The other day, a copy of the new Baffler came in the mail. Back in the nineties, published out of Chicago and edited by Thomas Frank, The Baffler articulated an anti-cool sort of cool that appealed to young readers and writers on the margins of journalism and academia, subjecting the iconic brands of consumer capitalism to a quasi-Marxist critical scrutiny. During the Bush years it went out of business. Now it’s back, with a table of contents largely devoted to the economic crisis: a perfect moment for The Baffler’s kind of cultural criticism to be revived.
The writers are older, more established than before, the tone is more staid, and the presentation is defiantly old-fashioned. There’s even a blue nylon bookmark glued into the spine. “As the world careens one way we faithfully steer the other,” the editors state up front. “Print is dead, they say; we double down in our commitment to the printed word. Brevity is the fashion; we bring you long-form cultural criticism with an emphasis on stylistic quality.” A little like the appearance of Buckley’s National Review, whose original mission statement, back in 1955, declared that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
Buckley ended up riding history, and even guiding it. I’d like to believe that something with The Baffler’s anti-market world view could do the same. Anyway, I’m glad to see it back, and I’ll try to keep up with subsequent issues, even if I’m annoyed every second or third article by condescension or dogma.
The truth is, I feel like yelling Stop quite a bit these days. Every time I hear about Twitter I want to yell Stop. The notion of sending and getting brief updates to and from dozens or thousands of people every few minutes is an image from information hell. I’m told that Twitter is a river into which I can dip my cup whenever I want. But that supposes we’re all kneeling on the banks. In fact, if you’re at all like me, you’re trying to keep your footing out in midstream, with the water level always dangerously close to your nostrils. Twitter sounds less like sipping than drowning.
The most frightening picture of the future that I’ve read thus far in the new decade has nothing to do with terrorism or banking or the world’s water reserves—it’s an article by David Carr, the Times’s media critic, published on the decade’s first day, called “Why Twitter Will Endure.” “I’m in narrative on more things in a given moment than I ever thought possible,” Carr wrote. And: “Twitter becomes an always-on data stream from really bright people.” And: “The real value of the service is listening to a wired collective voice … the throbbing networked intelligence.” And: “On Twitter, you are your avatar and your avatar is you.” And finally: “There is always something more interesting on Twitter than whatever you happen to be working on.”
This last is what really worries me. Who doesn’t want to be taken out of the boredom or sameness or pain of the present at any given moment? That’s what drugs are for, and that’s why people become addicted to them. Carr himself was once a crack addict (he wrote about it in “The Night of the Gun”). Twitter is crack for media addicts. It scares me, not because I’m morally superior to it, but because I don’t think I could handle it. I’m afraid I’d end up letting my son go hungry.
I don’t have a BlackBerry, or an iPhone, or a Google phone, and I don’t intend to get an iPad. I’ve been careful not to mention this to sources in Washington, where conversation consists of two people occasionally glancing up from their BlackBerries and saying, “I’m listening.” I worry that I won’t be taken seriously as a Washington journalist, and phone calls from my retrograde Samsung cell phone will go unanswered. On Amtrak between New York and Washington I sit in the Quiet Car with my phone off, laptop stowed, completely unreachable, and find out if I’m still capable of reading for two hours. On arrival at Union Station, I find someplace to sit near the café in the lobby and get on its wireless network and check my e-mails, since I know that anyone canceling an interview at the last minute would have assumed I have a BlackBerry. More than once, out somewhere in the capital without the Internet, I’ve had to call home and ask my wife to log onto my e-mail account, just in case.
So I can hardly escape the demands of the throbbing networked intelligence, the nonstop nagging of the wired collective voice. Lately, I’ve begun to think—with real trepidation—that I’ll have to get a BlackBerry. I’m well aware that this is a perverse way to act like a political journalist and cover Washington. It’s like doing war reporting without a flak jacket or satellite phone. It’s a temporary and probably untenable compromise between the world of the work and the desire to protect my consciousness from it. Sooner or later, something will have to give. If it looks like I’m drowning, give a shout.
The New Yorker's George Packer is a political affairs journalist but took some time out of that work to bemoan Twitter, and the always-connected world of digital today. As a blogger, Posterous-user, Flickr'er, Facebooker, Twitterer, Ninger, and owner of 2 BlackBerry's, it may be surprsing that I agree with much of what he's saying.
As a technology director at tech-rich K-12 girls school (every 8-12th grade student has a laptop, every teacher has a laptop, every administrator has a BlackBerry), I often find it my job to help people disconnect; to focus; to stop and ask *why* we're using a certain technology when we could do things more efficiently in other ways.
The post is worth a read, whether you agree with it or not. Speaking of, what do you think of it?