The Lint of the Material

By Sven BirkertsOctober 20, 2013

The Lint of the Material
I’M HAVING a very particular memory sensation right now, complex and evocative, not negligible, though on first response it might seem as slight as any number of kindred remembered sensations, like tipping the two uneven parts of a broken eggshell side to side to isolate the yolk, or slowly extracting a plume of carpet clutter from the nozzle of a stodgy vacuum cleaner, though this one — it came to me out of nowhere, immediately rich — is of a different class, could already be said to have a place in the museum of antiquated gestures. I forget what I was doing, can’t think of what triggered me, but there it suddenly was — the texture of a matted clot of dust felt on the fingertip and the loud RIIIIIIP erupting out as that fingertip dragged against the point of the needle.

It’s been years since I last touched a record player, but the sensation is, well, inscribed in me, product of many thousands of repetitions in what might be as many as a dozen different places where I lived and surrounded myself with music. And certainly a number of different record players — starting with the basic child’s toy, I can no longer picture it, that played the few 45 r.p.m. records I had, which I do remember because they were transparent, red, and yellow, like no records I’ve seen since. I had one, I know, called “Goober Peas” — GOODness how de-licious, eatin’ goober peas! — and another of “Suwannee River,” which I naturally pictured as a river with swans swimming on it, and which made me inexpressibly sad every time I played it (which was often). And as there had to be a needle, there inevitably would have been dust — it’s a good bet therefore that I first made that loud rasping noise over 50 years ago.

And made it often for decades and decades after: for a very long time on my cherished stereo, the one that I was given at some point in high school, which was like a big square suitcase that, unlatched, became a turntable flanked by two detachable speakers, their wires long enough to allow me to set them at opposite sides of whatever small space I occupied, starting with my room at home and then accompanying me through a succession of college-era dorms and rentals. I may have trundled that thing with me for a decade — I didn’t have that many things and I didn’t replace them that often. A stereo was a thing I had, like a guitar (and my Gibson from those days is still with me, still playable), and there was, certainly in my clerk-and-odd-jobs life, no great impulse toward bigger or better. It worked and I used it, bought albums when I could — or asked for certain ones for special occasions — and for years there was not a day that was not accompanied by its deliberated sound track. And this I marvel at, too: how my basic cache of albums, maybe a hundred or so eventually, gave me what I needed, allowed me to score my moods, to create enough variety — but I also marvel at how I tolerated, more likely craved, repetition, playing the same albums, track following track in familiar succession, the years of that ... And so of course there were the thousands of amplified rasps as the fingertip stroked off the little wad of needle fuzz, a business interesting to me now not just because it fits into the enormous weave of the remembered, but also because it most vividly sets the clunky thingness of older ways — though of course I never thought of my life-with-stereo as clunky — up against the way of the now. And sometimes it seems that the only thing the two ways share in common is the fact that it is the very same finger, always the index finger of the right hand, that does the work, either stripping needle-dust or else tapping on an icon on whatever portable device now stores the available music. That very same index finger, by the way, still does duty turning, one by one, the pages of the books I read, and if I were ever to change technologies and start using an e-reader of some kind, it would be my means for swiping to the next page.

The RCA Victor emblem: His Master’s Voice, which, I’ve discovered, is the title of an 1898 painting by English artist Francis Barraud: the painting — and familiar emblem — of a dog, head tilted in front of an old-style gramophone speaker, quizzical, wondering what his owner’s voice is doing inside that object when there is no owner in sight. I don’t know, in terms of such basic wondering, that I am much more evolved than the dog, whose name was, incidentally, “Nipper.” Sure, I knew that the performers of whatever music I was listening to were not themselves inside the speakers, but truth be told Nipper probably knew that of his owner as well. He just wasn’t sure how he came to be hearing it. Just as I didn’t know, and in a deep way still don’t, exactly how it was that the electrified stylus, moving slowly along the close-set grooves spiraled into the vinyl, was able to send such clear soul-stirring sounds into the air. How did they get there? That was one question. How did the voice, the guitar, come to inhabit so precisely a wafer-thin rounded piece of material? I knew only that it had to do with sound vibrations making exact marks on a material medium, and that somehow the needle’s movement along the path of those marks would reproduce the original sounds. But how it all actually worked: it is still a mystery to me — a compelling mystery — one that has me thinking about matter and mechanics in a way that deepens the resonance, the implication, of things.

The shift from vinyl recordings to CDs was significant, psychologically as well as technologically. While the shiny silver disc physically echoed its predecessor in a few obvious ways — was still a flat circular disc with a hole in the center — the differences were many. They were also symbolic. Where the album had two sides, needing to be “flipped” for full hearing, thereby underscoring its temporality and the fact that its contents were arranged, the silver disc compressed its material on a single side. Tracks were no longer demarcated for the eye, so that all one saw was an elegant shimmering surface. And to make it operational — to play it — the listener had to slide it into the player. It disappeared, and the process whereby the information coded onto the disc became sound was (to me) conjectural: something to do with a laser scanning digits. To change cuts — assuming one was listening to standard fare — no longer required moving the tonearm to the wanted place. A quick touch of the button sufficed. If my explanation of how a needle extracted sound from vinyl was rudimentary and approximate, at least it took into account the basic elements and the everyday physics involved. I can’t tell you how a laser translates digital information; indeed, I cannot tell you how information is rendered into digital form, beyond invoking something about binary code — sequences of ones and zeros that are “read.” I may not be alone in the ignorance I profess. And I’m not sure that it’s all generational, either. I wonder just how many of the teens and 20-somethings of my childrens’ acquaintance, or the 30-and-beyond-somethings I teach, could give a clear report.

But now the CD — that bright, once-so-futuristic artifact — has itself acquired the air of the superseded object, taking its place in the line with so many other former icebreaker innovations become, or still becoming, objects of popular derision. How soon they forget! There are essays to be written on the psychological transformations we go through vis-à-vis so many of our technologies — from initial fear or skepticism, to guarded acceptance, to adaptation and endorsement, to habituation verging on disregard, to disaffection in the face of the promise of something new. Aren’t we going through various stages of this process with any number of things in our lives at any given time?

The CD player, though still in our midst — held to by rear-guardists, kept on life support by the ubiquity of CD players, by the fact that they were, at one point, installed everywhere — has been (and the DVD with it) effectively washed over by “streaming” technologies, both audio and visual. Devices that take their digital signals from the digital air by — again — who knows what means.

These days the nature of the transition is even more dramatic, more telling. With CDs and DVDs, though the process (laser reading code) is difficult to parse technologically, it has at least a kind of causal-appearing through-line. But when I now mount up onto my stationary bike, as I do every day, and take up my wife’s iPod and earbuds, I hand myself over to an incomprehensible higher power. The small screen lights up, and I tap a blue button marked “P” (which signifies Pandora, an internet radio connection), and wait for the jazz to begin, the sequence of tunes determined by some “algorithm of preference,” a phrase which suggests to me that the kinship, the “if you liked x, then you’ll like y,” is not established by the judgment of any individual, but by some more abstract sampling of listener data. So it goes. I sit on a machine that moves nowhere, listening through uncomfortable inserts to music whose sequencing is unknown to me as it comes through a small flat implement the workings of which I do not begin to comprehend. And yes, if you say to me now that this is my problem, that I could exert myself and find out what I need to, never mind get myself onto a bike with actual wheels that carries me across real terrain, I would have to agree.

But the larger point stands, I think. For the listening to music is a singular symptomatic instance: much of my (our) living, our interaction with the world, manifests the same dynamic, maps a similar transformation from comprehensible to incomprehensible process. And the greater part of this has to do with the usurpation of mechanical functions by digital ones. In a grievance-venting mood, I can have a field day. How few are the unmediated interchanges, how rare the direct contacts, or even voice contacts, what a mess of procedure is now installed between the self and most anything. Not that we are always overtly aware of this. We adapt our expectations almost automatically. We no longer dial a phone expecting to be greeted by a human voice; we assume we will pay for this or that by inserting a ticket and credit card; we fill in the appointed fields with numbers and codes. I’ll even allow that there could be a human compensation for this, that so much abstraction and removal in the daily round might whet our appetites for the interchanges that really matter, and that we come together with our family and friends with fresher impulse and sharper need. I don’t know.

One thing that is clear, though, is that these various displacements diminish the basic tangible sense of connection to people and processes. Less and less do we feel there is some specific, individual agency involved. Try to get an answer to a question or to rectify a mistake — you are shunted from extension to extension, or link to link, until you may feel you will lose your mind. If a person finally answers, she is likely in a cubicle in Mumbai and has no authority herself. Human agency is at every level overridden by scripted protocols, and the question arises whether even the boss him- or herself has the power to make an intervention. We don’t need to have many experiences of this ever-receding fata morgana of personal accountability before we start to assume that just such a system is in place behind every transaction we venture. And how can this not affect our experience of being in the world? Speaking for myself, I know that the knowledge makes me feel ever more vulnerable, and nervous. I fear that should any calamity happen — fiscal or physical (involving doctors and insurance companies) — I will be a digital casualty, unable to establish my identity, to prove my membership, to make contact with the necessary authority. Irrational? Perhaps.

Another conditioning aspect of our technologically saturated living, which did not impinge nearly so much when the technology was still mechanical, is the sheer relentlessness of innovation — or, to turn it around, the incessant obsolescence. By which I mean our own feeling of being outstripped, superseded. Indeed, what marks our cultural viability, or lack thereof, more visibly than the vintage of our phone and computer? To carry an underperforming device — one that cannot (heavens!) access the internet or send photo-files — is to declare your essential unfitness for the rigors of the 21st century.

To be sure, we Americans have always lived with a certain product-pressure, some version of keeping up with the Joneses — but never like this, and never on so many fronts. There were, this I know, long decades during which the rotary phone was a staple item — and then decades more after push-button versions took their place — and I cannot recall, during those years, any sense that if you lacked this or that dialing or button-pushing feature, you were sunk. But my point is that we are not talking about dialing features any more. The word “phone” is nowadays a euphemism for a portable communications center, and, following the ethos of our age, one is only as good as one’s linkages. And nowhere are the status markers as carefully parsed as among the younger users. Your phone, your apps, your gigs (I feel fraudulent even using those abbreviated buzzwords — and, as you’ll see shortly, well, I should) … Your place is in part determined by your equipment and your adeptness at using it. And, of course, by the quality of your contact profile, the social networking sites that are the playing field for all of this compacted technology.


It would be natural that the pressure to remain at the technological cutting edge would be felt most keenly among the young, and so it is. But the pressure to stay in the game (and be seen as relatively youthful and viable) is felt by all, and so if the need for constant upgrade is not created by the technology itself, it comes via the simple desire to have currency. The laugh-out-loud absurdity of techno-obsolescence was rendered most comically in the sequel to the movie Wall Street, which opens with a scene of criminal financier Gordon Gekko being released from prison and having his effects returned to him, including the portable phone which, just these few years later, suddenly looks like one of those World War II–vintage walkie-talkies coveted by all red-blooded boys back in the 1950s.


I don’t have a cell phone.

It’s true — I’m ashamed, I’m proud to say — I don’t have one and never have. And for me, this being without is a fact worth addressing, for it certainly relates to everything I’ve been saying.

Not having a cell phone — rather, persisting in not having one — has allowed me to take an informal sort of reading on the changing cultural expectation around at least this one technology, and maybe by implication kindred technologies. In my day-to-day life I have registered a shift from tolerant bemusement at my ill-equippedness, to mild irritation, to — increasingly — outright vexation in some quarters. This correlates pretty closely to what I remember going through 20-plus years ago when I did not leap right away onto the answering machine bandwagon, or, soon after, hurry into the internet queue. Yes, I’ll own it: I’m stubborn. My inclination when I see everyone doing something is to not do that thing. A temperamental cussedness, to be sure. But when applied to matters technological it has definite investigatory uses as well.

I am not an out-and-out Luddite: I am, like most everyone else, online, and I live my life far too deeply implicated in various digital webs to have any moral ground to stand on. But I do want to try to understand what it is that we are collectively doing as we embrace e-culture — what is happening to us cognitively, psychologically; how our self-understanding may be changing. So that when I started to realize that my not having a cell phone was causing various kinds of friction between myself and the people in my life, my interest was provoked.

Granted, the cell phone — the “smart” phone — is but a strand in the great embracing weave that I am ultimately preoccupied with, but as there is no taking in a whole so bafflingly ramified, pulling at the one strand at least offers a partial access. Might something of the look of the beast not be extrapolated from this one bit of DNA?

First, though, I should reflect on my reluctance, what people around me are calling my refusal. When going portable originally became an option, I chose not to — it seemed unnecessary, an extravagance, a kind of preening — and many others seemed to feel the same. But with the passing of a decade-plus, I have, simply by not changing my tune, come to be seen as a kind of Bartleby figure. Which of course gets me to wondering how it was that so many others then did decide to adapt — or adopt — after all. Was it the discovery of needs and uses, the power of media marketing, or peer pressure? Yes, yes, and yes. And this last is not to be underestimated. We are all susceptible to group-think. Do most of us truly wish to be in the swim of the digital “now”? Or is it more that people are afraid of not being in that swim? Could both be true at once? Almost everybody I know complains incessantly about the distraction, the triviality, the frustration, the self-alienation, you name it. At the same time, there is clearly such a powerful, and maybe even increasing, desire to be in touch — to express ourselves, to hear from others, to be caught up in that pulse that for a time eases our essential loneliness.

The explosion of cell phone use changed the terms of the game and the social perception. More people able to call while not tethered to the landline meant more calls, and more calls meant a growing likelihood that those who had not gone portable would be missing calls. Along with this — again, by degrees — emerged the expectation of reachability. Responses that before could have waited for the receipt of the call or message acquired a new urgency factor. The margin of allowable time for responding began to shrink, and it has not stopped shrinking — for if there is a reluctance about making an actual voice call, there is no excuse for not texting a reply. There has followed a basic revision of etiquette assumptions. I am the same person in 2013 as I was in 2000 — at least in terms of my calling habits — but in that interval I have grown a devil’s horns. The same hours-later or day-later response that had been perfectly acceptable is now often seen as rudeness. And, in a neat inversion of the former situation, as a kind of preening, an assumption of exceptionality.

What has happened — so quickly? Why the change of attitude? Is it that people are really so interested in reaching me at any time, or being reached by me on that instrument as opposed to my landline? I discount the latter almost completely, and I question the former. If I make it clear that I do not want to be contacted whenever — something that was not, for any of us, a problem before — how is that an insult? There are certain practical considerations, sure. My wife can with reason be put out that I couldn’t be asked to buy a quart of milk on my way home from work; my son can be irritated that he stood on the corner waiting for me to pick him up while I was stuck in traffic — “If you had a cell phone, Dad, I could have been doing other things …” I understand, and I accept some blame. But I don’t think these are the real sources of the irritation, that it really is more a case of who do you think you are? As if by not becoming a cell-carrier I am demanding special dispensation — which is to say, claiming superiority. Saying: I don’t feel that I have to do what the rest of you are doing. But would they feel the same way if I decided not to use an ATM card but instead stood in line at the bank to conduct my transactions with a human being? No, they would mock my impracticality and chuff themselves on how much better they have it with plastic. I will suggest — and then raise my arms up to ward off anticipated blows — that part of the animus has to do with a recognition, very likely subliminal, that they have signed on to something that is not all benefit and convenience; that carrying a cell phone does effect an alteration, some parts of which are anxiety inducing — and that my not joining them slightly amplifies this prickle of doubt.

The nature of that alteration is complex. It is existential at root, and quite bound up, among other things, with geography, with place. By being accessible, findable, contactable at all times, you have redefined, and not all that subtly, the meaning, the point of distance. Heretofore distance was something you put between yourself and others, or yourself and home. The literal miles have not changed, but their meaning has. The potency of the idea of distance has been sapped. It’s not completely accidental that critic/philosopher Walter Benjamin defined “aura,” that ultimate attribute of singularity, as “the unique phenomenon of a distance.” Which I take to mean as an essence that is not to be got at, not to be traduced by ready availability. The implication is that by making ourselves porous to communication — theoretically ever-available — we are at the same time divesting ourselves of aura, or singularity, or, even better, mystery. Why don’t I hurry to buy a cell phone? Because I don’t want the edges rubbed away from the idea of contact. I want to keep an understanding of distance that has some relation to geography and obstacle. Not only do I not desire to be ever-accessible, but I also don’t wish to think I have ready access. 24/7 — a most chilling pair of numbers.


So much of my questioning is not about the particular functions of a technology, but their long-term impacts and implications. You do not completely alter, or abridge, a way of doing things without experiencing some internal ripple-effect. I’m not just thinking of neural plasticity — the fact that the brain is supple and adaptable and has been shown to physically change in order to accommodate new ways of doing things. I’m also contemplating how our psychological frameworks change. When a technology like GPS insures that we arrive at our destination without map study and guesswork, our lives have in one specific way been simplified. But it’s not quite so simple. We also, in some sense, shift over from driver’s seat to shotgun — we surrender a small portion of our agency. Further, we let an assumption of solvability take the place of what had always been a more provisional — possibly more investigatory — relation to our surroundings. We strengthen by that much our faith in the rightness and necessity of the technological fix. And, of course — and most obviously — we relate in a completely different way to the setting we are moving through — we look at it more in terms of its salient indicators and less for itself.

What is true with GPS is true, obviously in different ways, for every life-simplifying gadget, every app that the user installs, whether it’s for locating friends in the area or tracking buses on their routes. And the sum of new capabilities exerts, at least in theory, a definite effect on the person, whom we must now see as carrying in her purse not a mere telephone, but something more akin to a fully loaded command center.

I won’t pretend that I can formulate the implications yet. From my self-elected place at the periphery, I am still absorbing the complicated fact of digital transformation. I’m watching, rapt, at what it is that the people all around me are doing. I realize that we are just getting started, but even at this early point people appear to have fallen under a spell. Wherever I go, whether I am driving or walking, or riding the subway, or passing through the lobby of a building, or sitting in a restaurant downtown, it doesn’t matter, I see the same thing. Individuals, alone or in groups, seated or standing, staring or working at the screen they are holding. What are they doing, all of them? Whatever it is, it’s something that wasn’t being done in the same way 20 years ago, maybe even 10. These are new actions, but what is their nature? What things are so compelling that did not exist before? And is it in part the fact that they did not exist before, that they need constant exploration — just as in the early days of the automobile, people would just go out and drive? There must be some of that. It would help explain what to the recently landed extraterrestrial looks like a population bewitched. The thing gets touched like a talisman, fidgeted with and peeked at far more often than it is put to work, though it is put to work often enough. But what is the fidgeting about? Is there some feeling of confirmation, some psychological centering that this delivers? How vital is the thing?

Again, it is an existential as well as psychological matter. What do I mean? I mean that a person on the bench of a deserted bus stop in Laredo, Texas, who does not have the universal signifier in his or her possession, is in profound ways in a different situation than is the person who does. I don’t mean the obvious practical considerations here, though they are many. I mean existentially, I mean sub specie aeternitatis. The former is alone, in the midst of human absence; he is marooned, for better and worse, in himself, and until the bus arrives or another traveler somehow joins him, he occupies the primal solitude, which we may think of as the basic human condition from the time of first origins until the near-present. The latter, by contrast, knows he has a place in the psychic field of signals — he is reachable and he can reach. He could, if need be, enter a string of digits and be speaking with his sister in Albany, or a taxi service five miles away. He could photograph his bench and send the image to his roommate, or lover, who could have it printed in less than a minute. He could watch a video, or listen to Moonlight Sonata, or play solitaire, or connect to his gamer friends. The former stares at the tumbleweed blowing past, and he is what he is and it is what it is; and I don’t know yet, truly, how to characterize the experience of the latter. But I know it is profoundly different. And I know, sure as I’ve known anything, that the difference matters.

I have now witnessed enough instances with friends and family where a phone has been inadvertently forgotten at home, or even a few times believed lost or stolen, to see what a primal distress ensues. Here is something more than an attachment to a mere appliance. The device so clearly transcends its function; it has to do with the person’s being in the world, with a talismanic sense of social integration — and of inner occupation — that I cannot quite fathom. Phone use may not have the status of a vice, but some of the behaviors I’ve seen resemble nothing so much as the smoker who cannot get to a cigarette, and the drinker who suddenly sees that the last bottle is empty (though no real drinker would “suddenly” see this, he would know at every point the level in the bottle).

As for the inner occupation — this too bears contemplating. Of course, there are the pleasures of increased social integration, the repeated certification of relationships, and the idea of relationships: contact and communication. But that can’t be the all of it. The device is so obviously fulfilling some complex compensatory function. Its uses are fluid and variable enough to fill up available interstices. Psychological pockets, gaps, interludes of idleness. Is this bad? Who can say? Better gaming and texting and surfing than any number of other occupations — obviously. On the other hand, what are the long-range effects of such efficient short-circuiting of idleness? What does all the fidgeting come to stand in the stead of? And how not to sound like another high-minded prig, not start going on about the incentive function of boredom — that we maybe need to be pushed up against ourselves, that the daydreaming boredom provokes nourishes subjective depth and invention? But these things should get said.

These and others as well. For the more I contemplate this innocent instrument — this device already so common that you don’t easily see it anymore — the more I get that it signifies in all directions; has all kinds of bearing on our subjective sense of ourselves. The cell-carrier has a network existence, is part of an extended fabric, the power and import of which are difficult to grasp until we set the new dispensation alongside the old. Only then do the differences start to come clear.


Last night my wife and I were watching a movie when our daughter called. It seemed that some part of her evening’s plan had gone awry, she needed a ride home, could one of us pick her up? She was in the nearby town of Woburn visiting a friend — Woburn with its chaos of unfamiliar streets. I agreed to make the drive and was asking my daughter questions about where in Woburn she might be, hoping she would name one of the few intersections I knew, but Lynn interrupted me almost right away. She was holding out her cell phone. “Don’t bother with that,” she said, “just get the street and number, I’ll put it into Siri.” Of course I knew who — what — Siri was, had more than once heard her giving directions. But always with someone else in the car. I had never been alone with Siri — or, for that matter, with a cell phone. “What if Siri is talking and I need to switch and call Mara?” I asked. Lynn shook her head and took that tone that people increasingly take with me — the verbal equivalent of taking a small, frightened child by the hand and showing him where the bathroom is. She showed me the right button to push, assured me I would be just fine.

Riding with Siri was as close to a transcendental experience as I’ve had in quite some time. As soon as we started up our dark little street, she gave me the heads up: “At the end of Dothan Street turn right on to Henry Street.” Yes, I understand about GPS — in a rudimentary way, to be sure — but certain kinds of knowledge do not right away trump vestigial instinctive reactions. When Siri spoke to me, then and soon after again, I couldn’t but wonder How does she know? Not only how does she know about Henry Street, but how does she know that “in one hundred yards” I will need to make that turn. This was my first awakening, and it was shot through with awe — for the accomplishments of people in think tanks and institutes of higher thought. That they could do all that and train a voice to say all those different words without apparent faltering.

But I’m already getting ahead of myself. A moment ago I wrote “Yes, I understand about GPS …” qualifying then that my understanding was rudimentary. Rudimentary doesn’t begin to get it. I understand as much about the operation of GPS as that RCA dog, “Nipper,” understood about where his master’s voice was coming from. I have no idea whatsoever how a satellite orbiting miles above the earth in the dark can know that I’m a hundred yards from Henry Street. And, again, I wager many others don’t either. GPS may leach away from the unknown in one way, but into the life of the ignorant citizen it injects another kind of mystery: that of an incomprehensible functioning.

I am, as noted, very far back on this part of the technology curve. My 88-year-old father has been driving with Siri for a long time. It was years ago now that he regaled us at the dinner table with his account of his romance with Siri, whom he called — we make excuses for his generation — his “pole dancer.” We mocked him for his readiness to personify (among other things), but now I have to wonder who am I to judge? For driving through the night en route to an address in Woburn, I found myself automatically endowing Siri with a certain — admittedly different — animate personhood. I wanted to get things right, to turn at the right place and bear left when she told me I should, and at some level both feared her contempt if I got it wrong, and desired some sign of her approbation that I had done what she asked. I had a flash memory of reading about the ELIZA program, devised by programmers to simulate the therapeutic encounter, and achieving some surprisingly positive response from users. Have we explored fully enough the power and dynamics of projection? Certainly they are relevant to what we do in our new era of “smart” technology. How deep is our need and how far will we go? Will we give our vibrating forks the capacity to judge us in our moments of avid excess?

Another thing I noticed as I drove — all of this in a matter of 15 or so minutes — was how quickly, how easily, I surrendered control, how few commands it took before I lapsed with full deference into a “Yes, ma’am” posture. I trusted Siri — which may be the same thing as saying I trusted that shiny orbiting unit, which may be — of course it is — the same thing as saying I trusted the engineering intelligence, the collective know-how of the men and women who wrote devised, refined, assembled, and launched the thing. At some point I simply let go of the vast inchoate anxiety that accompanies all my searches for destinations; I relented to the specific superiority of that intelligence.

The most interesting, or distressing, thing, however, happened when I pulled up as ordered in front of the house and leaned over to open the car door for my daughter. I felt — it was a faint sensation, but real nevertheless — that I was at that moment letting go of Siri. I would not be using her on the way back. Three was a crowd. I registered a tinge of guilt.


Not one day after my night out with Siri, I opened the business section of The Boston Globe to read a story called “Google Now One Step Ahead,” which has as its lead, its opening hook: “Does anybody still use Siri?” I was blindsided. Here I had just taken what was for me a pioneering first step into the cultural present — my action not without some real fear and trembling — and I was suddenly feeling the all-too-familiar whiplash of obsolescence. The headline, of course, says it all: that there is a great technological competition going on, a supremacy race driven by the momentum toward more, faster, better, cheaper … This has been going on in the larger capitalist culture since its origins, but the accelerations of the 1960s space race are as nothing compared to what has been happening in techno-culture since the microchip was first formulated. Moore’s famous “Law,” in 1975, projected the doubling of processing power every two years, and I haven’t checked to see whether that still has currency. But that hardly matters. The point is relentless growth and development, and the upshot is that we can never, any of us, catch our breath for a moment 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. The only question is How far in arrears? I answered that for myself a long time ago: far. And that has freed me from at least that version of restlessness, but the choice carries the penalty of knowing myself to be forever at the margins, an outsider to every enthusiastic dinner-party discussion of “the latest,” and, while watching ads on my Pleistocene television, a complete loser in the consumerist sweepstakes.

As for the newspaper article, it was basically touting a new capability on Google’s iPhone app, and I realized as I started reading that I had misread the headline, taking “Now” to mean “currently,” rather than getting, as I probably should have, that it was actually the name of the app: Google Now. So I fumble my way forward.

But the product, the function, so clearly the next step, is to be seriously considered. The writer of the article, Hiawatha Bray, used the adjective “clairvoyant” to characterize Google Now. It is, he writes, “a predictive information service,” one that, based on data stored by Google, anticipates the user’s needs and provides. If Google has a record of a user’s flight reservation, say, it will supply, unasked: weather for both departure and arrival cities, traffic updates for the routes to and from the airport, flight updates, boarding passes, everything but the double Scotch you crave as soon as you settle into your seat. What’s not to like? one might ask. I feel almost ungenerous — downright crotchety — suggesting that, well, there may be things. I remember when I first considered Pandora and, indeed, the whole prospect of algorithmic taste-casting. It was simply “If you liked x then you may like y,” but even that felt problematic. Not because a previous choice had elicited a new recommendation, but because the recommending had been done not by a human taste but a process of numerical analysis. That the choices are often on the mark — and I’ve confessed, haven’t I, to plugging into Pandora on my exercycle — does not finally change my argument, either for this or for the Google Now program.

The point is, again, existential and not utilitarian. It is because in order for Pandora, or Google Now, to achieve its forecasting, it has to view the subjective “I” as a set of objectified behaviors. You could argue that the same is true of the IRS or the medical diagnostician, and it’s true. But by the same token, neither the IRS nor the diagnostician adds an atom to our sense of being human. And besides, those are specific sorts of incursions. Given its likely popularity, and given the larger directional flow of all things technological, Google Now and its surrogates will very likely weave themselves deep into the fabric of our living. And if that happens, then the existential question is not completely moot.

Thinking of this, one of the first things that came to mind for me was Simone Weil’s well known formulation, from her essay on The Iliad, that a force is whatever turns anyone subjected to it into a “thing.” Which may sound dire, but which may also allow us to consider the larger idea that our various i-applications are not simply useful tools for living but also represent a kind of incursion of force, one which has an objectifying, which is to say, perhaps, dehumanizing effect. The concept certainly lends itself to what could be hypothesized as a yet larger tendency of our digital age, which is a movement away from the notion of the individuated “I” and toward a more collectivized existence. Which is, of course, a much larger topic.


But wait —

The frightening and, alas, confirming thing about writing an essay like this, one that looks to track and reflect upon the momentum of technological innovation, is that it is so very quickly outpaced by its subject matter. No matter how current one hopes to be — and for me writing about Google Now felt impressively immediate — the fact is that by the time the words find their way into the world, whatever had seemed the cutting edge will be the status quo, and all proclamations will necessarily seem dated. The only option, really, is to assume that there will be newer, faster, better and to pitch one’s observations at the underlying tendencies and not the latest marketplace excitement.

That said, I need to finish my reflection on the incessant transformation of products and their impacts by bringing up Google Glass — both the specific product and also, in the spirit of looking at those tendencies, the concept of ever-accessible/wearable interactive technology. For whether it ends up being Google Glass, with its sophisticated camera and connective capabilities, or some version of a smart watch, or something still unthought of, before long a great many people will live with, perhaps take for granted, an array of what had until recently seemed sci-fi movie capabilities. They will be able to give and receive signals with simple voice commands, take and send photos and videos, access vast databases. And we appear poised to accept this power, these capabilities, without any extended dialogue about whether there are tradeoffs involved, because we are accustomed now to the logic of commodity upgrades (they are our birthright!), and, hand in hand with the desire to acquire the advertised benefit, we live in terror of being left behind.

The psychology of acquiescence is something that the marketing executives think a good deal about. An article by New York Times reporter Claire Cain Miller explored the patterns of adaptation. She cites software engineer Ellen Ullman, who likens the process to a love affair, which begins with doubts and fears, but after seduction turns into devotion. Taking the example of the Google Now, its data-crunching predictive powers functioning as an advance-guard intelligence, she notes how quickly select respondents admitted that their irritation and suspicion were vanquished by acceptance of the perceived benefits. Miller then quotes Google executive Amit Singhal’s telling and implication-laden assessment: “If it’s there with you all the time, you will get comfortable [...] Our objective is to build that technology because, guess what, that does not exist. We’re just building the dream, and clearly users will have to get comfortable with it.”

Building the dream. Or, rather, just building the dream. This phrase in particular needs study. On several levels. First, there is the idea that Google — a team of engineers and executives — believes it is building something greater and more important than useful innovatory tools; that it is building these to fulfill a larger vision for humanity. What we might become. It’s a tough job, but somebody has to do it. Google. Second, that “just” — small word, but a “tell.” It shruggingly concedes to inevitability — as if everyone knows and accepts that this movement, this transformation, is unavoidable. It has some of the inflection of “we’re just following orders,” or, idiomatically, “you can’t fight City Hall.” Third, though, and most strikingly — stunningly — is the belief that technology, which at this point still means the engineers of technology, Google and its fellow empire-builders, will lead the way forward, and that we will have no choice but to fall in. Because we will see that it is easier, faster, not to be resisted. Today Google Now and tomorrow — no, also today — Google Glass. “Glass, take a picture” and “Glass, how do you say ‘take me out to the ballgame’ in Japanese?”

No question, this is why the sensation of the dust-covered needle is so vivid to me — because it is something more than simple nostalgia for a former technology or my avid album-listening. It also throws me back, through the short-circuitry of memory, to a whole different orientation. The stylus attached to the end of the mobile tonearm was not only the thing that made the music come out of the speakers, but it was — I say this now, in retrospect — the emblem of choice. It was the means by which we listened, what allowed us to zero in on what we wanted. How many hundreds of thousands of times did I get up from my bed, chair, or place at the desk in order to bend over the spinning turntable, pick up the tonearm with the tip of my index finger, and move it that little bit to the left or the right, to the cut I wanted to hear, or hear again, lowering it as precisely as I could onto the little space in the vinyl. How well I know those minuscule tolerances, how familiar that beat or two of static before the clean point of the needle entered the groove in the album that was the song I wanted, the sounds preserved there in literal space.


Sven Birkerts is a regular contributor to LARB.

LARB Contributor

Sven Birkerts co-edits the journal AGNI at Boston University and directs the Bennington Writing Seminars. His most recent book is Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age (Graywolf).


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