The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains
[W.W. Norton, 2010]
Paul La Farge
[Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2011]
A novel can’t make toast. A novel can’t cut hair. A novel can’t make the bed or catch rabbits for a stew. It can’t unclog the toilet. It can’t call 9-1-1. It can’t turn on the heat when the pilot light goes out. It can second as a hat and keep the rain off my head, but not for long, not without getting soggy. And it can’t pay the rent (for most people at least). But as David Foster Wallace says, “There’s a certain set of magical stuff that fiction can do for us.”
The question of what exactly a novel, and literature in general, can do is one that has long haunted many of those writers and poets who have chosen to devote their lives to hammering away at words and sentences. William Carlos Williams writes of a poem as a machine made of words. A machine not just in the way a text is carefully constructed, calibrated, tested and refined during the writing process, but because, like a machine, a piece of writing does something, has the potential to cause change, to make things happen.
For media theorist Nicholas Carr, literature has a special task for us now, in the age of the Internet, of hypertext and hypermedia and hyperactivity. As he describes in his book The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, the Internet is changing us; changing not only what we read, but how we read, and not only how we read, but how we think, and not only how we think, but the very physiological makeup of our brains. For him, the medium is not just the message, it is the massage that presses against the contours of our mind, altering the way we can and can’t think and act. On one hand, there is the Internet, shaping us into shallow, distracted, primitive beings, and on the other, novels that train us to fight out impulses and focus, read slowly, make connections, and think deeply.
I find his argument compelling although not entirely surprising. The mantra rings in my mind, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” (Repeat after me now, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” It’s catchy, and if you repeat it a few more times you’ll remember it, electricity will flash across your synapses, new pathways will fuse because, as we now know, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”) In some ways, it’s freeing to acknowledge the neuroplasticity of brains, to admit that humans are, at the very root of their selfhood, malleable. But it’s also scary. Particularly, as Carr points out, when we’re not in control of that change, when our technology, our creations, are in turn creating us, and when we continue to rely on those technologies with little reflection as to how we are allowing ourselves to be shaped. For Carr, the Internet is not all bad (to say so would be a hard sell). Neither are the changes it has wrought on us all bad. What he mourns is what is being lost as we allow the Internet to shape us, and what is lost is, for him, the very stuff that makes us human:
The great danger we face as we become more intimately involved with our computers — as we come to experience more of our lives through the disembodied symbols flickering across our screens — is that we’ll begin to lose our humanness, to sacrifice the very qualities that separate us from machines.
The Internet provides us with constant and easy access to fathomless depths of information, but paradoxically, according to The Shallows, it flattens us out. For Carr, the ethic of consumption that the Internet promotes is one of distraction, of skimming and jumping, of insatiable voraciousness. What is at stake is not only “the depth and distinctiveness of the self” but also “the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.” For Carr, progress itself (whatever that is) seems to be at stake. We are experiencing, he claims, “a reversal of the early trajectory of civilization;” the control over our impulses which reading once made possible is disintegrating, returning us to the “natural state” of our ancestors.
Running through Carr’s narrative of cognitive decline is an implied story about the function of literature as a cure to living in the modern world. Where the Internet spreads us thin, for Carr, literature can return us to our depths, and allow us to access the “deepest — and to me the most valuable — forms of thought our brains are capable of.” It is through reading that we master our primitive impulse for distraction and are reunited with the “most human of our natural capacities — those for reason, perception, memory, emotion.” It is through literature that we read slowly, think deeply, construct memories and forge intellectual connections.
Carr is far from alone in this claim for the function of fiction. A dose of Dickens (or Proust, who, incidentally, was himself a neuroscientist) a day seems to keep the neurophysiologist at bay. This belief in the curative properties of fiction is shared by contemporary writers like Gary Shteyngart and Jonathan Franzen, the latter of whom describes writers as stewards preserving the endangered concept of solitude in our technological world. According to Franzen, it is through the space of solitude in which the writer writes and the reader reads that loneliness can be assuaged and true connections between people can be made. For Franzen, the facade of connectedness modern technology presents is merely a feature of its design. Clicking links and checking emails becomes a lever-pushing compulsive behavior that plays on our desire for connection but does not satisfy it. Of the role of writers, he claims, “It is our job to create books that are compelling enough to pull the reader out of that crazy beeping world and into a quiet place to have a real experience.” For Franzen and Carr, to read a book is to develop the capacities that make us most human, the abilities to feel empathy for other people and to think deeply. The decline of ‘serious’ reading in the face of the ubiquitous computer screen threatens our very humanity.
Or does it?
David Foster Wallace, also defending experimental writing, suggests a radically different function for fiction. Beginning with a similar premise that in our current world people are “overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them,” he suggests that what fiction can do is present to us “the way the world feels on our nerve endings.” Rather than serving as a respite from the alienating, technological world, Wallace claims that fiction might train us to “decoct, organize, do triage” on all of that information coming at us, and thus prepare us to live in that world.
For critics like Carr and Franzen, to read is to dig inwards; the body becomes a shell, the mind retreats inside: shhhh, peace and quiet, so quiet you can hear the ocean. In their effort to find an escape from distraction through literature, they advocate a retreat from contemporary experience, and they implicate it in the construction of a particular brand of subjectivity labeling it “Human” and labeling it “Real(ism).” In The Physiology of the Novel, a history of reading, Nicholas Dames writes that for Victorians, the burgeoning novel was feared to be “a training ground for industrialized consciousness,” rather than a source of refuge or “an antidote to the assault of stimuli presented by modern, media-rich existence” as Carr and Franzen claim.
Perhaps it does both. What seems clear is that the type of existence these critics promote and that they feel literature can preserve is not the only kind presented in fiction, nor is it the only (or best) way to understand human existence. “The notion that reality can be represented only through a certain kind of narrative attention is a desperate argument by realists,” writes Ben Marcus in his defense (against Franzen, as fate would have it) of alternative, experimental forms of fiction. Despite a turn to neurophysiology to explain what is “a real experience,” this is not the only past, present or future for the novel nor for human experience. If we aren’t able to go back to a world without distraction, where we thought slowly and read deeply and with care, and if that world never even really existed as anything more than a series of removes, of it-used-to-be-better-whens, then perhaps there is another way to understand the function of contemporary literature in mediating our experience of the world. Just as the works of Baudelaire during the latter half of the 19th century, or Woolf following WWI, attempted to engage with contemporary experience, I wondered what was being written now that explores the possibilities for living in our distracting and over-connected world, that dive into the shallows and engage with the questions presented by modern technology and contemporary networked society.
* * *
Luminous Airplanes, published this fall and written by Paul La Farge is, I think, the perfect example of just this kind of text. A rag-and-bone hardcover as well as an online “immersive” text, Luminous Airplanes is not just an innovative novel that plays with the limits of the form, but also a training ground that prepares us to exist fruitfully within the world in which we’ve found ourselves.
The novel ostensibly tells the story of a young programmer who leaves his unfulfilling life in San Francisco and drives to Thebes, a small town in upstate New York, to pack up the junk his grandfather left behind when he died. While doing so, the narrator ruminates on the experience of living through the 90s boom and 00s bust, tries to rekindle a romantic relationship with a childhood friend, and discovers truths about his long lost, long dead father. Through it all a feeling of stagnation and anticipation pervades, for the reader as well as the narrator, symbolized aptly by the recurring description of a birthday card he had received from his grandfather, of a wave poised, ready to break, but frozen in time. It’s a feeling I empathize with as a fellow member of a group of fairly privileged, highly educated young people. It springs from a cultural condition defined by a proliferation of opportunities that are never acted on, from the possibility for constant instant connection and the simultaneous alienating detachment. What do I want to be when I grow up? What clothes do I want to wear? Who do I want to hang out with? What “events” do I want to “join”? The great problem of contemporary life may be a problem of distraction, created not only by too many screens but too many choices and too little time and no one to tell you what decisions to make, by having so many possibilities that it is impossible to choose anything. As the novel’s narrator presents it, “Here it all is and no one will tell you what do about it, where to go, how to begin to understand all the things that are taking place.”
The novel’s narrator finds himself trapped again and again in this state of mind, plagued by the necessity to make decisions, large and small: whether or not to stay with the woman who is pregnant with his child, whether or not to buy a sofa and a love seat. The smallest acts seem to have the potential to set off the largest consequences. “Everything might have turned out differently,” he muses, had he bought a new set of furniture that he had seen in a store window. Perhaps this one purchase would have taken him down the right path, towards happiness and a resolution of life’s loose ends. But instead he recoils from the decision-making process and retreats into passivity and inertia: “But in fact I didn’t have the energy or the will to buy furniture.” And yet, what he realizes is that by not making decisions, waiting instead for the right moment or that flash of insight, he is unreflectively making decisions. At the end of the novel, he comes to this realization: “I went to bed every night with the idea that tomorrow I would get my life back on track, but I must have known the truth, that my life was on its track, which had been laid down for it thirty years earlier.”
Luminous Airplanes engages with this issue not just through its protagonist, but through the experience it provides its readers. It implores them, like the failed aeronauts of Progress in Flying Machines, a book about the early experiments in human flight that the narrator finds amidst the piles of his grandfather’s junk, to set goals, make plans and do something, in spite of the threat of failure. Luminous Airplanes is an experiment for living, a model kit for making decisions where the instructions have been left out, or poorly translated, or really never existed in the first place. It inoculates you to the feeling of being lost in the world through a reading experience that demands you get lost in the world. In the “map” to the book’s website, La Farge writes:
One of the whole points of the immersive text is that there’s no bird’s-eye view, no place from which you can stand and survey the whole maze of it… It’s like life, to know how it goes you have to go through it.
As I clicked my way through La Farge’s hypertext, I had the distinct feeling that I was being prepared to face the very conditions that so troubled the novel’s protagonist, navigating the complex web of decisions that makes up life both on and off the web. La Farge has clearly presented the novel as at a small-scale version of the e-world open for the reader to both reflect on and explore.
Luminous Airplanes interrogates the boundaries of what the novel can be and what possibilities there are for the future of publishing through its integration of online and print media. But it also provides a possible answer to what the novel can do. As I mentioned before, David Foster Wallace claims that the key textural feature of people’s experience now is the feeling of being “overwhelmed by the number of choices they have, and by the number of discrete, different things that come at them.” Perhaps, Luminous Airplanes suggests, a novel can do more than just “impose some sort of order, or make some sort of sense” of the slurry of information we are constantly barraged with, as Wallace claims, but further, can enable us as readers to engage fruitfully with that world.
The novel, for Carr as for many, is a technology that epitomizes what it means to be human; the pinnacles of human achievement are recorded between its covers and it not only represents, but shapes — neurophysiologically even — a concept and experience of the individual as solid and stable and deep. But to understand the novel in this way is to forget a whole tradition of writers who worked so hard to push against conventions they felt didn’t truly reflect their experiences. Now, the very technology that threatens depth also creates opportunities in its shallowness. In a piece for Salon about hypertext, La Farge writes:
Just as the novel taught us how to be individuals, 300 years ago, by giving us a space in which to be alone, but not too alone — a space in which to be alone with a book — so hypertext fiction may let us try on new, non-linear identities, without dissolving us entirely into the web. It may give us room to concentrate on dispersion, to focus on distraction, and in that way, possibly, to get a sense of what we are becoming before the current sweeps us away.
How different this sounds from David L. Ulin’s claim, in yet another recent essay on distraction and the fiction cure, that in order to help us to “understand and interact with the world,” reading must provide an escape from the “ongoing trivialities” of media-mediated life. This, when what so much of literature and experience suggests is that life is trivial, the accrual of small actions, small decisions. If fiction can’t prepare a good soufflé, then at least it can get us out of bed, and if it can’t get us out the door, then at least it can get us on the computer. At the very least, I like to think that literature can turn us toward, rather than away from, contemporary experience, and that it can help us to deal with the experiences, large and small, deep and shallow, which truly make up our everyday lives.
Jesse Miller (@Jesse_E_Miller) is a PhD student in the Department of English at the University at Buffalo where he is studying the theoretical space where science becomes literary and literature becomes experimental in their approaches to investigate human consciousness, sensation, and subjectivity. He is also a Reviews Editor at Full Stop (www.full-stop.net).