Essays, Features

Wendy Willis: “A Million People On One String – Notes on Poetry and Social Media”

bigdata1These days, it’s all big data all the time. Over the past few months, I’ve seen headlines ranging from “Big Data or Big Brother?” to “Big Data’s Little Brother” to “Big Data at the Oscars.” Just today, I was solicited for a webinar entitled “Big Data is a Big Deal!”(exclamation point theirs). As Duke psychologist and behavioral economist Don Ariely recently quipped on his Facebook page:  “Big data is like teenage sex:  everyone talks about it, nobody knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it.”

But the big data debate is not entirely made up of cutesy wordplay. Ever since Edward Snowden first started leaking information about the massive U.S. government spying operation, Americans—for the first time in over a decade—started kicking up some real, honest-to-goodness dust about whether the government can do whatever it pleases if it claims to be protecting us from terrorists. And then there’s the “creepy” index that seems to be the new—if somewhat ephemeral—standard for just how far the masters of the internet should be allowed to go in keeping tabs on us. Google Chairman and former CEO Eric Schmidt once said that Google’s policy was “to get right up to the creepy line and not cross it.” Then nearly everyone was creeped out when Target’s algorithms knew that a teenager was pregnant before her father did. And when Facebook acquired the virtual reality company, Oculus, Minecraft creator and Oculus investor Markus Persson said he wouldn’t continue to work with Oculus because “Facebook creeps me out.” Meanwhile Google’s Schmidt argues that mega-online retailer Amazon should not be allowed to move ahead with their drone delivery plans because it’s creepy.

Even David Byrne has gotten into the act, claiming that we should “break up” with the internet, arguing: “The information hoovering that corporations engage in is of a kind with the government surveillance; in both cases we are prey to distant agendas. The three forms (if one includes cyber-crime) of data gathering are all connected—and none of them make us happier or more secure.”

But what does big data and its hoovering creepy nimbus of world domination mean for readers and writers of poetry? (And here I use the term “big data” rather loosely, to refer both to deep data that records particular individuals’ preferences and habits and broad data that tracks and amalgamates the activities of vast swaths of the world’s population.) I think it’s fair to say that as citizens of modernity and—as they call it—“producers of content,” poets have a lot at stake in this brave new world. Publishing changes on what seems like a weekly basis. Readers and potential readers are barraged with so many words that our poems often feel like tidepools in the path of a tsunami. Copyright protections are ever-moving targets. And for sure, poets have plenty of reason to be concerned when mass government surveillance is the order of the day. Writers and other artists have long been targets for government spying, repression, arrest, and worse. In 2012, PEN International reported that 878 writers around the world had been arrested by their own governments that year. No fewer than 45 of them were killed and 9 were “disappeared.” And need I mention Osip Maldestam, who was arrested and sent to Siberia for reading an unflattering poem about Stalin privately to a group of friends (“His thick fingers are bulky and fat like live-baits / And his accurate words are as heavy as weights. / Cucaracha’s moustaches are screaming, / And his boot-tops are shining and gleaming”) or Ai Weiwei, the Chinese sculptor and filmmaker who was arrested for his work and still lives under a travel ban?  So yes, a government that undertakes mass spying on its own citizens should be serious business to the nation’s poets and writers.

And it has become all too clear that the internet—with its glittering headlines and rat holes and twisty turns—is a culture of temptation. A longing, a desire, a fetish is scarcely felt before it is satisfied in an online world composed of ever-more sophisticated algorithms. I can have a flicker of an impulse and within seconds, I can connect to a worldwide network to save the whales or to re-invigorate public appreciation of the sestina. I can want a new German fountain pen at noon one day and have one delivered to my doorstep by 10 am the next morning. But that stunted cycle of longing and satisfaction has its risks. Not only can we find our favorite pens at the lowest cost, but we can also follow our darker and more neurotic impulses, the temptations that real-life social forces usually protect us from. And I am not just talking about pornography, though one-third of the content on the internet is pornographic, so somebody must be following through on those impulses. When the lawyer or the banker who wants a little extra thrill can stay safely behind the mahogany desk rather than being forced to walk into the peep show with the riff-raff, the barriers to temptation are swept away and satisfaction is immediate and private. Or rather, seemingly private.

The internet is the island of the lotus eaters, it is the house of mirrors, it is brothel and donut shop wrapped into one. In fact, the internet in the era of big data is Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, churning out specially designed confections to satisfy our deepest and most compulsive cravings, to play to our weaknesses. For poets, our weaknesses run toward the existential, and the internet with all its easy connectedness allows us to quiet—temporarily—the clattering craving for recognition, the desire to be seen. It offers hourly opportunities for poets to come out of the shadows and onto Facebook and Twitter for all to admire. And then we are rewarded—or at least ranked—by the media for our skillful use of Twitter, giving us yet another opportunity to display our Twitter mastery as we retweet the results of the rankings.  All this hullabaloo allows us to take our fate into our own hands, to deny market forces, and push our poems—or more likely our poetic avatars—into the public square whether people are clamoring for them or not. The temptations are many: to make it all easier than it is, to short-circuit the dull work and self-doubt and wheel-spinning, to trade in the drudgery and mystery of mining the unconscious for quick self-generated notoriety.

One of the odd things about being a poet in the digital world is the pressure—or the impulse—to display a kind of poetic extraversion, to be a poet on the internet. At best it is a kind of performance – “this is what a poet looks like at her desk, in the laundry room, at the grocery store.” At worst, it is an unseemly form of exhibitionism—a kind of poet porn—that drains creative energy out of actually making poems. And all of that sharing of poet-ness just feeds information to huge data crunchers that will chomp it up and regurgitate it back to us in some exceptionally persuasive form. Who among us hasn’t seen the “Publish your Poetry Book” banner ad in our newsfeed?

I don’t mean to be all pure and holy here. The endorphin hit of that “like” popping up next to the publication update you just posted on your Facebook wall is a neat little thrill for a tribe grown accustomed to being overlooked. Who doesn’t want to find an audience for an art that is all too often confined to the university classroom and the indie coffeehouse? But there is something fundamental crumbling beneath us while we banter about the latest gossip of the po-biz. There is some force building that is hostile to the foundation of poets and poems. At some basic level, the culture and economics of the internet are rooted in crowdsourcing, in the faith that gigantic quantities of data can and will generate an intelligence that is wiser, cannier, and more prescient than any individual mind. Data of that depth and breadth can be used to amalgamate, parse, source, predict, and contain the future. And we have witnessed the internet’s  considerable potential both for triggering mass action (see Arab Spring or the reaction to the Susan B. Komen Foundation’s decision to stop funding Planned Parenthood) and for very narrowly isolating individuals, using markers of “type.” For example, if—say—middle-aged, middle-class, white-presenting, urban, college- educated mothers of school-aged children tend to vote for candidates who care about affordable day care and universal sick leave, people whose internet profiles resemble those women will be micro-targeted with political messages focused on issues affecting working mothers. And they will be bombarded with ads for comfortable shoes and labor-saving kitchen devices and by news sources focusing on education policy. In fact, I just looked at my Facebook feed and found an ad for the upcoming Summer Camp Expo. (Thanks, Facebook!  I’ve been procrastinating about those summer camps!)

bigdata2All that worship of the hive mind leaves very little space for the thin reed that is the poetic imagination, for the smoky glimpse into the untrammeled interior brought forth by an individual consciousness. As readers and citizens, we have come to rely on poems and poets to anchor us to the inner life, to allow us to overhear a single voice speaking into the melee of modernity. The poet is disruptor, is world-creator and conjurer, and is both guardian and spokesperson for the unconscious. As Wallace Stevens spells out in “The Man with the Blue Guitar”:

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

On the broad end of the big data spectrum (where individual decisions are consolidated into an undifferentiated mass), the amalgamation of expertise and taste and opinion is a bullhorn for the bell curve, reinforcing the massive majority while obliterating or at least obscuring the outliers at either end of the curve. And a lot of times that type of respect for the majority makes sense. It allows us to serve the most widely held interests, and it exiles loud members of the minority to their rightful place in the weeds. But, let’s be honest. Aren’t poets and artists often among the outliers? Aren’t we the ones who imagine what isn’t but maybe could be? Aren’t we the ones often at odds with the big swollen mass in the center? And if that is true, where do outliers fit into the refractive and bloated version of reality that the online world broadcasts back into the culture, reinforcing the bell and further marginalizing the outliers?

In his brilliant little book, Democracy, Culture and the Voice of Poetry, Robert Pinsky argues that poetry plays an essential role in destabilizing what he calls “mass culture,” and the mass that he was responding to was nowhere near as massive as the one we tap into now on an hourly basis. As he characterizes it, mass culture creates a tremendous collective anxiety:  “We are simultaneously afraid of constraints making us so much like one another that we will lose something vital in our human nature, and also in fear of becoming so fluently different, so much divided into alien and brutally competitive fragments, gangs or fabricated nationalisms, that we cannot survive.”

He argues that poetry is an antidote to both the obliteration and the alienation caused by the dominance of mass culture. As he puts it, “something deep in poetry operates at the borderland of body and mind, sound and word: double-region of the subtle knot that Donne says makes us man.”

But the poetic imagination is a fragile thing, a skitterish thing, and it—like everything else—is being bombarded with sophisticated, made-to-order messages intended to co-opt it for the purposes of retail marketing and political manipulation. And here’s the other side of the big data spectrum—the segmented isolation that the internet can (and is happy to) generate for us. Moment by moment, we can create an online world that is so singular that it feels like an individual mind. It feels like a world created by and for us, a world where our interior life and all its fantasies are made manifest.  We conflate our immersion in the online world with the deep space of the imagination because otherwise how could it be so connected to our barely felt desires and secret neuroses?

Yet that algorithmically generated experience of deep individuality is synthetic and littered with cookies and tracking code and surveillance cameras. That is not to suggest that without big data, humans are not socially influenced—some would say socially constructed—creatures.  We are.  But behind the curtain of that singularity lurks huge interests that have money and power to gain and that have no fealty to the individual or the rebellious imagination. And further—even if the interests were benign—access to everything all the time (and everything’s access to us) obliterates that which is hesitant, nascent, that which stutters before it bursts into being. By spending time in the depths of the interior without Eric Schmidt or Mark Zuckerberg to guide her, only then does the poet give the poem a chance to approximate that which is the most fragilely human, that which is imperfect and flawed but was made by a single mind, unpolished by the “wisdom of the crowd.”  Again, Stevens speaks to this exquisite imperfection:

I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar

All this is not to argue that the internet is evil or to order the poets back to their garrets with their tallow candles and AOL dial up. This is not to say that we should return to a world of isolation and unknowingness. But it is to argue that all this connectedness and knowledge is not free and that we are making tradeoffs without thinking very hard about them. It is to argue that poets should lead the way toward a more mature relationship with the internet, one that starts with our eyes wide open.  It is to argue that poets and other artists have a particular stake in speaking out when we see overreaching by the government, by employers, by corporations. It is to suggest that we poets take a deep breath and think artistically, intentionally and strategically before we throw ourselves whole-heartedly into the work of creating an online brand. Let’s challenge ourselves to resist the temptation to over-share or reach for the salve of temporary recognition or join the circus of poetic exhibitionism.

And it is to suggest—ever so gently—that it would serve us well to protect our fragile and susceptible imaginations, to be defensive of their soft animal underbellies. And if we do, then, just maybe we can safely step into the rushing river that is the internet. Maybe then we can embrace it for what it is and come and go as we please. Maybe then we can join the crowd in the way Stevens imagined:

So that’s life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing,

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that’s life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.

Wendy Willis is the author of Blood Sisters of the Republic (Press 53, 2012). She is the Executive Director of the Policy Consensus Initiative, a national non-profit organization devoted to improving democratic governance.