In a recent essay for The Believer, Damion Searls writes that “these days we are more or less at the macronutrient stage of understanding books, aware of only three things a book is or does: you can buy a book, you can hold it, and it delivers information.”
Searls, summoning the power of Michael Pollan’s defense of food over nutrition science, is making the case that replacing paperbacks with e-readers is bound to make the same mistakes that nutritionists made when they replaced food with processed nutrients: As much as we know about the natural world, we will never know enough to replace it.
Of course books are human-made to begin with and were once the invasive technology that e-readers are today. In replacing oral history, the text abandoned the micronutrients contained in a serving of storytelling. Nevertheless, the evolution of the printed word had cultural pace, adapting slowly to human needs in contrast to the way Amazon’s Kindle was spread by commercial fire-bombing, suppressing prices and offering perks so that readers would download rather than ship a book to their house. It’s usually an economic decision to use an e-reader rather than a voluntary forsaking of the printed page.
Searls’s essay takes Pollan’s defense of food to the proper forum showing, in turn, that the same defense can be applied to almost any so-called innovation of the last few decades. It could even be applied to American culture generally, as Les Essif does in his book American Unculture in French Drama. Essif concludes by using Pollan’s argument as a metaphor for what he calls American “unculture.” In the same way that the omnivore’s natural desire to eat a variety of foods is tricked by food science, which transforms corn components into a monoculture corucopia, “humanity’s prediliction for the social contract is tricked by the protean discourse and imagery of late corporate capitalism.” We think we’re getting multi-culturalism, but all we’re getting is corn.
Still, if we’re enjoying ourselves–ostensibly the point of culture–then what’s the harm? That’s precisely why Pollan’s argument is so useful to critics of capitalist modernity. “Liebig [one of the first nutritionists, according to Pollan] thought he had unlocked the secrets of food, but children fed his formula failed to thrive, and sailors on his diet got scurvy,” writes Searls. Illusion standing in for reality tends to have illusory benefits and real consequences.
Re-engineering things we like, that took hundreds or thousands or millions of years for nature and culture to piece together, is doomed by hubris. This is not to say that any kind of innovation is harmful, only that when we lose command over our inventions we have got to take stock. In the case of the McNugget and the Kindle, we’ve lost a certain amount of autonomy as consumers, allowing innovation to surpass our understanding of its consequences. “We are hurtling on with the project and practice of replacing books,” concludes Searls, “and nothing anyone writes will change that.”
Here, I disagree. Critics often talk about progress as if it were strictly linear, even though this idea of “hurtling” is itself part of the myth of modernity. E-readers may not replace books, just as books didn’t replace oral history, just as nutritionism won’t replace food*. James Bennet, editor of The Atlantic made a cheery observation on technology that I dislike for its tone, though, for its accuracy, I won’t forget it: “In testament to the suppleness of human intelligence, technologies have a way of supplementing, rather than simply replacing, one another.”
We do have some say in how we live after all. Reality can get buried under a lot of cheap plastic crap, but never so deep that some digging can’t recover it. ♦G
*Monsanto might, however. In too many cases, technology is backed by money (and a bi-partisan politics backed by money), and the way to fight for reality is not to write odes to the green bean, but to attack agribusiness with all we’ve got.