Just a wonderful conversation — I am so grateful for the responses. The past few weeks have been exceptionally busy for me, so right now I just have time to make a few brief notes, to some of which I hope I can return later.
First, Julia Ticona is exactly right to point out that my theses presume a social location without explicitly articulating what that location is. I’ve thought about these matters before, and written relatively briefly about them: see the discussion of African Christians whose Bibles are on their phones late in this essay; and a modern Orthodox Jewish take on textual technologies here; and the idea of “open-source Judaism” here. But I haven't done nearly enough along these lines, and Ticona’s response reminds me that we are in need of a more comprehensive set of technological ethnographies.
Second, I am really intrigued by Michael Sacasas’s template for thinking about attention. I wonder if we might complicate his admirably clear formulation — hey, it’s what academics do, sue me — by considering Albert Borgmann’s threefold model of information in his great book Holding on to Reality, from the Introduction of which I’ll quote at some length here:
Information can illuminate, transform, or displace reality. When failing health or a power failure deprives you of information, the world closes in on you; it becomes dark and oppressive. Without information about reality, without reports and records, the reach of experience quickly trails off into the shadows of ignorance and forgetfulness.
In addition to the information that discloses what is distant in space and remote in time, there is information that allows us to transform reality and make it richer materially and morally. As a report is the paradigm of information about reality, so a recipe is the model of information for reality, instruction for making bread or wine or French onion soup. Similarly there are plans, scores, and constitutions, information for erecting buildings, making music, and ordering society....
This picture of a world that is perspicuous through natural information and prosperous through cultural information has never been more than a norm or a dream. It is certainly unrecognizable today when the paradigmatic carrier of information is neither a natural thing nor a cultural text, but a technological device, a stream of electrons conveying bits of information. In the succession of natural, cultural, and technological information, both of the succeeding kinds heighten the function of their predecessor and introduce a new function. Cultural information through records, reports, maps, and charts discloses reality much more widely and incisively than natural signs ever could have done. But cultural signs also and characteristically provide information for the reordering and enriching of reality. Likewise technological information lifts both the illumination and the transformation of reality to another level of lucidity and power. But it also introduces a new kind of information. To information about and for reality it adds information as reality. The paradigms of report and recipe are succeeded by the paradigm of the recording. The technological information on a compact disc is so detailed and controlled that it addresses us virtually as reality. What comes from a recording of a Bach cantata on a CD is not a report about the cantata nor a recipe-the score-for performing the cantata, it is in the common understanding music itself. Information through the power of technology steps forward as a rival of reality.
Thinking about Borgmann in relation to Sacasas, I formulate a question which I can only register right now: What if different kinds of information elicit, or demand, different forms of attention?
Finally: Most of my respondents have in some way — though it’s interesting to note the variety of ways — emphasized the need to distinguish between individual decision-making and structural analysis: between (a) whatever technologies you or I might choose to employ or not employ, when we have a choice, and (b) the massive global-capitalist late-modern forces that sustain and enforce our current technopoly. Seeing these distinctions I am reminded of a very similar conversation, that surrounding climate change.
There has been an interesting recent turn in writing about climate change. Whereas advocates for the environment once placed a great emphasis on the things that individuals and families can do — reducing one’s carbon footprint, recycling, etc. — now, it seems to me, it’s becoming more common for them to say that “being green won't solve the problem”. The problems must be addressed at a higher level — at the highest possible level. Technopoly, similarly, won't be altered by boycotting Facebook or writing more by hand or taking the occasional digital detox.
But I might be. Recycling and installing solar panels and avoiding plastic water bottles — these are actions that matter only insofar as they limit destruction to our environment; they don't do anything in particular for me, except add inconvenience. But even if sending postcards to my friends instead of tweeting to them doesn't lessen the grip of the great social-media juggernauts, it can still be a good and worthwhile thing to do. We just need to be sure we don't confuse personal culture with social critique.