I like the article you’ve posted. I like the video you’ve linked to. I like the newspaper article that tells me more about what actually happened in Cancun and whether we’re going to get anything like a climate agreement before we all boil to death. I like the pictures of your kids. Also your cat. And your garden. I like the photo albums that these take me to. I like to picture you happily working in your garden or playing with your kids. I especially like any videos of the kids. I like to know what you had for dinner, and who you ate with. I like your new book. I like it that you’re reading from your new book, and I like to know about your events. I like your thoughts about reading and writing and living. I like to vicariously travel to Bali and New Zealand and Greece with you. I like to know what you thought about Black Swan, especially if you’re brilliantly outraged and funny. I like your blog. I like your link to the ten best of the year. The ten best what? The ten best anything. Books. Movies. Videos that changed YouTube. Political moments. Oh, and I like the ten worst everything. More than I can say. And then I check my email again.
This morning, I began by wishing you a happy birthday on Facebook (I hope you have a wonderful birthday!) and somehow wound up a) calling people in Congress or signing Internet petitions on everything from de-escalating troops in Afghanistan to supporting the right of consenting adults to marry each other (why are we still having this discussion?) to closing Guantánamo or, b) reading blogs, or c) watching the trailers of movies I will never see under any circumstances. If Angelina Jolie is in the trailer, I’ll probably watch it twice.
Somehow, despite all this liking of things, I still manage to do my job, which 98% of the time I’m crazy about (I even like many of my committee meetings. The funny & productive ones). And somehow, even more miraculously, I’m about 7/8 through with a draft of a new book, promised to my initial readers by mid-January. And yet.
All this is to say why, during these holidays/semester break, I’m going to disappear from the online world. Maybe you have read Nicholas Carr’s fascinating study of contemporary questions of attention: The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. If not, I recommend it. I’ll leave you with a longish excerpt from his website, from Chapter 8, “The Church of Google”:
It was a warm summer morning in Concord, Massachusetts. The year was 1844. An aspiring novelist named Nathaniel Hawthorne was sitting in a small clearing in the woods, a particularly peaceful spot known around town as Sleepy Hollow. Deep in concentration, he was attending to every passing impression, turning himself into what Emerson, the leader of Concord’s transcendentalist movement, had eight years earlier termed a “transparent eyeball.” Hawthorne saw, as he would record in his notebook later that day, how “sunshine glimmers through shadow, and shadow effaces sunshine, imaging that pleasant mood of mind where gayety and pensiveness intermingle.” He felt a slight breeze, “the gentlest sigh imaginable, yet with a spiritual potency, insomuch that it seems to penetrate, with its mild, ethereal coolness, through the outward clay, and breathe upon the spirit itself, which shivers with gentle delight.” He smelled on the breeze a hint of “the fragrance of the white pines.” He heard “the striking of the village clock” and “at a distance mowers whetting their scythes,” though “these sounds of labor, when at a proper remoteness, do but increase the quiet of one who lies at his ease, all in a mist of his own musings.”
Abruptly, his reverie was broken:
“But, hark! there is the whistle of the locomotive, — the long shriek, harsh above all other harshness, for the space of a mile cannot mollify it into harmony. It tells a story of busy men, citizens from the hot street, who have come to spend a day in a country village, — men of business, — in short, of all unquietness; and no wonder that it gives such a startling shriek, since it brings the noisy world into the midst of our slumbrous peace.”
Leo Marx opens The Machine in the Garden, his classic 1964 study of technology’s influence on American culture, with a recounting of Hawthorne’s morning in Sleepy Hollow. The writer’s real subject, Marx argues, is “the landscape of the psyche” and in particular “the contrast between two conditions of consciousness.” The quiet clearing in the woods provides the solitary thinker with “a singular insulation from disturbance,” a protected space for reflection. The clamorous arrival of the train, with its load of “busy men,” brings “the psychic dissonance associated with the onset of industrialism.” The contemplative mind is overwhelmed by the noisy world’s mechanical busyness.
The stress that Google and other Internet companies place on the efficiency of information exchange as the key to intellectual progress is nothing new. It’s been, at least since the start of the Industrial Revolution, a common theme in the history of the mind. It provides a strong and continuing counterpoint to the very different view, promulgated by the American transcendentalists as well as the earlier English romantics, that true enlightenment comes only through contemplation and introspection. The tension between the two perspectives is one manifestation of the broader conflict between, in Marx’s terms, “the machine” and “the garden” — the industrial ideal and the pastoral ideal — that has played such an important role in shaping modern society.
When carried into the realm of the intellect, the industrial ideal of efficiency poses, as Hawthorne understood, a potentially mortal threat to the pastoral ideal of contemplative thought. That doesn’t mean that promoting the rapid discovery and retrieval of information is bad. It’s not. The development of a well-rounded mind requires both an ability to find and quickly parse a wide range of information and a capacity for open-ended reflection. There needs to be time for efficient data collection and time for inefficient contemplation, time to operate the machine and time to sit idly in the garden. We need to work in Google’s “world of numbers,” but we also need to be able to retreat to Sleepy Hollow. The problem today is that we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion.