“The possibilities of group intelligence,” writes James Surowiecki in The Wisdom of Crowds, “at least when it came to judging questions of fact, were demonstrated by a host of experiments conducted by American sociologists and psychologists between 1920 and the mid-1950s….” He goes on to cite academic and military trials, in which teams, more accurately than individuals, estimated room temperature, the weight of objects, and, most famously, the number of jelly beans in a jar.
Surowiecki’s book publishes in 2004, the year of Facebook, and when the number of Wikipedia articles crests to 1 million. It tells a story in which, in less than half a century, the U.S., and much of the developed West, go beyond crude investigations in collective thinking. We build a communication network underpinned by public utility—“cloud”—computing, where people interact and total strangers create, refine, and publish new knowledge for instant, worldwide access.
Readers can begin to contemplate a transformation from guessing at jellybeans to group “wisdom.”
Rudolph Zallinger, the paleoartist whose captivating, flawed, “Age of Reptiles” mural lines the walls of Yale’s Peabody Museum of Natural History, provides another captivating, flawed, illustration, “The March of Progress,” to Time-Life Books in 1965. It profiles a gangly, flapping monkey morphing into a striding, spear-wielding homo sapiens.
The illustration is so powerful it generates its own version of the evolutionary story it means to depict: We grow taller, walk straighter, and are better armed as we enter the future. And our progress is one long ascending angle of success whose apex remains, tantalizingly, to be attained.
Today, an image of our technology-enabled advance on collectivity would look a lot like Zallinger’s march and, like every model for growth, would be subject to the same kinds of delusions—what Stephen Jay Gould called the picture’s “ladder of predicable progress.”
Yet we would resist no such image nor its message: Technology is turning the human race into a collective consciousness, ever-expanding, increasingly powerful.
- The Iranian government is so threatened by citizens tweeting in protest to its rigged 2009 elections, it can only respond with a brutal crackdown.
- Over 18 days in early 2011, the people of Egypt overthrow a regime that has endured three decades, utilizing Facebook and Twitter to communicate times and places of rallies, news, and instructions.
- Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, appears as perhaps our first information hero, shuttling between safe houses and shedding cell phones as he evades would-be censors who pursue him for unruly behavior with secrets–like a character from a Philip K. Dick story.
- Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, appears as perhaps our first information hero, serving out house arrest on a Georgian estate for unruly behavior with Swedish women, Euro-cool in a skinny suit—like an actor playing a character in a movie from a Philip K. Dick story.
Revolutions happen through same collective media that endlessly ironizes itself. The lives of human beings change profoundly by social networks that iterate cynicism and trivia.
“Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world,” writes Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1821.
“It is difficult to get the news from poems, yet men die miserably every day for lack of what is found there,” says William Carlos Williams in the lovely, late “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.”
Would anyone in this 21st century security state argue that poets are legislators?
Would anyone argue that absence of poetry from life, even with poetry’s self-imposed marginalization as an academic “career,” is not an impoverishment?
The very title of Frederic Will’s The Long Poem in the Age of Twitter implies a question about the centrality of poetry to our technology-enabled, information age lives. Could there be such a thing? And if there is “a fractured hero quest,” a story of the tribe, what is it? Is it scribed by the tribe itself, a collective enterprise, and, if so, what does that mean?
The concepts “chaotic,” “associative,” and “fragmentary” are no more settled in their meaning, or in their relationship to lived experience than is “narrative.” So I agree with anyone who regards our experience as chaotic, associative, and or fragmentary…but that doesn’t mean we’re unique in that. (Yes, I experience my life as chaotic and fragmentary, but the idea that my life as a middle class poet and professor in the US in 2010 is more chaotic and fragmentary than that of a Soviet peasant in 1932, say, or that of a butler in Victorian England strikes me as a perverse and narcissistic delusion.) Even those of us who find our experience fragmentary and chaotic still seek to recognize our experience as narrative: to see events in our lives as valuable and meaningful, connected to one another in intelligible ways.
This comment by poet H.L. Hix is courageous at a time when poetry claims its centrality by reproducing the disjunctions of everyday life and its originality in posing these disjunctions as something new—all with some disdain for narrative.
The regnant character of contemporary poetry is (and has been for decades) recombinant. It is after a set of explosions in aesthetics, style, language, culture and politics: Modernism, feminism, deconstruction, L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E, Black Power, mestizaje, 9/11, information technologies. Poets have defined their work as orchestrating the aftermatter, or composing to deliver fragments, and often, both. I believe poets believe that, in doing so, they are speaking in a language that is truer to experience, just as Wordsworth proposed a “language near to the language of real men” in the 1802 Preface to Lyrical Ballads.
With this aesthetic of disruption, continuities, narrative–the sequential connection of moments from which we are meant to make reconnaissance and intelligence about the world– are out of sync.
If there is a long poem, then, in the age of Twitter can it be something other than advertisement, entertainment, news, group trivia? Would it succeed at even a collective guess at a count of jellybeans—itself a kind of narrative act–or become group exchange about the idea of jellybeans?
Frederic Will’s book is a dare that this is not so. And Will undertakes it utilizing poetry, as well as literary and cultural criticism, and memoir. The book moves through swerves, weaves, and clashes of these genres, all driven by a formidable learning. Though the technique is fiercely recombinant, what emerges is indeed, “a fractured hero quest,” a narrative composed of fragments of a search for self, which is also a search for poetry.
In one of the book’s bildungsroman prose moments is a Wordsworthian declaration: “I wished to write poetry out of the document stage of human culture! I wished to tell it as it is, a snake a snake, a dog a dog, til the mere beauty of resaying the world would convince you, and you would say, gasping, there was no point in all of the ornamental prosody, even for that matter for free verse, for all that was needed was the name the world gives itself. You, the poet, would be a simple listener, and when the world spoke, you would write it down, sublime dictation!”
And then there is this porno scene:
The “figure of generation”
Surges from a bedsheet,
Grapeshot widget of testes.
A bit of pagan poetry:
Around the lamb
Bathed in the blood of the lamb
Pieces of grace cavort.
And this lovely piece of Midwestern surrealism:
There is a wild beauty, in wild things, that will crash
All the barriers of sound. And fly to the moon.
Ah the moon and my love’s hands these summer nights,
Walking slowly past the power plant and the field house
And not unaware of the distant out-folding cornfields
That at ten-thirty P.M. seem like coasts of black possibility.
While various in its registers and forms, the voice speaking these pieces represents an identity, an “I” that is speaking to get at a pre-supposed self with a place in history. Indeed, the book’s the pivotal segment “Anabases Now,” is a journey from the periphery to the interior of the self, and it is also (in my opinion) the best.
And yet: Is this truly the long poem in the age of Twitter? Can such a creation even have a recognizable identity or be a search for one?
N. Katherine Hayles, in How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature and Informatics, associates the beginning of the computer age with a shift in the concept of identity. Hayles cites a 1950 paper, “Computer Machinery and Intelligence,” in which British computer scientist Alan Turing presents a test for whether computer programs can be considered capable of “thought” or as software parrots: unable to do other than mimic humans. The test consists of asking a human and a computer the same question. If the questioner cannot tell which contestant answers the question, computers, in Turing’s formulation, can “think.”
“Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age,” writes Hayles, “the erasure of embodiment is performed so that ‘intelligence’ becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human life world.” And if intelligence can be distributed between humans and computer programs, observes Hayles, identity and individuality can also evaporate, along with corporeality, into a collective: “If ‘human essence is freedom from the wills of others,’ the posthuman is ‘post’ not because it is necessarily unfree but because there is no a priori way to identify a self-will that can be clearly distinguished from an-other will.”
This suggests that the poem in the age of Twitter—Twitter being a proxy for collective information communication platforms—becomes a product, or a quest for, not a personal identity, but a distributed one. Or as Hayles puts it: “an ‘I’ transformed into the ‘we’ of autonomous agents operating together to make a self.”
In programming and cybernetics circles, the transformation of “I” to we “we” achieves its apotheosis in a state called the Signularity. The virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier describes MIT professor Marvin Minksy describing the phenomenon this way:
One day soon, maybe twenty or thirty years into the twenty-first century, computers and robots will be able to construct copies of themselves, and these copies will be a little better than the originals because of intelligent software. The second generation of robots will then make a third, but it will take less time….
The process will repeat. Successive generations will be ever smarter and will appear ever faster. People might think they’re in control, until one fine day the rate of robot improvement ramps up so quickly that superintelligent robots will suddenly rule the earth.
Eventually, the process includes the disappearance, or uploading, of human consciousness into a collective, where it sheds individuality, embodiment, and sense perception. It becomes part of the distributed consciousness of software and achieves immortality.
Lanier points out many good reasons why we should not believe this dangerous fantasy in his book, You Are Not a Gadget. And such a model, like any other totalizing concept, from religious apocalypticism to Zallinger’s business case for evolutionary success, with its endlessly increasing returns, seems doomed by its own delusions.
Nevertheless, we live in a time of unprecedented change in communications technology. In The Long Poem in the Age of Twitter Frederic Will asks us to ask real questions about what this change means to poesis: “Virgil, Dante, and Milton are not members of creative corporations, like Homer…or are they? What is the literary tradition, and behind it the cultural tradition, except accumulated material from the corpus publicum of human experience?”
What will that corpus publicum be when experience is prosthetic-ized by technology, extra-human, or posthuman? Perhaps we will find a new poetics to reflect it.