Criticism — From the July 2015 issue

Counter Culture

Fighting for literature in an age of algorithms

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A new kind of disenchantment has come over literature. It has to do with what you might call the working myth of the life of literature — the half-conscious way that people decide which texts they consider literature, and how they carry those texts forward. The catalyst, I believe, is the recent revolutionary advance in counting. That may not sound like a startling technological breakthrough, but thanks to computers, we are now able to count with unprecedented speed and thoroughness. Last August, for example, a computer programmer named John Matherly sent a simple “Are you there?” message to every device with a direct, public connection to the Internet. Within five hours, about 400 million machines responded, and after twelve hours of analysis, he was able to draw a map of their locations around the world. Imagine trying to contact, count, and map all the people in the world by yourself; because they aren’t (yet) all connected to the Internet, you wouldn’t be likely to live long enough to finish.

“Untitled 49” by Mary Ellen Bartley, from the series Paperbacks Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

“Untitled 49” by Mary Ellen Bartley, from the series Paperbacks. Courtesy the artist and Yancey Richardson Gallery, New York City

Counting has changed the world before. Consider Europe and America in the two or three centuries before 1750, when society had a structure that was still half-feudal. Government taxes were collected by private individuals, who kept a cut for themselves. No matter how excellent a soldier’s performance, he couldn’t hope for a career as an officer unless he bought his way in. Men in public life were extremely touchy about their honor: if a reputation was slighted, the libeled party had to exchange pistol shots with his libeler at dawn, or else forfeit his social standing. In The Institutional Revolution, Douglas W. Allen argues that these peculiar conventions made economic sense in their day. Because standards of measurement were inconsistent and record-keeping was haphazard, it wasn’t possible to know from a distance precisely what someone else was up to. The best way to keep a person from slacking was to let him skim a little, and the best way to keep him from cheating was to make the occasional exposure of dishonor a matter of life and death. In such a world, loyalty mattered more than talent; Voltaire wasn’t kidding when he wrote that “it pays to shoot an admiral from time to time to encourage the others.”

And then, between 1750 and 1850, everything changed. Lengths and weights became standardized; time-keeping mechanisms were improved and clocks became widely distributed; bureaucracies took charge of record-keeping. People stopped leaning so heavily on trust when the new technologies made it easier to verify. It was no longer necessary to shoot the person who claimed your hand was in the cookie jar once it became possible to show him, instead, an up-to-this-morning inventory of the cookies.

Today’s breakthrough in counting is at least as radical as the one that took place at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, and we now find ourselves in the process of adjusting our social norms to the new transparency of our actions. We are also in the process of fighting over the terms of that adjustment. We fight about whether to replace the personal judgment of teachers with standardized curricula and frequent testing, whether it’s ethical for employers to track the keystrokes and body movements of workers, whether we’re comfortable with retailers having the intimate knowledge of ourselves that they’re able to piece together from our purchasing histories, and whether we trust our governments with the power to monitor our phone calls and emails. We haven’t yet had a good fight about the intrusion of counting into the life of literature, however. Maybe we should.

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is the author of Necessary Errors (Penguin), a novel. He delivered a version of this essay as a lecture at Reed College and at the University of Portland in March.

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