of softened leather hard-backs coveting thick yellowed pages and the tidy, immutable thoughts of yesterday's literary prophets.

Birkerts is terrified that his warm dusty paradise is being ransacked, and the remaining rubble is merely forgotten or misunderstood in a world distracted by garish, pulsing iconography. He calls this digital insurgent the "devil," though he read his Marlowe and knows all about Faustus --- and he absolutely refuses to sell his soul.

In the last pages of the Gutenberg Elegies Birkerts warns:

The devil no longer moves around on cloven hooves, reeking of brimstone... he is an affable, efficient fellow. He claims to want to help us all along to a brighter, easier future, and his sales pitch is very smooth. I was, as the old song goes, almost persuaded. I saw what it could be like, our toil and misery replaced by a vivid, pleasant dream. Fingers tap keys, oceans of fact and sensation get downloaded, are dissolved through the central nervous system. Bottomless wells of data are accessed and manipulated, everything flowing at circuit speed. Gone the rock in the field, the broken hoe, the grueling distances. 'History,' said Stephen Dedalus, 'is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.' This may be the awakening, but it feels curiously like the fantasies that circulate through our sleep. From deep in the heart I hear a voice that says 'Refuse it' (229).

Birkerts' potent paranoia (which has been printed not only in his book, but in the pages of major periodicals) has secured him notoriety as a 'modern-day Luddite.' The term 'Luddite' --- which is nowadays synonymous with 'counterrevolutionary,' or used to describe a person opposed to technological growth --- has wandered from its original denotation. The nineteenth-century Luddites were violent machine breakers --- angry manual laborers whose livelihoods were being replaced by the efficient and inexpensive machines of the Industrial Revolution.

The first Luddites appeared in 1811 in Nottingham, England when knitters began to demolish machines that made shoddy stockings at prices which undercut skilled craftsmen. Their name came from Ned Ludd, nicknamed 'King Ludd,' who is said to have smashed two stocking frames. The movement exploded among bands of workers around the country who stormed cotton and wool mills. Though the rebellion had little to no organization, and the British government restored order with a mere waive of its wand, the Luddites were for a time considered a serious threat. And they turned out to be real trend-setters.

Things, of course, have changed as far as the manners of mutiny go. The Luddites of today are for the most part only theoretically smashing things. (Except, of course, for Kirkpatric Sale, the guy who sledgehammered an IBM computer on stage before an audience of 1500 in New York City's Town Hall). Jon Katz, media critic for Wired argues that "The new 'Luddites' are not fighting for their lives, as their predecessors were, but for their cultural dominance, for their unique and powerful positions of influence --- to which technologies pose a threat" ("Return of Luddites" 165). Perhaps the Luddites of today are not about practical necessity, they're just plain scared of ideological democracy.

Sven Birkerts has no fears of losing his job (indeed he's become quite successful as a result of all this). Nor does he intend to tie knots in the wires of online service providers. He is despairing over the passing of a set of cultural values, the feeling of alienation that all of us are experiencing to some extent, but are not necessarily blinded by, or capitalizing on. History has heard these grievances before and the voice of resistance reminds us that, much as we feel that our moment in history is unprecedented, humankind has visited these dilemmas time and again, and will continue to as long as it is comprised of sentient beings. We just keep orbiting the same cycle where progression spurs on nostalgia, and nostalgia urges progression right back.

McLuhan said that resistance is futile. In a Wired article, Gary Wolf ordained McLuhan a saint. With regard to McLuhan's take on Luddism, Wolf explains: "McLuhan believed that the message of electronic media brought dangerous news for humanity; it brought news of the end of humanity as it has known itself in the 3000 years since the invention of the phonetic alphabet. The literate-mechanical interlude between two great organic periods of culture is coming to an end as we watch and as we listen. 'On a moving highway, the vehicle that backs up is accelerating in relation to the highway situation.' [McLuhan] wrote. 'Such would be the ironical status of the cultural reactionary. When the trend is one way, his resistance insures a greater speed of change'" ("Channeling McLuhan" 129).

Sven Birkerts mourns with elegance. His appreciation of the printed text is understandably romantic. Few of us wish to witness the suffocation and demise of our best friend, the book, and Birkerts is persuasive in his adulation. As an adversary of the Digital Age, however, Birkerts is weak. Indeed he is educated in literature, but he has no proficiency in computers whatever --- and therefore no access to the abundant amenities of the Digital Revolution. His resistance, in the end, is untenable.

But even cyber - enthusiasts fear for the future of the digital medium. Media critic John Katz, condemner of Luddites, himself, admitted in an interview: "we have a lot to fear. Mostly, a profound class division between the technological elite and the culturally illiterate." Michael Joyce expounded: "I fear it as intensely as I champion it. I fear any claim for communication, for universality, for possibility, for a future whose immanence undermines the present meaning we make and remake among us."

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