We can only go forwards

I was talking to my partner the other day about how unlikely it would be for us to have children, and the tremendous sacrifices it would take on both our parts to raise a happy, well-adjusted child. One thing that kept coming up was the extreme difficulty it would be to raise a child away from screens and algorithmic content, when both of us are hopeless addicts ourselves. To us, and I think to most people, it’s a given that providing children with access to screens would be severely unhealthy for their developing brains, in some unique way. And that if you can raise a kid into their early teens without too much exposure to screens, your job is done.

But recently, I’ve been reading some stuff that challenges the “unique” bit, which really upsets this whole entire narrative.

Before the internet we had television sets. They came in the 50s and proliferated in our homes and by the 90s the average American was spending 6 hours a day in front of their sets. Descriptions of television and the culture around it at this time paints a fascinating picture that is very similar to how we think of internet culture today – cynical, ironic, self-referential to the point of blindness to the real, hyperreal.

pov: David Foster Wallace tells you to touch grass (1990)

It’s honestly kind of weird that I forgot about this, considering how much anti-tv stuff was drilled into me throughout elementary school. People were banging on about this a lot back in the day! But maybe it’s not that weird, since it’s been like 12 years since the first iPhone was released and then the internet sort of ate the world.

What does it mean to say that the irony poisoning isn’t new? That we’re three generations removed from a culture untouched by screens and mass media?

I think, first and foremost, it means that there’s no pure world, no strongtime that we can return to by logging off and touching grass. Not any longer.

It also means that every aspect of our lives and culture have been shaped by it. Depriving a child of a tablet might be in some ways akin to not teaching them how to read. I’m honestly not sure if there’s any real way of opting out of this culture, besides joining the Amish. If you’re not down for a life of churning butter and sexual repression, the only way forward is to make new theory and new strategies for the new world that we live in.

So this brings me to this recent piece that I can’t stop thinking about: Michael Cuenco’s “America’s New Post-Literate Epistemology” for Palladium Mag.

I think it’s a super insightful piece, that also doubles as a great survey of the media studies field, which first established in the 70s to critique television culture. I tried to find an excerpt but it’s such a weird, expansive piece that it’s really not possible. So instead here’s a brief summary of one section:

Modern humans interact with content by way of a never ending stream of articles, takes, and countertakes. Issues never feel solved, they only disappear from the timeline due to waning interest in due time. Reflecting this, there’s now a societal disinterest in reaching any sort of closure, and maybe even the feeling that the desire to have closure is somehow juvenile or naive. We should categorize this type of media interaction as having something closer to an oral nature rather than a literate one because of a lack of clear sequence, structure, or hierarchy in the information.

In oral structures, when we interact with new content, we can form associations between them and older stuff that we’ve seen pretty easily, but it’s much more difficult to form conclusions, to reach definitive endings. In this world it becomes increasingly difficult to think in terms of linearity, in terms of doing something and getting somewhere, to produce programs and manifestos and five-year plans.

Literate—but non-liberal—China has a goal: national rejuvenation by 2049. This is a concrete master plan bounded by a progressive notion of time, with numbered steps and specific metrics, and the planners are concerned with the reshaping of space.

Meanwhile, post-literate America has no long-term goals. Identity-slogans like “Make America Great Again” or “Defund the Police” may sound like goals, but they are in fact what McLuhan called “mythical environments,” which “live beyond time and space” and are therefore untethered to concrete linear action in the physical world. By when exactly is America supposed to be great again? Are there any metrics to help us determine if it is on track to becoming great? How precisely do we defund the police? What happens after?

One important thing to note is that the authors are actually quite ambivalent to this shift, from the literate to the post-literate. Sure, Cuenco seems to say, there’ll be growing pains as we make the switch in our epistemology, but can we really say that we’ll be worse off afterwards?

Of course, being a literate troglodyte in this “post-literate” world, my response to the question is an unequivocal yes. It seems objectively terrible, and what’s worse is how much I recognized my own style of thinking reflected in the description of oral culture, since I’ve been terminally online since I was twelve, and a pretty hopeless tv addict before that.

In adolescence, I began to see issues in hues of grey instead of black and white, and to see societal problems as parts of an ever-shifting ecosystem, paralyzingly wicked and complex instead of anything a single person could affect. Throughout high school and most of university I cultivated and refined this way of thinking. I think the pendulum is now starting to swing in the other direction. I want to develop my ability to think linearly. (I don’t think I’m like, abjectly terrible at this, but I think I could be better.)

So I’ve been taking time to read books again, lots of them, sequentially, from start to finish. I’ve started volunteering, and then working full-time for grassroots mutual aid organizations that do things right now, instead of returning to the public service policy positions I interned for, where my job was to analyze consideration after consideration for policies that might launch 10 years later. (This is important work, but I don’t think it’s the work for me any longer.) I’m trying to get back into the habit of writing, because blog posts need beginnings and middles and ends.

And I go on regular walks, and although I don’t touch the grass, I admire the wildflowers.