A Defense of Disruption as a Cultural Phenomenon

Responding to Leon Wieseltier

The spirit of the age is not synonymous with what the public likes — Mieczyslaw Jastrun

Leon Wieseltier has a provocative essay, “Among the Disrupted,” in the New York Times’s Sunday Book Review. It begins with some compelling observations:

Amid the bacchanal of disruption, let us praise and honor the disrupted. The streets of American cities are haunted by the ghosts of bookstores and record stores, which have been destroyed by the greatest thugs in the history of the culture of industry. Writers hover between a decent poverty and an indecent one; they are expected to render the fruits of their labors for little and even nothing, and all the miracles of electronic dissemination somehow do not suffice for compensation, either of the fiscal or the spiritual kind. Everybody talks frantically about media, a second-order subject if ever there was one, as content disappears into “content.” What does the understanding of media contribute to the understanding of life? Journalistic institutions slowly transform themselves into silent sweatshops in which words cannot wait for thoughts, and first responses are promoted into best responses, and patience is a professional liability. As the frequency of expression diminishes: Digital expectations of alacrity and terseness confer the highest prestige upon the twittering cacophony of one-liners and promotional announcements. It was always the case that all things must pass, but this is ridiculous.
Meanwhile the discussion of culture is being steadily absorbed into the discussion of business … Economic concepts go rampaging through noneconomic realms: Economists are our experts on happiness! Where wisdom once was, quantification will now be. Quantification is the most overwhelming influence upon the contemporary American understanding of, well, everything.

Despite having spent substantially all of my career in public finance, I share Wieseltier’s distaste for the “idolatry of data.” And I have previously written about (albeit in less delicious prose) how the new media business model is recklessly creating a colossal digital landfill. But somehow my sentiments have never expanded into a fear of technology or criticism of disruption as a cultural phenomenon.

What is it about technology that threatens intellectuals? Wieseltier’s remark that “the character of our society cannot be determined by engineers” isn't all that different than Heidegger’s 1954 rant The Question Concerning Technology. (Wieseltier also invokes Heidegger in his piece.)

It seems odd that progress should ever require a defense against sentimentality.

Isn't it possible both to resent living in a universe of content-driven drones, mindlessly copying and pasting articles and co-opting narratives, but still be excited about the democratization of ideas?

I still frequent local bookstores, but I feel less compelled to purchase anything each time. Except for eccentric used bookstores, most neighborhood bookstores are stocked with commodities, not literature. They’ll sell me 50 Shades of Grey, when what I really want to read is The Remembered Present. And who will sell me The Remembered Present? Amazon. The venues I find romantic have shifted.

Do we see ourselves in the things we build? Isn't that simultaneously a hopeful and uncomfortable thought?

A recurring theme in Heidegger’s work is the experience of the uncanny— Unheimlich, or “not at home” in the world. It makes sense that Heidegger would be skeptical of technology. The experience of using new technology could also be construed as losing one’s anchor. As Wieseltier puts it, “there is no greater disgrace than being a thing of the past.”

I have the deepest respect for Wieseltier as a critic and philosopher. But this strikes me an an unnecessarily pessimistic worldview, regardless of his appeals to humanism throughout.

First, innovation presents new opportunities to define oneself for those that are willing to invest the time and effort. The same is true for society as a whole. That Wieseltier doesn't want the character of society to be determined by engineers overlooks history. Feats of engineering have been a conduit for conversations about the public good and the ambitions of civilization from ancient Rome to NASA. I don’t understand the temptation to hold art or poetry above these endeavors. I would trade all the Jeff Koons in the world for a better understanding of what lies outside our solar system.

Second, most criticisms of technology are highly selective. Why is it that garbage media is the first thing people think of when they lament the invention of the smartphone? This is the same device that allows a trauma surgeon to know a patient’s statistics as he sprints to the operating room. Where’s the angst in that?

Wieseltier speaks of innovators as a cult, as have many before him:

And even as technologism, which is not the same as technology, asserts itself over more and more precincts of human life, so too does scientism, which is not the same as science. The notion that the nonmaterial dimensions of life must be explained in terms of the material dimensions, and that nonscientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings must be translated into scientific understandings if they are to qualify as knowledge, is increasingly popular inside and outside the university, where humanities are disparaged as soft and impractical and insufficiently new.

It probably isn't an accident that Ezra Klein works in Washington DC and not Sunnyvale. Why is the rest of this a criticism of anything outside of academia? The identity/moral crises that are playing out on university campuses belong on university campuses. Colleges and universities have made a conscious slide from cloistered institutions to corporate machines. This was not a subtle intellectual transition.

The introduction of new technology will inevitably produce a period lacking in context. But disruption is not the same thing as nihilism. Moreover, nihilism wasn't invented in the 21st century.