Last month, The Guardian published ‘What’s Wrong With the Modern World’, an excerpt from Jonathan Franzen’s upcoming The Kraus Project. Because we’re on the internet, and because we tweet and share and create our own little echo chambers, we’ve all read it. If you haven’t, well, it’s about the internet, and the way we tweet and share and create our own little echo chambers, and why this is all Very Bad Indeed. (There’s also a weird bit about how Windows Vista is comparable to pre-Great War Vienna, but Franzen is a Great American Novelist, so we can probably let that slide).
Franzen’s essay reminded me a lot of Zadie Smith’s ‘Generation Why?’, which was published in The New York Review of Books three years ago. Smith’s essay is better than Franzen’s (or at least easier to stomach) because Smith admits she’s one of us, struggling with how our technologies (Facebook, in particular) shape us, while Franzen is a holier-than-thou abstainer, looking on askance with a ‘cold Krausian eye’ as we digitally ‘yak’ and ‘brag’ and ‘drift towards apocalypse’.
Looking on from the outside, Franzen finds smartphones and social networks bewildering and dehumanising, but what he forgets is that everything looks bewildering and trivial from the outside–a system only makes sense once you’re inside it, and can grasp the internal illogical logic of how it operates. Books seem dumb, until you learn to read; sports seem dumb, until you find your team; smartphones seem dumb, until you get an iPhone. We sometimes forget just how hermetically sealed our worldviews can be: if the ground rules of your life are incommensurably different from the ground rules of mine, there’s no point of entry for either of us to offer or receive criticism.
This has always struck me as Franzen’s Achilles’ heel: how can you write about the modern world when you position yourself firmly outside it and refuse to even try to understand the weird logic that makes it all tie sorta-kinda together? Writing about modern technology is really difficult, because in order to write about it without sounding clueless, you need to have a deep understanding of how it all works, which usually means you end up spending so much time around gadget bloggers and ‘serial entrepreneurs’ that you turn into a technological solutionist who believes that Twitter/Snapchat/Whatever-Comes-Next-Week will Change Everything™.
Franzen doesn’t really understand the internet or modern technology (in the piece, he mistakenly and continuously refers to the Macbook Air as the ‘Mac Air’) and that’s okay, but if you don’t understand something, it’s hard to convince those who already do that what they care about is trivial. The best critiques tend to come from a rare breed of thinker: both inside the system they’re criticising, and able to recognise how silly (or horrific) it must all seem from outside. Most of the sports writers over at Grantland write about sports from this perspective, making Grantland one of the vanishingly few sports publications I can actually read. Tom Bissell writes about videogames from this headspace, too. When it comes to tech writers, there aren’t many who can write from a position of ambivalence, but Farhad Manjoo is one: he writes regularly about technology and knows his stuff, but is often pessimistic, calling us out when we mistakenly take our technological infatuations too far.
In his Guardian essay, Franzen makes the same points as Manjoo or Zadie Smith have made in the past, but he chastises instead of empathises, which renders his argument moot. When Franzen writes about feeling ‘disappointment when a novelist who I believe ought to have known better, Salman Rushdie, succumbs to Twitter’, it’s pretty clear that he hasn’t spared even a moment to consider why a writer of Rushdie’s caliber might consider Twitter an interesting communicative avenue. Instead of trying to pick apart what makes Twitter compelling and what makes it flawed (as Smith did so well with Facebook as her focus), Franzen refuses to even properly examine or engage with what he’s criticising. It’s easy to knock over straw men, but ultimately: why bother?
What repeatedly surprises me about Franzen is that somebody so intelligent can fail to understand how good rhetoric works. He’s not alone, of course. Not recognising how to argue properly is a problem that plagues many outspoken environmentalists, sports fans, gamers, Fox News anchors, Luddites, feminists, vegans, free market advocates, left-wingers, right-wingers… basically anybody with a worldview to sell. If you can’t empathise, not even just a little, with your opponent, you provide no point of entry for them to engage with what you’re saying. You need one foot in, one foot out: a kind of reverence for the strange internal logic of the worldview you’d like to criticise, married with the ability to put the right kind of pressure on the fault line of that system, until it finally reveals itself as contradictory or impossible or just really, really flawed.
Connor Tomas O’Brien is a Killings columnist and web designer. He’s currently working on a PhD in the form of a novel exploring the intersection between text adventure games, cults, and Facebook. He’s the co-founder of the ebookstore platform Tomely.