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[Readings]

To Infinity and Beyond

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From Fragments of an Infinite Memory: My Life with the Internet, a memoir, which will be published in November by New York Review Books. Translated from the French by Peter Behrman de Sinéty.

David Lodge published Small World in 1984. The book, a campus novel, follows a group of academics as they travel the globe attending conferences. But this “small world” isn’t merely that of international university circles—without borders, but strictly for initiates—where scholars debate the merits of structuralism, deconstruction, and old-fashioned literary history. It’s a world linked by telephones and traversed by jet planes. Morris Zapp, one of the novel’s main characters, formulates a theory of sorts that applies beyond scholarship, despite what he says. “There are,” he claims, “three things which have revolutionized academic life in the last twenty years, though very few people have woken up to the fact: jet travel, direct-dialing telephones and the Xerox machine.” In light of these innovations, material coexistence in a single place is no longer necessary for collaborative work and information sharing.

These claims might seem to resemble those that sprang up ten or so years later when internet use first became widespread. There are, however, some very significant differences. The world Lodge describes still leaves room for loss, for disappearance, for the difficulty of reunions, for desperate searching. This is especially the case for the character Persse McGarrigle, who amorously pursues a young woman he meets at a conference. He constantly wonders where she is. He no sooner picks up her trail than she is already elsewhere. It does him little good to have all the jet planes he could possibly hope for; his agony is the same as that of the lover in the Song of Songs when she asks each of the daughters of Jerusalem whether they have happened to see her beloved. An increase in the possibilities of locomotion is far different from an increase in information that can usefully guide it.

It’s reasonable to feel that Google and GPS have changed the nature of our experience far more profoundly than the jumbo jet and the photocopier—at least as far as forgetfulness and disorientation are concerned. There is something particularly striking about the fact that a new smartphone can fill the gaps in our memory or knowledge regarding nearly every factual question liable to cross our minds (What time is the next ferry? Who was the French prime minister in 1955?), just as the same smartphone can show us—on a map the scale of which varies astronomically at the touch of a finger—where we are on Earth and what is the name of this dusty path through the open countryside on which we have just set foot. A world in which Persse McGarrigle can type “Angelica Pabst” into Google, or find his way to her on Facebook through likely mutual acquaintances, is no longer a world in which only luck could rescue his amorous quest.

However, we could certainly qualify our appraisal of the advent of the internet as well. There are still people whose traces on Google are infinitesimal or nonexistent, and a good many things remain insufficiently archived. Or we could point out that, in fact, it has been a long time now since the phone book first allowed one to look up a name, and even longer since the sextant and compass considerably reduced human disorientation in uncharted expanses.

Each generation sees the technological advances of the previous era—no matter how near—as excrescences of an ancient world. People like to think the world has truly changed only in their own time. But the feeling of witnessing a spectacular acceleration that rejects outright all past centuries, relegating them to an undifferentiated backwater incommensurable with current experience, is not solely the privilege of children who grew up with the internet and see the gigantic computers conceived after World War II as antiques no less foreign to contemporary life than the powdered wigs of the eighteenth century or the quadrigae of the Circus Maximus. “That the world has never changed so much in a single century (except by destruction) is a fact with which we are all familiar,” Malraux wrote in 1965. “I myself have seen the sparrows swooping down on the horse-drawn buses at the Palais Royal—and the shy and charming Colonel Glenn on his return from the cosmos.” But a person who, born before Malraux, had seen the emergence of cinema and aviation might legitimately have had the same feeling of witnessing a fundamental upheaval in human history.

It would not have been baseless, for that matter, for such a person to tell the younger generations that Neil Armstrong’s exploits were essentially offshoots of Clément Ader’s or the Wright brothers’. And a person who, even a little earlier, had beheld the first daguerreotypes could in turn have claimed that he was the one who had witnessed the veritable revolution from which cinema had merely developed. Against the grain of that enthusiasm which sees the present moment as the most radical, the most historically significant, we would need to slide further and further into the past, the cursor marking the authentic breakthrough, until we found the event that, more humble perhaps in appearance than the subsequent innovations, nevertheless constituted their necessary condition: the invention that truly broke new ground, that truly changed the face of the earth, because it sprang forth unplanned, unawaited, unforeseen.

The theory of exponentially increasing change has the merit of lending credence to these ever more frequent proclamations of revolution. It posits an actual acceleration of technological progress at the root of our—prideful and naïve, but also pertinent—feeling that upheavals in human history have become nearly daily occurrences. While people used to wait centuries before uttering “Never till this day,” we seem to have gradually authorized ourselves to say this every few decades, then every few years, soon perhaps every few months.

The hopes that the futurists draw from this theory are dubious. They seem less a possible consequence of calculations than the expression of a fundamental dream that these calculations appear miraculously to deliver: the promise of witnessing the approach, and perhaps even the achievement, of immortality.

What creates the revolutionary feeling of these successive advances? What makes them seem so incommensurable with their antecedents? It is perhaps the feeling that through them that goal of immortality is taking on clearer and clearer form, much as each step becomes ever more exhilarating for a runner approaching the finish line, even though his pace has not changed.

In his book The Phenomenon of Man, published in 1955, the philosopher and priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin contemplated humanity’s turn inward: “I imagine our noosphere is destined to shut in solitude upon itself—and it is not in a spatial but rather in a mental direction that we shall find our line of escape, without having to leave or even extend beyond Earth.”

Today, futurists speculate that a computer may someday serve as the medium wherein our mental reality will reside—immortal, sheltered from the comings and goings of matter.

Two inclinations, distinct but easily linked, drive the increase in our technical capacity: to travel and to archive—in Lodge’s day, to fly and to Xerox—the possibility of leaving Earth, and the possibility of taking everything along with us.

The nearly simultaneous invention of the airplane and the motion-picture camera bears striking witness to this. It is tempting—but all the more risky, as the timescale then becomes very condensed—to look for other conjunctions: that of Sputnik and the first hard drive, of the first moon steps and the first microprocessor.

But in fact, this parallel development arises more from a state of mind than from any premeditation. Over the past few years, the flow and storage of digital information for domestic use has increased far more rapidly than our capacity for space travel. If there were a reliable correlation, the first USB stick or the first smartphone would surely have coincided at least with a voyage to Mars. But the spirit of the times is not solely to blame. What’s the good of physically leaving Earth when the world is entering deeper and deeper into the dimension of the mind, and when we in turn—to our ruin or salvation—are plunging into this inner, immaterial infinity?


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May 2020