Some time ago I wrote a little screed called “Why I Hate the Internet: A Manifesto.” Of course I don’t really hate the internet — it has pornography, and baseball statistics — but there are some things about it that bear mentioning. Like: inasmuch as “flexibility of voice leads to a flexibility in all things“, the ability to express and comprehend nuanced, complicated issues is a vital ability. Some things take a lot of time and a lot of words to really understand; my point about the internet was and is that a) the modes of communication it promotes are not altogether suited to this kind of thought, and b) the modes of communication the internet does promote actually erode our ability to think this way.
I would not have bothered writing that screed, though, had I known that Ben Kunkel would eventually write it, much better than I could have.
In the piece, just posted (in a rich bellylaughing irony) on n+1‘s online-only book review section, Kunkel takes a similar approach, attempting to definite the types of communication and thought particular to the internet (by which I suppose we both mean a lot of other types of instantaneous wireless communication as well) , and their effects. It’s comprehensive and accessible, theoretical and anecdotal, and even-handed to the point of generous to all sides. (More than I can say about my own piece.)
And — and this is why the piece delights me so, though you may like it for other reasons — Kunks comes to much the same conclusion as I did:
Naturally everyone wants to believe that by spending time online we are not steadily depriving real art, thought, and journalism of the attention and—since so much online “content” is free of charge—the money these would need to survive… Only it turns out it doesn’t feel like that at all.
Kunel goes on to posit the internet as a compulsion, but admits that that sounds a bit vague — what he actually describes is a medium that edges out other mediums. He even suggests why this happens, though I’m not sure if he knows that that’s what he’s doing, when he notes in passing:
Reading the press, watching moving images and listening to recorded music, ordering products from catalogues, talking on the phone, and exchanging correspondence are all modern habits of long standing.
So, alongside this increase in (easy casual spontaneous ubiquitous) communication, we see a commensurate decrease in communication’s physical correlatives. This strikes me as an important thing to recognize: the internet hastens a sort of, if you’ll permit me to match Kunkel’s italicized coinage with one of my own, experiential slippage, whereby activities aren’t differentiated from each other and are thus, increasingly, difficult to even define as such.
I wonder if this isn’t why the internet makes it so hard to concentrate, even when we’re not on it. Despite the capabilities of digital storage, this medium that we’re using right now fosters amnesia. I continue to struggle with the implications of this, but I’m glad I now have a way to sound less crazy while making this point. Thanks, Ben Kunkel (and the internet)!