Rooms and Elephants

In defiance of Internet Time, I’m going to recommend an essay I came across a couple of months ago: Sven Birkerts’ “The Room and the Elephant.”

Birkerts weighs in on a debate I’m quite deeply interested in, both personally and as a scholar. Whether it’s being framed as a conversation about collective intelligence, expertise, authorship or individuality, the thread running through it is always the myth of individual creativity.

I say myth quite deliberately, because unlike Birkerts and Lanier (of whom he seems to approve, though I can’t imagine why), I find the notion of individual creativity deeply problematic. We romanticize a process that actually involves many more people than we like to admit. Colleagues, collaborators, conversation partners, chance encounters are all a part of the creative process – not to mention the professional apparatus involved with execution, production and distribution of any big idea. Every creator is connected to the world. We use the myth of individual creativity to draw a line between what is the creator’s and what is the world’s, but that line is essentially arbitrary, drawn more from our minds and dreams than from reality.

At the same time, that hardly puts me in a camp with Bustillos and the others Birkerts cites as his opposition. I believe expertise matters, for example; I’m enough of a cognitive psychologist to understand the ways in which experts differ from novices in perception, memory, problem-solving and more. I think it’s disingenuous to assume those differences don’t translate to the digital world. I also am less than enchanted with the notion that online is necessarily different. You’ll notice I don’t believe that individual creativity has become a myth, in our newly networked world. Rather, I believe that it has always been a myth that we finally have the tools to examine.

Finally, I’ll add that I’m increasingly interested in the role of the body in our increasingly screen-based age. I think it’s no coincidence that the body is treated more and more like an object, to be exercised or groomed or controlled, as our work lives become more and more about pouring our brains onto screens. Birkerts may call it a longing for selfhood, but I’d argue that a lot of the web is about expressing and constructing selves – even if it’s not the deep subjectivity Birkerts valorizes. What’s missing is a way of constructing the self that integrates the mind, the body, and the often-forgotten heart.

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