Thanksgiving Is Ruined

The Personal is Political. The Political is Personal.

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February 09, 2007
doom de doom doom

Everyone will perhaps go gaga over the leader essay, about the social uses of computing technology, in the issue of N+1 (issue # 5, winter 2007) that's now hitting newsstands.

The essay's points, when taken piecemeal, do not necessarily say anything awfully new. However, the piece pulls them all together with style and cogency in a way that sums of some aspects of right about now in a unified, convincing, scary worldview. The feel of impending doom heightens as the essay marches to its conclusion.

on e-mail:

No more efficient vehicle for the transmission of rashness and spleen has ever been devised than the email. Nettled by something -- often something imaginary, since no one's tone comes across quite right, over email -- you lash out instantaneously. You hit SEND and it's too late. It's too late because it's too soon.

We all already know this. No matter. Every few years we watch ourselves or someone else we know of greater civility and good judgment than ourselves forget that truth for a fatal moment, or cross paths with someone else who forgets that truth at the same moment or hasn't learned it yet, and get kicked in the gut by it.

The N+1 essay's characteristic here is to stack atop each commonplace observation like the above a granite block of foreboding, then another:

Western civilization has become a giant inbox; it will swell and groan but never be empty till it crashes.

The essay then proceeds to work its way systematically and with no remorse through our entire culture.

On cellphones:

When you eavesdrop on cell-phone conversations, you learn who people are by what they are saying to their friends: "I am now doing one thing. I am now doing another. I will report them all and notice none."

And in effect this mode of constant self-report can be summed up in a single phrase: "I am on the phone. I am on the phone. I am on the phone."

On work:

You see the problem. Office workers, no longer chained to their desks, become chained, as never before, to their computers.

On blogs:

A corollary to Virilio's theory of history was that each new stage in technology gave rise to new accidents. To understand the technology, you also needed to anticipate the accidents.

On our whole civilizational enchilada:

Gradually, the elements add up, and the most trivial devices may someday become the most important things. . . . Our technologies always open the possibilities to the best, and somehow open the floodgates to the worst.

. . .

What's so odd about so many modern technological improvements is that they are achievements of human liberation in their emergency uses, and they decivilize in their daily use.

. . .

Gradually, the decivilizing process, by this array of devices and images that we employ upon ourselves, will undo our thoughts, our speech, our fantasies.

That's an emergency, too.

The essay is titled, "The Intellectual Situation," as has been the lead essay (each one of them very cool) in every issue of N+1.

I have no idea who wrote the essay. It is unsigned. I assume that it was written by some person(s) on the mag's editorial board, maybe Keith Gessen.

Here are some of the reasons I like the essay so much. Perhaps other people will feel the same way.

1. It is printed near the front pages of the magazine. That way I didn't have to flip too many pages to get to it. I also got to feel like I was reading the whole massive, 180-page magazine, which was very intimidating, without having to delve too deeply into the thick of it. I like this because I am very lazy.

2. The magazine writes about my exact lifestyle and self ("self"? blogself? persona?) as if it were the center of the universe. In this way, the essay congratulates me for being exactly who I already am.

3. The magazine provides just enough suggestion of the horrifying implications of how I live that my conscience could flagellate itself for a moment or two. This is always pleasurable. Then pleasurable again when I stop.

4. Finally, the essay suggests that the network of interlocking technological "conveniences" that is closing in to devour me has a logic of inevitability about it. That it is inescapable. I like this because, morally, it lets me off the hook.

As I suggested above, the essay deserves to be huge and to be quoted, linked to and e-mailed all over the place.

And it probably will be.

For at least 16 minutes.