F E A T U R E S    Issue 1.02 - June 1995

Digital refusnik

By Harvey Blume

Wired: You have staked out a radically anti-digital position. What do you fear most about new communications technology?
Birkerts: The erosion of presence, the loss of immediacy of engagement, whether person-to-person or person-to-environment. The opposite of presence to me is virtuality, simulation. I see this polarity as central to our time.

When did the changes that worry you begin?
We've had labour-saving devices and inventions all along, of course. What's happening now is that innovation is coming at a more rapid pace than ever before. We had the telephone - already a great mediation device, both imposing and reducing distance between people - and we got used to it. Then TV came along, causing a kind of crisis in the culture, and we accommodated. But at some point in the last 20 years, these things started to come at such a rate that we gave up on accommodation and simply began to accept.

We just breathe technology these days - the whole panoply, everything from phones to answering machines, to e-mail, to computers, to fax. It's not that these things are necessarily evils. But we don't have the chance to grow into them, to learn their meaning and their measure and their shortcomings - because they're coming at such a rate and in such multiples.

If you were around in 1900, would you have been one of those people, like Mark Twain, who opposed the phone?
Probably. It may be my disposition. Today I'm being driven to a greater sense of dissent just because there's a greater sense of acquiescence everywhere I look. That angers me, and drives me to make stronger, more strident assertions to the contrary. In 10 years, I'll probably be walking around in a pelt, with a beard, barefoot, screaming - and they'll lock me away and that will be the end of it.

Why do you think that working with a computer is so much worse than working with a typewriter?
Software represents the tool-making, calculating, analytical side of ourselves. And yet when you sit down to write at the screen - I'm talking about certain kinds of writing - you're trying to break through to the other side. Don't you think it's fascinating that at the very moment we are learning to write code - code that is comparatively simple - we are also beginning to understand ourselves as DNA-coded beings? There's a fine line between understanding ourselves as coded and fiddling with that code. When we begin messing around with it too much, we'll eventually exceed some threshold and wind up in an environment where we understand nothing. Having demythified all our myths and demystified all our mysteries, we're going to find the spiritual residue of ourselves in grave condition.

You're good at pointing out the dark side of connectivity, and it's true every new technology casts a shadow. The car, for example, brings pollution and dependence on oil. But can't you see any of the liberating impact of computers?

Yes? Did I hear "yes"?
Yes. I think there's a steady, inevitable overcoming of human provincialism. We're becoming schooled to larger perspectives. Though it's not always easy to believe, we're going to be more tolerant of diversity and difference. We will grasp a sense of global living in a way we never could before.

You wrote: "By degrees - it is happening year by year, appliance by appliance - we are wiring ourselves to a gigantic hive." But human culture is so fantastically complicated, it's hard to imagine us living like social insects - electronic or not.
Pretty soon, every household will be a centred unit that pulls all of its elements together into one great communicating pipe organ. At the same time, there has to be a flattening of the human. It's essential to the hive life - which challenges the old terms of what it means to form a life. As everything else in our society becomes streamlined, it becomes harder to resist the trend. Over the generations, people will have increasingly similar lives.

If it's a hive, who is the queen? Is the queen electronic?
There is something in us, possibly our own DNA, that recalls animistic ritual - the fear of the night, the gods who come back in different form on the big screen. If somebody comes along who's a persuasive demagogue and really commands the wires, commands the codes and is an irresistible presence, I can imagine dangerous scenarios. I can also imagine a spiritual leader tapping in and turning those same desires in the other direction. So it's a gamble. Electronic Church or electronic Reich? It could be either.

Some people do better on the phone than in person, don't they? They're more comfortable, less embarrassed. Why not see online interaction as just another possibility for communication?
You're arguing for pluralism - we can have the old, but we also can have the new - whereas I say that the new makes it harder to have the old.

We're compelled by invisible collective pressures to move in the way society is going. I feel I almost have to physically resist going online. There so many compulsions and expectations to my daily life. "Can you send me the disk? Can you do it now? Can you do it tomorrow?" Not going online has become a point of principle for me.

So staying offline is an experiment you perform on yourself; a kind of performance art.
A kind of performance art, yes. I've gone in five years from being seen as slightly retrograde to being seen as positively a crank. Five years from now, if I'm not online, it's going to be seen as grandstanding.

You're going to need a doctor's note. What use can Wired readers make of your objections? Besides junking their machines, that is.
I don't want people to junk their machines. If I have mission in talking about this, it's to bring the question out, to bring it forward. The last words in my book are: "Refuse it". I sound like I'm speaking for the world, but I'm speaking only for myself. I don't tell anyone to refuse it. Only to think about it.

Harvey Blume is based in Cambridge Massachusetts, and is a writer and a critic.