I read Teddy’s essay on the tiny screen of an iPhone, in a Starbucks in New York, half of it while waiting to use the bathroom, half of it while sitting at a small round table next to a beautiful girl.In the background were various interesting conversations, music, and a very loud coffee grinder.
But I was not distracted. I had no trouble following Teddy’s argument. I had no trouble entering the world of his essay. As I read, all sorts of images effortlessly sprang to mind: a pickle-jar filled with loose change, a young girl trying to manipulate a paper magazine with her fingers, the insides of a record player. I entered this world via black marks on a screen, instead of black marks on a piece of paper. So what?
It kind of bothers the hell out of me, how anxious we are about “technology.” Teddy’s basic worry is a commonplace. But you know what? You have a choice. You don’t have to write sloppy text messages or brief impersonal emails; you don’t have to flit between tabs as you browse, or subscribe to hundreds of blogs; you don’t have to pick up the phone or download an app. You can read Montaigne on your goddamn iPad, and it’ll still be Montaigne. It’s not that hard to go for a walk or think one thing at a time. Cat Stevens said it best: If you want to be free, be free.
Of course, I am a hypocrite, and I share Teddy’s exact anxiety, and not too long ago I even rented a car and drove alone to a cabin in New Hampshire, tucked away a few hundred yards off the Appalachian Trail, to write, the idea being that for three days I would work undistractedly in a notebook.
The first night I had trouble sleeping, but when I woke up to the sun and the sound of birds, and made myself a cup of tea using boiled rainwater, I started to feel pretty good about myself. I started to feel that maybe Thoreau and all those other guys had a point. That morning I worked for three hours straight. I seemed to be doing some very good writing.
But after a short hike that afternoon, I realized that there was no way I could finish my writing—the second draft of a long article—out there in the woods. There was too much rephrasing and reshuffling to do, too much to look up, too many tidbits to search for in my massive repository of notes. I needed my computer. Pen and paper was too slow. It would take me three times the time to cut a paragraph from one place and rejigger it slightly and move it somewhere else. So I packed up my stuff, drove back to New York, got some coffee, and worked two days straight in my bedroom, on my computer, with my high-speed Internet connection.
What’s the moral? Is it that my little attempt to reach back—like Teddy with his records—was misguided?
Yes, I do think that’s part of the truth. But the other part of the truth is, isn’t it a little fucked up that I couldn’t finish an article with just a pen and paper? Maybe the word processor, and the web, is a crutch. Maybe writing on a computer, making heavy use of the delete key, and copying and pasting, allows me to focus too much on the micromechanics of my sentences, to write too much in frantic fragments, at the expense of thinking about the thing itself. Maybe with a pen and paper I’d be more original, more slow and deep and true. Maybe there is something different, and irreplaceable, and special about a record—and we’d do well not to lose it.
That’s the real takeaway, I think. Technologies have tendencies. They make certain things easier. You can always stay focused, but a web browser with thirteen tabs makes it easier to flit between them. You can always write in big thoughtful gulps, but a word processor makes it easier to play with fragments. You can always compose a text message with care, but cell phones encourage triviality.
And we, as Teddy’s “liminal generation,” should know better than just about anyone else what’s at stake here, all the levers and knobs and hinges, all the ways in which tech can change things and all the ways we can keep them the same. I love this point of Teddy’s. I think it’s terribly important. Our anxiety is tiresome, but warranted. This stuff is complicated, and we have to worry about it—if only because our children, the “digital natives,” won’t.