Are we ready for digitopia? Do we even begin to consider what we might be risking when we opt for, or succumb to, the ease, efficiency and beguilements of online life?
Many boosters claim, not unreasonably, that the digitally enhanced life only extends the capacities and potentials of the human being. But growing evidence suggests that such a regime may distort or diminish our human endowments, including our imagination and intellect, our will and attention, our feelings and emotions. Nor is it unfair to say that the life digital – both the reality and the hype – has already gone some way toward diminishing our sense of human distinctiveness.
The spring issue of The Hedgehog Review, an interdisciplinary journal published by the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, addresses what humans might be ceding to tech gurus and “big data” in four essays that focus on the theme of “The Human and the Digital.”
Intellectual historian Leif Weatherby begins with a reconsideration of the work of Warren McCulloch, an American neurophysiologist who was centrally involved in the relatively short-lived science of cybernetics. In “Digital Metaphysics,” Weatherby explains that McCulloch and his peers developed a profound critique that can help us think about the power and limitations of the algorithmic manipulations of data, “while avoiding the extremes of digital utopianism and digital denialism.”
Great as they are, the challenges of the digital age are not only profoundly intellectual and conceptual. They are also emotional and affective. In her essay on the digitally revealed life, “Expose Thyself!,” historian and technology critic Christine Rosen asks the crucial question: “If emotions use our bodies as their theater, as Antonio Damasio puts it, what happens when that theater becomes virtual?”
As much as we invest our minds and feelings in and through digital media, we are remarkably unconcerned about the long-term fate of those thoughts and sentiments. What if Facebook or any other major social network were to shut down? This is not merely a technical question, argues the literary critic and scholar Alan Jacobs in his essay, “Tending the Digital Commons”: “In the years since I became fully aware of the vulnerability of what the internet likes to call my ‘content,’ I have made some changes in how I live online. … The complexities of social media ought to prompt deep reflection on what we all owe to the future, and how we might discharge this debt.”
The question of ownership in the digitally mediated world raises other large questions at the juncture of commerce and culture, many of which Edward Tenner, a historian of technology, addresses in “Who’s Afraid of the Frightful Five?” Surveying a growing body of literature critical of “big tech” hegemony, Tenner partially agrees with concerns about these giants’ monopolistic tendencies and the resulting effects on intellectual and artistic creativity, but cautions against a certain myopia about the history of monopoly itself: “If the online moguls had truly sinister designs, it would be far easier to reform their enterprises or to break them up. Part of the problem is that they don’t know how to control the new world they have created, one that opens so many vistas to the cynical.”
Beyond the thematic section, literary historian Charlie Tyson, a UVA alumnus, seeks to reclaim the redemptive power of leisure in his essay “Virtuosos of Idleness.” Ranging over the achievements of the Bloomsbury group, Tyson contrasts the “art of idleness” practiced by these writers and thinkers with our modern restlessness, our difficulty in detaching from work, and our dispirited civic engagement. “In their own lives, the members of the Bloomsbury circle practiced humane uses of leisure,” observes Tyson. “[A]s theorists of leisure, rather than idealized exemplars, they are more useful still.”
What does the re-emergence of nationalism signify for the future of the European Union?
In “Belonging to Europe,” historian Jonathan D. Teubner finds that the EU’s aspiration for an “ever closer union” seems further away than ever. “Far from being the hope of cosmopolitan liberal democracy,” he notes, “Europe is experiencing a reemergence of the national identities and antagonisms that European values and the union they were meant to bring about were supposed to prevent. The idea of Europe was thought to be that of a future where everyone would belong peacefully and without disagreement. Recently, Europe’s leading conservative intellectuals have argued that the EU can never supplant the power of the European nations to form the very type of democratic citizens a project such as the EU requires.”
Beggars have many guises, and in “The Modern Beggar,” humanities scholar S.D. Chrostowska identifies a character who “lives in modernity’s paradoxes, illusions, and dispersals of attention … seeking exposure rather than anonymity, and not in the street but in a profession or art.” Exploring a type with whom we might share many qualities, Chrostowska explains that these social mendicants “spring not from the economic margins but from the fringes of good society and target the very center of modern social life, where cultural wealth or capital is concentrated. To this extent, ‘modern beggary,’ not seeing itself for what it is, is beggary by any other name.”
“What does visual art mean right now?” asks writer Greg Jackson in “After the Vernissage.” “And what can it mean, to a world as fraught as our own?” Art’s meaning and purpose is what he gamely sets out to discover during a tour of close to 100 European art festivals and exhibits. What he discovers are art’s many problems: its attempts to justify itself, its often cynical and meretricious nature, and what it can – or cannot – say.
Bookstores with “thoughtfully curated” selections or hotels with décor “curated by top designers” – why all this pretention and inflation of the mundane into the esoteric? So muses historian and cultural critic Wilfred M. McClay in the journal’s Signifiers essay. “The sudden ubiquity of the verb ‘curate’ gives one the feeling that a sort of linguistic occupation force crept in and took over in the dead of night,” McClay writes. “It is as if everyone else went to a workshop on the subject while you were fast asleep, and then you awoke, like Rip Van Winkle, to a changed world, full of new locutions you were expected to adopt instantly, without the benefit of explanation or justification.”
Our book reviews include Sunil Khilnani on “The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World” by Maya Jasanoff; Paul W. Gleason on “God’s Businessmen: Entrepreneurial Evangelicals in Depression and War” by Sarah Ruth Hammond; Emily Wilson on “The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic” by Mary Townsend; Eugene McCarraher on “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Donald Trump” by Corey Robin; Nathan Goldman on “Stranger in a Strange Land: Searching for Gershom Scholem and Jerusalem” by George Prochnik and “Gershom Scholem: An Intellectual Biography” by Amir Engel; Kyle Williams on “From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs” by Joshua Clark Davis; and B.D. McClay on “What Are We Doing Here?” by Marilynne Robinson.
To subscribe, visit The Hedgehog Review order page. The journal is for sale ($14) at select bookstores, the University of Virginia Bookstore and online. Read more in the spring issue and, between issues, follow THR Blog at www.hedgehogreview.com.