Colorado State University Center for Literary Publishing

Book Review

Changing the Subject

By Sven Birkerts

Reviewed By Eric Maroney

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Essayist Sven Birkerts does not have a cell phone. He explains: “Not having a cell phone—rather, persisting in not having one—is perverse.” While acknowledging that his last stand is “stupid,” he believes that staying tied to a landline provides him with a unique view of how technology has transformed us. For one, it enables him to see that over a short period the “margin of acceptable response time began to shrink and it has not stopped shrinking.” With cell phones and related devices, we are no longer able to effectively hide, and this impacts our worldview. He explains: “The implication is that by making ourselves porous to communication . . . we are divesting ourselves of aura, or singularity, or, even better, mystery.”

Birkerts writes particularly insightful essays about the multiple ways ongoing technological changes in our culture narrow our sense of aura, singularity, and mystery. In Changing the Subject, he examines technology with a sizable dose of skepticism and outright dread. For him, every step into the technological unknown—iPhones, GPS devices, Google searches, Tweets—is fraught with dangers that few of us examine.

Simply put, Birkerts believes that our cell phones, texts, emails, and Skypes are changing our perception of reality in ways of which we are unaware. He says: “With scarcely a double take, we are wading into the ever-augmented stream of the new.” Our easily accessible devices have placed the “essential human premise of context . . . under siege.” Our on-line, electronically connected lives have weakened “the specific gravity of things.” Birkerts argues that we are so connected to a filtered sense of reality via cell phones, text, email, Facebook, and Twitter that we are relinquishing our direct relationship to the world. In the process, our special sense of self and the mystery of our encounter with both the world and with the unfolding of our lives are becoming less concrete and more ephemeral.

With the persistent pace of change and the constant updating of devices and software, Birkerts feels constantly outdated, and “the upshot is that we can never, any of us, catch a breath and feel that we are where we should be—current. To live in a technocracy is to live with a perpetual sense of being in arrears.” We have problems living in the moment because that moment is always being shifted by the built-in obsolescence of our devices.

We are also inundated by information literally at our fingertips. If we need to find a good restaurant on a certain street or remember the capital of Missouri, the answer is in our hand.  Birkerts warns that “our data is wound around us like a weightless and transparent wrap,” and its pull and allure are nearly irresistible because “it is hard to push against the grain of ease.” But this access, “the new dispensation—near perfect retrievability—reorients us, not so subtly altering our expectations and our way of encountering reality.” We expect to receive from data simple, direct answers to the world’s complexities. But the world is more complex than virtual data. There are no easy answers to life’s most pressing questions, as much as we would like our technologies to tell us otherwise.

Yet another victim of the information age, according to Birkerts, is individual authorship. The very democratization of the internet has threatened, if not destroyed, the expert author.  Birkerts explains: “Some of the big changes taking place in our new digital order are clearly identified. . . . Expertise, authorship, individual creativity: out. Team collaborations, Wikipedia: in.” Wikipedia, not the Encyclopedia Britannica, has become the major source of information on the internet. Written by any user, regardless of his or her credentials, this internet collaboration illustrates the dangerous acceleration of a less-qualified authorship. Birkerts fears our world is becoming falsely egalitarian as the role of professional expertise is discarded in favor of easy consensus.

This ties in with another issue that concerns Birkerts: “Our universities have in a matter of decades become credentialing centers, career-path sluices. The serious study of anything off-grid—philosophy, literature, the arts—is a joke. The transformation is deep, and a whole generation of people is suffering the angst of its future, worrying about its viability.”

For Birkerts, an individual’s engagement with art, especially printed books, is the royal road to connection. During the act of reading, our attention is wholly on the book. The accomplished author wholly pulls us into the book’s world to the exclusion of all distractions. Our devices and technologies, with their quick answers and easy accessibility, scatter our attention and keep us constantly skimming on the surface. Unlike a tweet, a great novel penetrates and re-creates reality.

Birkerts’s very successful essays have an informal, almost apologetic tone. He is not afraid to use the first person voice to express his great unease with the direction of our culture. He displays his personal failures and peccadillos without scruple. Yet behind this fragile, at times fraught, voice is a keenly analytic mind, careful in his investigations, writing in precise and measured prose about the topics that affect him so viscerally. The greatest marker of Birkerts’s achievement is his ability to transform his own inner unease about the role of technology in his life into a set of concerns that has the broader capacity to impact us all.

Eric Maroney has published two books of nonfiction and numerous short stories. He has an MA in philosophy from Boston University. He lives in Ithaca, New York, with his wife and two children and is currently at work on a book on Jewish religious recluses, a novel and short stories.