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On art, literature, and attention in the digital age


At the Boston Review, Jenny Hendrix has written a superb review essay about Sven Birkerts’s essay collection Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Digital Age. In his book, Birkerts traces and laments the many ways that digital technology has undermined our capacity for sustained, immersive attention—the kind of attention required to fully appreciate poetry and other literature. Hendrix largely agrees with Birkerts’s claims, but she also suggests that a handful of contemporary artists (e.g., Taeyoon Choi, Addie Wagenknecht) are making work that uses digital material to point toward a kind of tech-enabled spiritual transcendence. The latter passage comes toward the end of the essay and it not to be missed. Here’s an excerpt:

Birkerts, whose references lie mainly outside of contemporary art, may not have encountered it yet, but such art is being made, whether or not it jibes with one’s taste. While much so-called digital or “net” art merely mimics systems of interpretation already in place, there are those artists, now, whose interest is not in the strategies and selling-points of the system but in finding an honest relation to it. Far from Silicon Valley, there are tinkerers whose work more closely resembles a kind of folk art, whose objective is not the next billion-dollar app but the creation of soul-satisfying uses for and meaningful investigation of the digital tools and interactions that constitute daily life: Taeyoon Choi’s handmade computers, for instance, and Brian House’s “tanglr,” a shared browsing extension for Google Chrome. In works such as Addie Wagenknecht’s “Data and Dragons” sculptures, James Bridle’s, Adam Harvey’s anti-surveillance fashions, Nick Briz’s “glitches,” and Tega Brain’s “eccentric engineering,” technology becomes more than a means to an end. These artists build circuits and programs and other objects for the sake of beauty and contemplation, approaching ones and zeros in the spirit of language. They find there, no doubt, a sensation akin to Nabokov’s “aesthetic bliss.”

Literature, at least that which is widely disseminated and read, lags behind these efforts. But it is not hard to see where it, too, could achieve this: perhaps not in the plot-driven, immersive novels Birkerts prefers, but in works that use the digital characteristics of fragment, association, connection, and speed to create not just meaning but a transcendence of the medium itself.

Image via the Boston Review.


I don’t know if I agree with the idea that the internet fractures our ability for sustained attention. I think this is a platitude perpetuated by old people who don’t use the internet as a daily part of life, but rather find it as an overwhelming novelty.

I use the internet as a tool that helps me and streamlines my work. If I want to be distracted, I will be distracted; but if I wanted to get down to work, I will do that. Distractions and procrastination existed long before the internet–it seems like the internet is just easiest to blame.


I also disagree that the Internet is doing all that to us. I think everything is the Internet fault nowadays. We’ve seen this kind of blaming before with the advent of the television and video gaming amd now it’s the Internet turn, I guess. Just because our everyday life is being affected by the Internet it doesn’t mean that everybody feels distracted, overwhelmed, confused, addicted…by it. We all feel different in relation to it and I think some of us are just adapting to this new thing whilst others were just born with it already embedded in their lives… People have always procrastinated, always found ways of being idle, of escaping their realities…in one way or another. We can’t say that the Internet is helping us invent all this.


I don’t want to sound conservative, but actually I think the internet and other media can have a negative influence on people’s mind. Certainly that doesn’t apply for everybody and in the same way. Surely for others it doesn’t, but generally one thing that determines which group you belong to I assume to be whether or not you are able to work with these media “responsibly” or in a “disciplined” way like Karen mentions. I know a lot of people who can’t, but I’d say, based on my own experience, that you can work your way out of that. I also agree with dani!

Here are two critical reviews to the book “The Shallows” by Nicholas Carr who argues against the benefits of the internet:


Great links Mladen_Libuschewski, I really the nytimes one:

“He argues that our mental malleability has turned us into servants of technology, our circuits reprogrammed by our gadgets.”

Well we are creatures of technology; we have survived through the ages due to our ability to adapt and this mean invent technology. My main concern here is that it seems that like many people, Carr is thinking that technology is only the digital one, or maybe it’s only connected to the industrial revolution in the 19th century.

Back in 2010, when I was studying for my MA, I was reading a lot about the technological revolutions we’ve been through and specially about telecommunication. I remember even writing a small note on by blog about it, saying:
“We are always scared how the future is going to be. Previous generations always see the next as “lost”, as if the next one will destroy the future. A future that doesn’t belong to them anymore.
The future doesn’t really belong to us.