Zuckerman, however, is not a knee-jerk naysayer about all things digital. The director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and cofounder of the international bloggers’ website Global Voices, he is extremely enthusiastic about the potential of using technology to connect people across cultures. He wants the Internet to be an empathy machine. The difference between him and the full-throated apostles of cyber-utopianism is that he does not believe that the online world is foreordained to fulfill this purpose, nor does he naively assume that the outcomes of cross-cultural connections will always be desirable.
Everything depends in the end on whether we can find direct, causal evidence: we need to show that exposure to literature itself makes some sort of positive difference to the people we end up being. That will take a lot of careful and insightful psychological research (try designing an experiment to test the effects of reading “War and Peace,” for example). Meanwhile, most of us will probably soldier on with a positive view of the improving effects of literature, supported by nothing more than an airy bed of sentiment.
The archetypal image of the sage is one of serenity and an almost-otherworldly lack of concern for the mundane obsessions of everyday life. In other words, the accumulation of knowledge and experience, rather than simply being a super-sum of positive integers, tends to produce a state of being that would seem very much at odds with the sort of simplistic, progressive partisan vision of “better” or “nicer” citizens. Knowledge is a double-edged blade that can be used for the same values and desires people have always had; increasingly complex experience isn’t likely to express itself in platitudes.