The question that haunts the preface of Robinson’s 2012 essay collection is: “What if we have ceased to aspire to Democracy, or even democracy?” For Robinson, democratic life is sustained by the discipline of education—“the will to ensure that the public will be competent to make the weightiest decisions”—and the prevailing winds in journalism and the liberal arts don’t bode well. In this collection, Robinson models the very skill she fears American culture is losing: she draws on her own breadth and depth of reading to contextualize and comment thoughtfully on some of the muddiest debates of the day, offering both warnings and reasons to hope.
Books about the internet tend to have a short shelf-life; but eight years after publication, a book that Slate called "Silent Spring for the literary mind" feels as fresh and urgent as ever. Starting from a hunch—that his own internet use is making it harder to focus—Carr conducts a thorough investigation, contextualizing the internet in the history of technology and summarizing the latest studies on its effects on our brains. As our reliance on the internet intensifies, so do the symptoms Carr describes: frenziedness, shrinking attention spans, "a narrowing of expressiveness and a loss of eloquence." It's bad enough that we're shrinking from readers into "compulsive nibblers of info-snacks." But Carr's most haunting line comes near the end: "It's not only deep thinking that requires a calm, attentive mind. It's also empathy and compassion." In a cultural moment overflowing with tweet-sized public nastiness, that's something worth thinking deeply about.
As Max Anderson said on the Vocation & the Common Good podcast, we seem to be on the leading edge of a movement away from the major platforms that have shaped our online lives to date. Amidst increasingly vocal concerns about advertising and privacy (including the gathering steam of #deletefacebook), more and more people are giving their dependence upon major corporate platforms a second look. In such a moment, Alan Jacobs' proposal in the most recent issue of the Hedgehog Review is certainly worth a close read.