The world is text. Mallarmé and Flaubert described this possibility at the end of the nineteenth century and Derrida proclaimed it again more recently. But now we can say that the world is literature. It is turning literary through the Internet.
What is taking place today is not, as Oscar Wilde or C. P. Cavafy believed, an aestheticization of reality. Claiming that art was superior to nature, they thought that art affected life more than the other way around. Today we are witnessing something new, ethical rather than aesthetic. And the Internet is helping to bring it about.
Indeed, there is a remarkable convergence between the powers of the Internet to bring people together and literature’s capacity to foster empathic understanding among people.
Let’s look at literature first. Literature addresses and enhances the unique talent humans have to project themselves onto other situations. For we can put ourselves through our imagination in someone else’s shoes and imagine how she feels. We can play roles, attempt to perceive what she is thinking or feeling and almost to read her mind.
This capacity to jump from one place to another, of imagining another place or situation, or person, is fundamentally literary. Shared by all the arts, it is a special quality of literature.
Literature invites us to get into the minds of other characters, to enter worlds that are not real, to conjure up new possibilities. Literature does not necessarily make us better people. But it does allow us to see connections and it enhances our capacity for linking with others beyond our doorstep. Literature plays with our desire to connect with others.
The Internet, of course, fosters such a feeling of connectedness. In a recent book, Cogntitive Surplus. Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky points to a few familiar examples of global cooperation: Wikipedia, an enterprise written and monitored primarily by amateurs; the millions of videos uploaded on YouTube; and open source systems, like the Apache, the most widely used software for webservers and freely available to everyone.
The traditional question, Shirky says, is “why are these people doing this for free?” But these questions presuppose that we are inherently selfish and that we need financial incentives to do anything outside our tight friendship or family groups. We should think of new questions, such as, does this behavior enhance people’s desire for autonomy? Does it reward them for their desire to be connected and be generous?
In any case, the technologies of the Internet yield what he calls a cognitive surplus -- the collective imaginary and intellectual energy we can bring to social life. Through the Internet we can more easily pool our resources for collective creation.
There is a touch of utopia and Internet boosterism to Shirky’s account, a sign perhaps that we overstate the power of the Internet in political and personal life. The Net can be used to spread hatred as well as freedom. Along with invitation for shared information there are also calls for terror.
But what can’t be denied is the way the Internet is giving us a new way of looking at human behavior, which I call literary and which I define as our capacity to think our way into the lives of other people. This reality presupposes the fundamental human desire not only for connectedness but also for empathy.
It approximates Adam Smith’s conception of human relations – that we are bound in net of moral and social interdependence – rather than Hobbes’s view – that we struggle with others for mastery and control. It presumes that humans are primarily affectionate, cooperative rather than aggressive and self-interested.
We are linked together, in other words, not through fear of our neighbors, far and near, but through empathic ties to them. We are attached to them by our intellectual and imaginative capacities that allow us to see them as fellow humans with fears and desires. We are humans, in short, to the extent that we feel bound to one another and take steps to realize this solidarity.
Literature has always exploited this human value of connectedness. And now the Internet is making it more possible to achieve it. It is part of an overall trend in globalization that has been bringing people closer together through trade, travel, and migration, and, of course, digital communication.
There is a paradox here, however, that Jeremy Rifkin picks up in The Empathic Civilization. The Race for Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis: The greater empathy emerging in today’s globalization necessitates greater entropy – the usage of fossil fuels leading to an imminent global collapse. The increased interconnection of people, commerce, and communication requires the increased expenditure of energy and could lead to environmental collapse. Can we teach transnational empathy, Rivkin asks, to avoid self-destruction?
This may be the question of our time. But in posing it, we should not forget that the empathic world of the net is really a literary world. It is not a world of fiction but a world linked through fiction by our inherent capacity to project ourselves onto other situations, to imagine alternate realities, to change society, to conjure what other people are feeling, to be mindful of them, and to identify ourselves with them. We can solve our global problems, political, economic, and environmental, much better if we imagine our connections as human beings.
Is it an accident that the first recorded text, the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh, is a reflection of empathy through poetry? It is not about war or trade but fraternity -- two buddies discover their humanity through friendship. They humanize the world by building first their comradeship. Surely this poem has something to say to us readers and builders of Wikipedia.
Welcome to the new world of the net, a world as old as epic poetry.