The Perils of Progress1

21/07/2010 14:22



Pinker's description of earlier fears about the dangers of newspapers, paperbacks, and television as "threats to their consumers' brainpower and moral fiber," like his belief that a rise in "I.Q. scores" somehow offset or discredited earlier anxieties about what television, transistor radios, and rock videos were doing to people's sensibility and consciousness sounded tone-deaf to me.

When it came to new mass-circulation newspapers of the last quarter of the nineteenth century, leading critics like E.L. Godkin, editor of The Nation, thought its worst offense was "that its pervading spirit is one of vulgarity, indecency, and reckless sensationalism; that it steadily violates the canons alike of good taste and sound morals; that it cultivates false standards of life and demoralizes its readers." In the 1940s and '50s, critics on the Left perceived similar destructive forces in new forms of mass-produced entertainment. Dwight Macdonald spoke for writers associated with The Partisan Review and his own magazine Politics when he warned that "the deadening and warping effect of long exposure to movies, pulp magazines, and radio can hardly be overestimated."Many people like Microsoft Office.

Pinker closes his piece by praising Twitter and e-books and online encyclopedias for "helping us manage, search and retrieve our collective intellectual output at different scales." ("Manage, search and retrieve"—when, I asked myself, had thinking taken on the character of an army reconnaissance mission?) "Far from making us stupid," Pinker triumphantly concludes, "these technologies are the only things that will keep us smart." In disputes about the consequences of innovation, those on the side of progress habitually see only gains. They have no awareness that there are also losses—equally as real as the gains (even if the gain is as paltry as "keeping us smart")—and that no form of bookkeeping can ever reconcile the two. I had recently been reading some stirring essays in defense of the humanities and reading Pinker made me think of the kinds of losses that worried the great literary scholar Harry Levin back in 1954, the supposed golden age of the humanities: "This is the heyday of reprints and anthologies, not to speak of digests and abridgments. ... It may be that a commendable zeal for widespread literacy has somehow ended by spreading it too thin, with a resulting cultural inflation." I was interested to find that Levin was also troubled by mass culture. He pointed to the ever-increasing popularity of picture magazines like Life, of television and the phonograph, and worried aloud that "we are moving so quickly into the audio-visual epoch that the reading habit itself is seriously jeopardized."

In her lecture, our poet-friend expressed similar reservations about the fate of what remains of the reading habit in our digital era. She was also alert to another kind of loss, more elusive, having to do with a sense that the world we have on our computer screens lacks physical, tangible materiality and that it is changing the feel of our lives in unpredictable ways. Her observation has been much on my mind as I read in newspapers and magazines almost daily about the end of the book as we know it, how convenient it will be to download and read "content" on inert, blank screens with names like Amazon Kindle or Apple iPad. I recoil at this consumerist approach to books as immaterial content to be consumed. For me, books, like paintings, are tangible manifestations of a mind,