In a passage of Douglas Coupland’s novel Generation A the author envisions a time when the spoken and written word becomes too efficient for use on earth. In this world, beautiful landscapes are no longer depicted in ethereal Shakespearian verse or hewn out of dense Conradian prose, but instead, are articulated in thrifty algorithmic chants. Coupland writes of a mass exodus from the earth as a result of natural resources becoming incongruous with, and insufficient for, humanity’s hyper-efficient ambition. In this tale, those who fail to keep up with this rapid progression insociality are left behind, condemned by humanity to the same inadequacy conferred upon earth. Of course, this story has a palpably pessimistic tone and is very negative about the direction in which humanity is headed. Indeed, it seems to suggest that if society continues upon its present course the earth is headed for a digitally-coded apocalypse; the sentiment is certain to depress.
Yet, despite Coupland’s message appearing quite plausible, I find it hard to empathise with his future projection of human society. It seems improbable that nature, a force which has created and frequently leaves humanity helpless, could be subsumed and outstripped by the progression of a single human construct; the evolution of language. Moreover, in his account he seems to highlight technology as the catalyst, going on to describe how the language itself perpetuated the need for new technologies and services and thus causing the originals to be abandoned. It seems implausible, however, that human life can be described as following such a trajectory. Humanity is rife with contradiction; it is irrational and often flattered by logical explanation. To this end, I disagree with Coupland’s idea and will show, with specific examples in our society, how his grand story of humanity does not ring true.
It is my contention that all things technologically and functionally retrograde (and by this I mean objects or services which are no longer useful in a utilitarian sense) are not, and will not, be abandoned quite as dramatically as Coupland would have us believe. Of course, I speak now of the post-industrial societies such as America, much of Europe, Japan and to a much lesser extent those of developing countries. Indeed, in these developed countries I see a pattern which is quite the inverse of what Coupland describes; for I contend that the survival of particular objects and services is, in fact, propagated by the same drive for efficiency which he argues will see the destruction of such things. This paradox, in which materiality is preserved not for its functionality, but precisely for its redundancy, is profoundly connected with individuals’ notions of identity in modern society.
Around 300 years ago the majority of people were at ease with, and could immediately relate to their own particular customs and practices. Naturally, there would have been some cultural mixing as people ventured to new lands in search of power and/or commodities. However, in most cases an individual would be tied to one place and culture. In the present day, in an age of perpetual globalisation and creolisation, cultural boundaries are becoming blurred; identity is inferred not from origin, as it once was, but from constant movement between, and interaction with, disparate cultures.
This movement, is not tied directly to the physical act of travelling, for diasporas are an age-old phenomenon, but instead, to the constant and frequently non-bodily infiltration of one culture into another. In our societies people are being exposed to divergent customs and practices at an ever-increasing rate. This is being exacerbated by social media sites, where people have access, at a click of a button, to cultures from all over the world at any time. With such a lack of fixity and such a vast amount of information available, people are forced to search for their identity; a quest which is simply a means of conciliating the existential questions which their modernity poses. Identity thus becomes something which is consciously and wilfully created. The conscious authorship of identity was the subject of my previous article for The New Wolf, Two People Same Mind. Indeed, it is the “self”, as a project, that preserves and revitalises things which otherwise might have become defunct. Yet, how does this work in materiality? How does redundancy rival functionality as a means of preservation in modernity? If we are to look at this with reference to our changing relationship with the book and the library, two things which are becoming increasingly redundant in our society, we can see how this process works.
In an age where the electronic publication is ever-more cost efficient and ever-easier to access, the idea of private libraries or of vast personal collections of dog-eared, moth-eaten books, might seem extraneous to many. However, the inefficiency of both the library service and thebook-product has been re-branded in the free market and, where, for a short while, there was functional redundancy there is now an attractive exclusivity. A particularly interesting example of this process can be observed in the case of the London Library.
The London Library is a private library, where members pay a fee to join and gain access to over a million books from all over the world. However, it does not survive because of the textual content of the books on its shelves – in this respect the internet offers a far greater choice, at a lower cost and quicker speed. The library’s draw is the opportunity to journey up grand staircases, steeped in history, to drift through large and imposing reading rooms, and squeeze through tight, dark passageways littered with age-stained tomes. It offers the smell of 300-year-old leather, and the chance of fleeting encounters with ageing academics asleep on pillows of Kantian Metaphysics or young pretenders scribbling away at their potential masterpieces, aching to be on the shelves that surround them. It provides a truly unique experience and one which is not associated with technological advance or efficient function. It is wholly tactile, entirely material – and that is its attraction. In this sense the Library survives as a medium for identity differentiation. Because there is something more interesting, more defining, about having access to books with history and taking them home than there is in having your entire literary collection on one kindle-type device. The book (and particularly a book from such a prestigious library) is a contrived part of a person’s identity – a verifiable link to the untouchable nature of a glorified past.
By enshrining the past in the present, as the preservation of the library and the book does, humanity adopts a notion which is the very antithesis of the hyper-efficient society which it hopes to realise. Thus is bred an internal contradiction; in which the past in some way inhibits future progression. A contradiction which, if exacerbated, could mean that the preservation of books and libraries leads on to the adoption, andadaptation, of past theoretical ideas. Whether these ideas will ever be used in direct opposition to modernity, is a question which belongs to time alone. What is clear, however, is that humanity can never fully abandon its past.