04 July 2014

The Binaries of Adam Gopnik

As Adam Gopnik tours the Internet with Never-Betters and Better-Nevers, one has to ask, Does the binary make the writer, or the writer make the binary?

Forgive me, father, for I have sinned. It's been two and a half years since my last blog entry. In that time I've done not much important. There was a venal thing about a website, mortal exchanges with a girl or two, and an unholy amount of commuting to Vancouver's eastern quarters by bus and train. My ignorance remains intact – unassailable, even.

And as that last sentence shows, I've betrayed the em dash for her sister, en. My new girl pines for the spotlight less. A case of preferring Jan to Marcia, maybe, but once you get past the honey-coloured hair and deliciously long neck, Marcia's charms run cruelly thin. And so it is with the em. What was thrilling became gratuitous. Nothing gold can stay.

Adam Gopnik
Adam Gopnik pulls this Feb. 2011 Internet
rumination out of the fire after opening with breezy
dismissal and a glib Nazi put-down.
Adam Gopnik won me back in the course of his recent survey of digital technologies and their impact on our lives, "How the Internet Gets Inside Us" (February 14th). The piece sketches out the essential responses of three groups of thinkers on the subject:
The Never-Betters, like Clay Shirky, who believe that we're on the crest of an ever-surging wave of democratized information, and that advances in technology are making humans ever freer.
The Better-Nevers, like Nicholas Carr, who are pessimistic about the Internet; they worry that by radically fracturing our attention and keeping us busy it breaks down our capacity for reflective thought.
And then the Ever-Wasers, who claim that a sense of vertiginous overload has always been central to our experience of modernity – that we might not be fully human if we weren't whining about the malign effects of clay pots, or television, or the Internet.
I say won me back because the article started slight. The clanking came early, in the writer's breezy dismissal of Shirky and Co.'s (admittedly thin) sketch of technological history. While mostly conceding Shirky's thesis – that greater information freedom eventually leads to greater personal freedom – Gopnik takes pains to remind us that It Wasn't Easy. Before that freedom arrived, he says, a lot of bad shit went down: book burnings, Martin Luther's "newly invented absolutist anti-Semitism," and "100 years of religious warfare." While you're savouring that liberty omelette, Mr. Shirky, forget not the broken eggs.

One of Gopnik's kicks at Nicolas Carr also feels less than fully gracious. Martin Heidegger's clairvoyant claim that "new technologies would break the meditational space on which Western wisdoms depend" is meaningless, he says, because, well, Heidegger later walked into the arms of the Nazis.

Charles Robert Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882)
This was where I got to squinting and Billy Idoling a lip on the #22 bus. Does the one disqualify the other? Is the wagon not big enough for two ideas – that Heidegger was an asshole and had a profound observation of technology?

But I'm not sure "both/and" much works for Adam Gopnik. The literary binary, pivoting on "either/or," is his hammer, nails, and sawhorse. Take from this article our mirrored Never-Betters and Better-Nevers. Or look back to my favourite Gopnik piece, an examination of the life and legacy of Charles Darwin that attempts to reconcile another dyad – deep (geologic) time and quick (momentary) time.
"The tragedy of life is not that there is no God but that the generations through which it progresses are too tiny to count very much. There isn't a special providence in the fall of a sparrow, but try telling that to the sparrows.

The human challenge that Darwin felt, and that his work still presents, is to see both times truly – not to attempt to humanize deep time, or to dismiss quick time, but to make enough of both without overlooking either."
Gopnik's binaries, if they were clunky or facile, would be as repellent George Bush's "With us or against us." But they're tightly sewn, and crucially move past thesis/antithesis toward synthesis. The binary is often deployed to to effect a burst of clarity or recognition, but not here. Gopnik's interested in a deeper question. 

And sometimes the question happens to be beautiful. Again from "How the Internet Gets Inside Us":
Everything once inside [you] is outside, a click away; much that used to be outside is inside, experienced in solitude. And so the peacefulness, the serenity that we feel away from the Internet...has less to do with being no longer harried by others than with being less oppressed by the force of your own inner life. Shut off your computer, and your self stops raging quite as much or quite as loud.

* Republished, for no particular reason, on July 4, 2014. Actually, there was a reason: I'd just had a too-clever-by-half conversation about Gopnik's latest piece in the magazine, about cooking and memory and his eccentric mother, and remembered the cruelty of James Wolcott's takedown in 2007, and wondered whether it was as unfairly vituperative as I'd thought.

1 comment:

alt said...

Smiling to see you writing again. Please don't stop. Ever.