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Jonathan Franzen Has Some Thoughts About Technology He’d Like to Share With You All

"Submerged in this paragraph is the implication that Kraus's Vienna was an in-between case – like Windows Vista." IDK you guys.
(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)

(Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO)

The tide of technology has advanced so far that even America’s literary novelists can’t avoid the subject. Take, for example, Gary Shteyngart, who recently roamed the city wearing Google Glass on behalf of the New Yorker.

And so, today, the Guardian has published a rambling essay from Freedom author Jonathan Franzen. But rather than simply bitching about Twitter for 800 words, he apparently decided to go high-concept. Hence an opaque piece examining our age through the eyes of fin-de-siecle Viennese writer Karl Kraus. It’s an excerpt from a full-length book, in case you want to go real deep on the topic.

Uh, congrats about your 5 on the AP Modern European History exam, J-Franz?

The essay is packed with sentences that must’ve been written expressly for providing good snatches to quote with hate-links. For example:

  • “As Kraus says of Germanic life, the PC ‘sobers’ what you’re doing; it allows you to see it unadorned. This was especially true in the years of DOS operating systems and early Windows.”
  • “Submerged in this paragraph is the implication that Kraus’s Vienna was an in-between case – like Windows Vista.”
  • “Our situation looks quite a bit like Vienna’s in 1910, except that newspaper technology has been replaced by digital technology and Viennese charm by American coolness.”
  • “I spend all day every day using software and silicon, and I’m enchanted with everything about my new Lenovo ultrabook computer except its name.”

Why doesn’t Mr. Franzen just hop on a plane if he wants to eat sachertorte in the shadow of a palace so bad?

Anyway, the point seems to be that there’s a lot of resemblances between modern America and Vienna circa the 1910s, which is not good at all, because WWI was right around the corner and things did not go so well for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Plus, old Karl’s stuff is apparently pretty slow going, and Mr. Franzen is worried that we’ve no longer got the intellectual muscle to parse this kind of writing. “If you read Kraus’s sentences more than once, you’ll find that they have a lot to say to us in our own media-saturated, technology-crazed, apocalypse-haunted historical moment,” he writes.

That’s a pretty good excuse for filing something that makes half the Internet say, “uh, come again?” Ya’ll just don’t get it because Twitter’s been rotting your brains. It’s a boss-level troll move, really.

He’s not a Luddite, he says; he’s just got some concerns. Those concerns include PCs that want to be Macs, Salman Rushie joining Twitter, Amazon generally, Jeff Bezos particularly, and the naming of Lenovo computers.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to commission V.S. Naipaul to write the umpteenth article grousing about selfies and narcissism.

Follow Kelly Faircloth on Twitter or via RSS. kfaircloth@observer.com