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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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Of all of Kraus's lines, this is probably the one that has meant the most to me. Kraus in this passage is evoking the Sorcerer's Apprentice – the unintended unleashing of supernaturally destructive consequences. Although he's talking about the modern newspaper, his critique applies, if anything, even better to contemporary technoconsumerism. For Kraus, the infernal thing about newspapers was their fraudulent coupling of Enlightenment ideals with a relentless pursuit of profit and power. With technoconsumerism, a humanist rhetoric of "empowerment" and "creativity" and "freedom" and "connection" and "democracy" abets the frank monopolism of the techno-titans; the new infernal machine seems increasingly to obey nothing but its own developmental logic, and it's far more enslavingly addictive, and far more pandering to people's worst impulses, than newspapers ever were. Indeed, what Kraus will later say of Nestroy could now be said of Kraus himself: "he attacks his small environs with an asperity worthy of a later cause." The profits and reach of the Viennese press were pitifully small by the standards of today's tech and media giants. The sea of trivial or false or empty data is millions of times larger now. Kraus was merely prognosticating when he envisioned a day when people had forgotten how to add and subtract; now it's hard to get through a meal with friends without somebody reaching for an iPhone to retrieve the kind of fact it used to be the brain's responsibility to remember. The techno-boosters, of course, see nothing wrong here. They point out that human beings have always outsourced memory – to poets, historians, spouses, books. But I'm enough of a child of the 60s to see a difference between letting your spouse remember your nieces' birthdays and handing over basic memory function to a global corporate system of control.

"An invention for shattering the Koh-i-noor [at the time, the world's largest diamond] to make its light accessible to everyone who doesn't have it. For fifty years now it's been running, the machine into which the Mind is put in the front to emerge at the rear as print, diluting, distributing, destroying. The giver loses, the recipients are impoverished, and the middlemen make a living …"

So that's a taste of Krausian prose. The question I want to consider now is:  Why was Kraus so angry? He was a late child in a prosperous, well-assimilated Jewish family whose business generated a large enough income to make him financially independent for life. This in turn enabled him to publish Die Fackel exactly as he wished, without making concessions to advertisers or subscribers. He had a close circle of good friends and a much larger circle of admirers, many of them fanatical, some of them famous. Although he never married, he had some brilliant affairs and one deep long-term relationship. His only significant health problem was a curvature of the spine, and even this had the benefit of exempting him from military service. So how did a person so extremely fortunate become the Great Hater?

I wonder if he was so angry because he was so privileged. Later in the Nestroy essay, the Great Hater defends his hatred like this: "Acid wants the gleam, and the rust says it's only being corrosive." Kraus hated bad language because he loved good language – because he had the gifts, both intellectual and financial, to cultivate that love. And the person who's been lucky in life can't help expecting the world to keep going his way; when the world insists on going wrong ways, corrupt and tasteless ways, he feels betrayed by it. And so he gets angry, and the anger itself further isolates him and heightens his sense of specialness.

 
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