In her article ‘Driven to distraction’ (Overland 199), Cate Kennedy critiques contemporary internet culture from the perspective of the creative writer. While not opposed to the internet as such, Kennedy seeks to demonstrate that Web 2.0 technologies and the activities they facilitate (such as social networking, blogging and video-sharing) are rendering us permanently impatient, disinhibited yet isolated and unable to concentrate. Kennedy finds these effects, which centre on the pursuit of immediacy at the cost of profundity, and the conquest of time and space at the expense of substance, to be the inverse of the disposition required for creative activity.
I want to generalise the discussion because I take Kennedy to be (explicitly or not) following the form of a broader argument about the individual’s interactions with her environment, and also because she makes general comments about the function of the writer. ‘The pattern of the thing precedes the thing,’ Kennedy quotes; I want to illuminate the pattern behind her argument, then criticise it, before suggesting how we might begin from different presuppositions that nevertheless remain true to the subversive essence of the creative act that Kennedy and I both hold dear.
The pedigree of the argument is important because it predates the specific technologies and their affects that Kennedy discusses. Its basic, abstract structure is this:
There are many things;
of which I am only one, with limited energies and capacities to attend to the others.
They press upon me and threaten my unity; they want to make me like them, that is, scattered and formless.
Thus I shall do well to seek distance and shelter from them, and I will uphold whatever extends, and oppose whatever reduces, that distance and shelter.
In Kennedy’s case, the ‘things’ are the utterances of private individuals published via Web 2.0 technologies. The unity they threaten is primarily mental; the distance and shelter she seeks are equally mental; and the techniques she wants to employ include physically isolating the space of creativity from the space of internet browsing, as well as refusing the peer pressure that imposes an obligation to open up to the many.
In the past the ‘things’ have been the utterances of individuals published in books, journals, magazines and pamphlets, whose volume and superficiality the writer bemoans. Nietzsche viciously regretted the invention of the printing press, Swift lamented the decline of the English tongue, and Robert Burton called his time a ‘scribbling age’. Juvenal, in his first satire (first century AD), justifies his scrivening by claiming that if he doesn’t use the paper one of the other innumerable poets will waste it anyway.
But the ‘things’ may equally be taken as the bodies of people themselves, amassed in rapidly developing urban settlements, threatening the mental stability of the ideologist, bureaucrat or social critic (who, like Poe, Engels and many others besides, both marvels at and cowers before their agglomeration) just as they threatened the political stability of the head of state, who sought both a built distance and a cultural one.
Read ‘The crowd is our domain’.
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