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Jonathan Franzen: While We Are Busy Tweeting, Texting and Spending, the World is Drifting Towards Disaster

The problems of our modern world.

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"Nestroy and Posterity" begins:

"We cannot celebrate his memory the way a posterity ought to, by acknowledging a debt we're called upon to honor, and so we want to celebrate his memory by confessing to a bankruptcy that dishonors us, we inhabitants of a time that has lost the capacity to be a posterity... How could the eternal Builder fail to learn from the experiences of this century? For as long as there have been geniuses, they've been placed into a time like temporary tenants, while the plaster was still drying; they moved out and left things cozier for humanity. For as long as there have been engineers, however, the house has been getting less habitable. God have mercy on the development! Better that He not allow artists to be born than with the consolation that this future of ours will be better for their having lived before us. This world! Let it just try to feel like a posterity, and, at the insinuation that it owes its progress to a detour of the Mind, it will give out a laugh that seems to say: More Dentists Prefer Pepsodent. A laugh based on an idea of Roosevelt's and orchestrated by Bernard Shaw. It's the laugh that's done with everything and can do whatever. For the technicians have burned the bridges, and the future is: whatever follows automatically."

Nowadays, the refrain is that "there's no stopping our powerful new technologies". Grassroots resistance to these technologies is almost entirely confined to health and safety issues, and meanwhile various logics – of war theory, of technology, of the marketplace – keep unfolding automatically. We find ourselves living in a world with hydrogen bombs because uranium bombs just weren't going to get the job done; we find ourselves spending most of our waking hours texting and emailing and Tweeting and posting on colour-screen gadgets because Moore's law said we could. We're told that, to remain competitive economically, we need to forget about the humanities and teach our children "passion" for digital technology and prepare them to spend their entire lives incessantly re-educating themselves to keep up with it. The logic says that if we want things like Zappos.com or home DVR capability – and who wouldn't want them? – we need to say goodbye to job stability and hello to a lifetime of anxiety. We need to become as restless as capitalism itself.

Not only am I not a Luddite, I'm not even sure the original Luddites were Luddites. (It simply seemed practical to them to smash the steam-powered looms that were putting them out of work.) I spend all day every day using software and silicon, and I'm enchanted with everything about my new Lenovo ultrabook computer except its name. (Working on something called an IdeaPad tempts me to refuse to have ideas.) But not long ago, when I was intemperate enough to call Twitter "dumb" in public, the response of Twitter addicts was to call me a Luddite. Nyah, nyah, nyah! It was as if I'd said it was "dumb" to smoke cigarettes, except that in this case I had no medical evidence to back me up. People did worry, for a while, that cellphones might cause brain cancer, but the link has been revealed to be feeble-to-nonexistent, and now nobody has to worry any more.

"This velocity doesn't realize that its achievement is important only in escaping itself. Present in body, repellent in spirit, perfect just the way they are, these times of ours are hoping to be overtaken by the times ahead, and that the children, spawned by the union of sport and machine and nourished by newspaper, will be able to laugh even better then … There's no scaring them; if a spirit comes along, the word is: we've already got everything we need. Science is set up to guarantee their hermetic isolation from anything from the beyond. This thing that calls itself a world because it can tour itself in fifty days is finished as soon as it can do the math. To look the question "What then?" resolutely in the eye, it still has the confidence to reckon with whatever doesn't add up. And the brain has barely an inkling that the day of the great drought has dawned. Then the last organ falls silent, but the last machine goes on humming, until even it stands still, because its operator has forgotten the Word. For the intellect didn't understand that, in the absence of spirit, it could grow well enough within its own generation but would lose the ability to reproduce itself. If two times two really is four, the way they say it is, it's owing to the fact that Goethe wrote the poem "Ocean Calm." But now people know the product of two times two so exactly that in a hundred years they won't be able to figure it out. "Something that never before existed must have entered the world. An infernal machine of humanity."

 
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