By Gina Mitchell
The Digital Age, with its new networks, technologies, and modes of communication, is alternatively posited as the future and the demise of the humanities. On one hand, its capabilities promise to aggrandize the humanities and its endeavors; online classrooms, E-publishing, virtual archives, and other developments can expand the reach and deepen the inquiries of literature, history, and art. At the same time, the Digital Age is accused of catapulting the humanities into a state of crisis. This era and the changes it engenders have been linked to phenomena from the death of the book to the decline of the music industry. Many worry that modern technology, mobile communication, and the multi-tasking they demand have distracted us from the larger questions—ontological and moral—that the humanities beg us to consider. Against this backdrop, skeptics of the Digital Age often regard the humanities as our last hope, the thing that might save us from a dystopian digitized future.
Compelling arguments have been made for each of these positions. But ultimately, I’d like to consider a different, less polarized narrative. In this piece, I bring together texts that I hope will lead us to a more nuanced understanding of the interactions between the humanities and the Digital Age, without glossing over the tensions that exist between them.
In March 2011 and April 2012, MIT Social Scientist Sherry Turkle delivered speeches at two major TedX conferences. Turkle has studied the effects of technology on society for over thirty years, and the talks—entitled “Alone Together” (2011) and “Connected but Alone” (2012)—express her growing concerns about life in the Digital Age. Both talks shift the focus away from the alluring opportunities our new technologies offer, asking us to consider instead what is lost in the present era of constant, digitized communication:
Technology is seductive when its affordances meet our human vulnerabilities. And it turns out we are very vulnerable indeed. We are lonely but fearful of intimacy. Connectivity offers for many of us the illusion of companionship without the demands of friendship. We can’t get enough of each other if—if—we can have each other at a distance in amounts we can control… [If we can] hide from each other even as we are continually connected to each other. To put it too simply, we would rather text than talk. Online connections bring so many bounties, but our lives of continual connection also leave us lonely. Often we are too busy communicating to think. (Turkle “Connected But Alone”)
In the digitized world, intimacy and conversation wane. We’re caught in a treacherous cycle: as a culture we find ourselves lonelier than ever, yet we’ve forgotten how to fill those voids through real-time, face-to-face connection. Moreover, our mobile technologies have propelled us into a state of perpetual distraction, diminishing our capacity for self-reflection and critical thinking. Flooded by superficial communication, we find ourselves distant, preoccupied, and paradoxically, alone.
Turkle’s claims are perceptive and imperative. Her words will undoubtedly resonate with anyone who has ever found her focus fragmented by ringtones and notifications, or felt a friendship shrink to a string of text messages and Facebook exchanges.
For those with a vested interest in the humanities, Turkle’s arguments hold an additional significance. “We confront a paradox,” she asserts, in which “we insist that our world is increasingly complex, yet we’ve created a communications culture that has decreased the time available for us to sit and think uninterrupted. We ramp up the volume and velocity of communication, but we start to expect fast answers, and yet in order to get them we ask each other simpler questions, we start to dumb down our communication, even on the most important matters. Shakespeare might have said, ‘we are consumed by that which we are nourished by’” (“Alone Together”). Truncating our space for expression and our time for contemplation, digital communication curtails the complex questions that form the crux of the humanities. From this vantage, the future of literature, philosophy, history and the like seems bleak indeed.
I find it interesting, too, that Turkle turns to Shakespeare at this moment in her speech. This impulse to return to the classics is a trend among those who recognize the ominous implications the Digital Age yields—both for society at large and for the humanities specifically. In his recent defense of the humanities in Scientific American, John Horgan argues that “it is precisely because science is so powerful that we need the humanities now more than ever.” His goes on to describe the humanities-based course he offers to freshmen at the Stevens Institute of Technology. The course syllabus “includes Sophocles, Plato, Thucydides, Shakespeare, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Mill, Marx, Nietzsche, William James, Freud, Keynes, Eliot.” This list of the “Greatest Hits of Western Civilization” again illustrates the desire to hone in on the classics when confronted with the perils of the Digital Age.
There is an undeniable logic to this urge. Overwhelmed by the complexities of the Digital Age, we seek out the great works that exist beyond it, unsullied by its complications. Such texts offer us familiarity, clarity, and, in many cases, insight: digital technology and communication do indeed nourish and consume us simultaneously. The fact that Shakespeare’s words lend themselves so completely to our current paradox is a testament to the timelessness of his prose. And yet, perhaps there are other texts—texts born in and from the Digital Age—that are in some ways better suited to articulate and examine the specific challenges this era holds.
Take, for example, Lidia Yuknavitch’s 2012 novel, Dora: A Headcase, which features a sassy and alienated video-artist coming of age in Seattle. The lines between the digital and unmediated reality blur in the high-tech world of Dora and her peers, and Yuknavitch’s protagonist proves strikingly aware of how technology defines her experience:
You know what? Seventeen is no place to be. You want to get out, you want to shake off a self like old dead skin. You want to take how things are and chuck it like a rock… You stuff your ears with ear buds blasting music so loud it’s beyond hearing, it’s just the throb and heat and slam and pound and scream of bodies on the edge of adult. You text your head off. You guerilla film. We live through sound and light—through our technologies.
On one level, Dora’s words evoke familiar tropes of the marginalized, searching American teenager (and indeed, reviewers of the novel have noted the similarities between Dora and Heller’s Holden Caulfield). But this passage—with its references to texting and guerilla filmmaking, and with its astute imagining of a self constructed through sound and light—departs from established literary conventions in important ways. With Dora, Yuknawvitch plunges us into a fictional realm in which intimacy, expression, agency, and art prove inextricable from the technologies that produce and transmit them. By weaving culturally specific technologies into the fabric of its narrative, the novel offers a fictional framework to explore the intricacies of the Digital Age.
A project generated by Yuknavitch’s contemporary on the Portland, Oregon literary scene, Cheryl Strayed, offers a final ground for considering the new interactions between the humanities and the Digital Age. Best-known for her luminous, immensely popular memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, Strayed is also the writer of a lesser-known collection of texts: a web-based advice column entitled “Dear Sugar.” Fearless, revealing, and beautifully crafted, Strayed’s column departs from the conventions of the advice genre in significant ways. In turn, her audience—the virtual community of readers that gather to receive her guidance—defy expectations of internet commentary and communication. In these ways, “Dear Sugar” provides intriguing counterpoints to Turkle’s fears about the Digital Age.
One of my favorite Sugar columns is called “The Obliterated Placed.” In it, the letter writer is so heart-broken over the premature death of his son that he is unable to compose his thoughts in traditional letter form. Instead, he offers Sugar a list. Here are some excerpts:
…2) I don’t have a definite question for you. I am a sad, angry man whose son died. I want him back.
4) I’m a father while not being a father. Most days it feels like my grief is going to kill me, or maybe it already has. I’m a living dead dad.
5) Your column has helped me go on. I have faith in my version of God and I pray every day, and the way I feel when I’m in my deepest prayer is the way I feel when I read your words, which feel sacred to me.
18) I will understand if you choose not to answer my letter. Most people, kind as they are, don’t know what to say to me, so why should you?
19) I’m writing to you because the way you’ve written about your grief over your mother dying so young has been meaningful to me. I’m convinced that if anyone can shine light into my dark hell, it will be you.
20) What can you say to me?
21) How do I go on?
22) How do I become human again?
Turkle claims that we “use technology to dial down human contact,” and she fears that the Internet exemplifies this impulse: online we can “bail out of the physical real,” project identities that conceal our vulnerabilities, and interact with masses of people in insubstantial ways. And she’s right. We could call upon countless examples of cyber-bulling, snarky comment boards, and web-based hate speech to further illustrate the fact that the internet can be a landscape of loneliness, disconnect, thoughtlessness, and fear. But what the above letter demonstrates is that the Internet can also be a ground for vulnerability and humanity.
What Sugar’s response to the letter demonstrates is that profound connection and extraordinary art are also possible through the mediums of the Digital Age. Her answer mirrors the list configuration of the letter:
Dear Living Dead Dad,
1) I don’t know how you go on without your son, sweet pea. I only know that you do. And you have. And you will.
2) Your shattering sorrowlight of a letter is proof of that.
3) You don’t need me to tell you how to be human again. You are there, in all of your humanity, shining unimpeachably before every person reading these words right now.
4) I am so sorry for your loss. I am so sorry for your loss. Iamsosorryforyourloss.
9) Small things such as this have saved me: how much I love my mother—even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours.
28) The strange and painful truth is that I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I’d give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things.
29) Your grief has taught you too, Living Dead Dad. Your son was your greatest gift in his life and he is your greatest gift in his death too. Receive it. Let your dead boy be your most profound revelation. Create something of him.
30) Make it beautiful.
In an a era characterized by a desire to disengage—from the present, from our own inner lives, and from each other—Sugar pushes us gently towards self awareness and compassion. Together, Sugar and Living Dead Dad defy the pressures to “ask…simpler questions,” and “expect fast answers,” revealing the depths of human connection that are possible within the digital world of the Sugar column.
To grasp the full significance of Sugar’s column for the relationship between the humanities and the digital, however, we must look even more closely at her language. Because while “shattering sorrowlight of a letter” and “Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place” and “let your dead boy be your most profound revelation” move us because they strike at truth, so much of their power also lies in their aesthetic force. Each sentence Sugar offers rails against the linguistic laziness of the Digital Age, reassuring us that art and literature can indeed thrive here.
There it is again, that oppositional language. Sugar “rails against” the prevailing tendencies of the Digital Age, and it’s impossible to do justice to the radical emotional, political, and artistic work that she does without acknowledging the unique challenges of the contemporary moment. But still, we can’t lose sight of the fact that the community of “Sugarland” exists as it does not in spite but because of the conditions of the Digital Age. This virtual space is one of simultaneous disclosure and anonymity, a realm removed from the immediacy of real time, where people nevertheless delve deeply into very real predicaments and pain. Like Yuknavitch’s Dora, the virtual/textual world of Sugarland emerges from loneliness and doubt of Digital Age, and it is constructed through the new mediums this era offers.
As Horgan notes, the need for the humanities intensifies in our contemporary lives. And the “classic” humanities texts continue to instruct us and accrue new meanings in the Digital Age, just as they always have. Let’s continue to lean on their wisdom. But let’s look too to other texts—to the multi-media, the experimental, and the not-yet-canonized. In these exciting, imaginative territories, synergetic exchanges between the digital and the humanities thrive.
 TedX conferences, funded by the Sapling Foundation, are community-based gatherings over the world guided by the principle of “ideas worth spreading.”
Originally Published in the Maine Humanities Council Newsletter Fall 2013
The Digital Age Essay
The Digital Age
The digital age is staring us in the face from the near future. We already see countless instances of digital technology emerging more and more in our every day lives. Cell phones are equipped with voice recognition software, and are able to take photographs and send them wirelessly across the globe, almost instantaneously. When information is captured and transmitted into a digital format, possibilities for that data become endless. Soon we will no longer be inconvenienced with reality; all of our sensory shopping experiences will be converted to digital information and will be fed to us through our computers. Digital information is in a much more malleable format. It can easily be duplicated, changed, or processed by a computer in a fraction of the time that it would take a human brain. This information can than be beamed across the globe through series of cables and satellites, to any specific location, almost immediately.
Digital technology has already overtaken the way we transmit simple information, like language or pictures. Soon it will incorporate the way we send all information. As current technology progresses, new devices will be created. They will have the ability to capture real, sensory experiences and pipe them into a computer. The information created will be able to be shared by anyone with a computer. The power base that the digital age relies on for existence, is technology. The rapid developing technology is absolutely necessary for the digital age to exist. Without super powerful microchips, and high bandwidth transfer wires, the digital age would be a figment of our imagination. Digital technology is computer based, so...
Loading: Checking Spelling0%