How reading can save us from the digital dispersion of the self

Here are some choice passages from an insight-rich essay by historian James McWilliams at The American Scholar, in which he discusses two major and complementary options for dealing with digital technology’s epochal assault on the stable self: first, take serious and substantial steps to humanize the digital world; second, retain (or return to) a serious relationship with the physical book.

The underlying concern with the Internet is not whether it will fragment our attention spans or mold our minds to the bit-work of modernity. In the end, it will likely do both. The deeper question is what can be done when we realize that we want some control over the exchange between our brains and the Web, that we want to protect our deeper sense of self from digital media’s dominance over modern life. . . .

The essence of our dilemma, one that weighs especially heavily on Generation Xers and millennials, is that the digital world disarms our ability to oppose it while luring us with assurances of convenience. It’s critical not only that we identify this process but also that we fully understand how digital media co-opt our sense of self while inhibiting our ability to reclaim it. . . .

This is not to suggest that we should aim to abolish digital media or disconnect completely — not at all. Instead, we must learn to humanize digital life as actively as we’ve digitized human life.

No one solution can restore equity to the human-digital relationship. Still, whatever means we pursue must be readily available (and cheap) and offer the convenience of information, entertainment, and social engagement while promoting identity-building experiences that anchor the self in society. Plato might not have approved, but the tool that’s best suited to achieve these goals today is an object so simple that I can almost feel the eye-rolls coming in response to such a nostalgic fix for a modern dilemma: the book. Saving the self in the age of the selfie may require nothing more or less complicated than recovering the lost art of serious reading. . . .

[A]s the fog of digital life descends, making us increasingly stressed out and unempathetic, solipsistic yet globally connected, and seeking solutions in the crucible of our own angst, it’s worth reiterating what reading does for the searching self. A physical book, which liberates us from pop-up ads and the temptation to click into oblivion when the prose gets dull, represents everything that an identity requires to discover Heidegger’s nearness amid digital tyranny. It offers immersion into inner experience, engagement in impassioned discussion, humility within a larger community, and the affirmation of an ineluctable quest to experience the consciousness of fellow humans. In this way, books can save us.

Full text: “Saving the Self in the Age of the Selfie

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About Matt Cardin

Teeming Brain founder and editor Matt Cardin is the author of DARK AWAKENINGS, DIVINATIONS OF THE DEEP, A COURSE IN DEMONIC CREATIVITY: A WRITER'S GUIDE TO THE INNER GENIUS, and the forthcoming TO ROUSE LEVIATHAN. He is also the editor of BORN TO FEAR: INTERVIEWS WITH THOMAS LIGOTTI and the academic encyclopedias MUMMIES AROUND THE WORLD and GHOSTS, SPIRITS, AND PSYCHICS: THE PARANORMAL FROM ALCHEMY TO ZOMBIES.

Posted on March 4, 2016, in Internet & Media, Psychology & Consciousness, Society & Culture and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi, Matt. Your post, and McWilliams’ essay, summarize a genuine threat. As a full-time writer/editor, I’m intimately (in the worst way) familiar with this digital dilemma. Reading your post, and the full-length essay, gave me a rush of hope. Sometimes the worst feeling is to believe you’re alone with these thoughts and sensations . . . when—thanks to rare pieces like your post—the truth is you’re really not. The Teeming Brain is a treasure to me. Thank you.

    • I have the same experience of relief and reassurance all the time when I see various people expressing things I’ve thought and felt, and helping me to articulate them cogently. Many of these things become fodder for Teeming Brain posts, the most current case in point being this one right here. I’m glad this all proves helpful.

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