If one could live, say, 200 years, would that be sufficient enough time to read all the books, see all the movies, hear all the music--in order not to feel cheated of the full breadth of living experience? Already, aetat 62, I feel myself scratching off titles I know I'll never get around to. All those ponderous Victorian novels--Dickens, Trollope, Eliot, Thackary, Balzac--I know I'll never get the chance to read. All those narrative poems by Pope, Dryden, Browning, Tennyson & Co. I feel a sad sense of inevitability in this, but how much energy one has left should be spent in mourning? There are hundreds of books we'll never get to, any of us, even if we spend every waking hour at it. Our bodies weren't made for sedentary drudgery, and the less exercise and physical stimulation we get, the less healthy we become.
Computers exert such a powerful pull--vast involutions of data, exchange, matrices of interpolation, dispersal--which seem almost to promise an alternative to live experience--its retarded pace and pathetic capacities. Between television, radio, computers, and the new telephonic devices now swiftly proliferating, it's a wonder any of us finds time to sleep, eat, or just enjoy the day.
Given this overwhelming, and seemingly endless burden of passive obligation--which began back in the age of mechanical print reproduction, gathering steam through the Industrial Revolution, the media explosion of the 20th Century (books, magazines, radios, telephones, phonographs, tape recorders, movies, and personal computers with fax and e.mail, with increasing portability and compression of capacity)--how might the individual mind properly discriminate amongst the welter of information which threatens to bury it in irrelevancy, trivia and pointless diversion.
Is the world more complex, now that we have an increasingly sophisticated means of recording and replaying it, of "storing" its essence in larger and larger repositories of data, than it once had been, before written language, before verbatim, before electronic data storage? Are people smarter, or better informed, than they were before this expansion of the electronic universe of gadgets and "interactive" devices? Or are they dumber, more dependent, less creative and responsible for themselves (and their opinions) than they used to be? Are they more passive, less earnest, and somehow disengaged from reality, as the shadow-land of the internet universe comes more and more to occupy their waking consciousness? Are we becoming somehow psychologically "inverted" from reality, as an involution into fantasy, an alternate reality more "entertaining" than simply living?
Are the reading habits which I've mentioned in my own life becoming more common among people?--i.e., skip-reading, sampling (both random and profiled)? Is the relentless tendency towards abbreviation a sign of impatience with complexity, some sort of new mental short-hand designed to skate over problems and contradictions as if these could be ignored simply by summarizing them with acronyms and trite camp phrases? Is the use of hand-helds and short-text electronic messaging driving us towards an ever-shortening attention-span, defined as what can be said in 10-15 seconds on a tiny keyboard, or the time it takes to punch the television clicker? Is the half-life of the public's fixation on any event or idea no more than the length of a 30 second commercial slot?
What is the sum value of human interaction, if/when reduced to the framing of duration and content, common to devices of limited capacity? There is, apparently, now, a whole generation of kids for whom the daily conceit of identity and relationship is formed out of just such networks of frequent interaction. The first telephonic generation--which lasted between the invention of the telephone by Bell (in 1876)--and the wireless hand-held phone which came into common usage about 2001--was characterized by the romance of elaborated conversation: As party-lines and operators gave way to automated, private land-lines, and privacy and convenience were increased, traditional telephonic communication linked users into an emotional network of confirmation, developed aural relationships, and "brought people closer" than mail or telegrams could. This perception of shared intimacy and familiar human community made the telephone a warm, reassuring presence in households, and brought a significant degree of streamlining and technological authority to the commercial sphere as well.
But the era of e.mail and cell-phones and the new generations of "hand-helds" has usurped this plateau of interconnectedness, proliferating contact at a geometric rate, and rivaling or supplanting ordinary physical interaction with a "remote" connection that erases space and time, replacing them with the immediacy of impulse and emergency ("everything happening at once"). Someone in China climbing a mountain can be in touch with someone lying in bed in Toronto--with an efficiency and ease that undermines the significance of distance, and borders both real and imaginary. Vast regional networks of individuals, tendered "online"--then segue out into the broad band of hand-helds, literally almost instantaneously, transforming the plugged-in human "user" into a cipher on the super-highway of streaming data. "Online" time is meted out in online charges, as usage is perceived as "up" (on the energy grid) as opposed to "down" (unhooked). To be disconnected from this burgeoning vast matrix is a form of exclusion from the circulation of vitality, like a robot whose juice has been pulled.
This new paradigm of electronic dependency is unlike anything dreamed of by Huxley, or Orwell, or the Sci-Fi gurus of the 20th Century. What is its flavor, and where is it taking us? Do the William Gibsons and Neil Gaimans of the old "literature" sphere have anything on the fast-paced technological revolution now taking place?
Perhaps reading, as a form of data sharing and inculcation, will recede in the decades to come. Will literature become a phase, leading to graphic novels and animated programmatization? Will we wear head gear that links us up to cyber spaces and identities which are more powerful than the physical bodies genetics have enabled for us?