A Q&A with Howard Axelrod
For the past forty thousand years, the human brain’s ability to adapt has been an evolutionary advantage. But now, for the first time in human history, we’re effectively living in two environments simultaneously—the natural and the digital—and many of the traits that help us function successfully online don’t help us offline, and vice versa.
Drawing on his research and his experience of acclimating to a life of solitude in the woods and then to digital life upon his return to the city, Howard Axelrod delves into the human brain’s impressive but indiscriminate ability to adapt to its surroundings. His book, The Stars in Our Pockets: Getting Lost and Sometimes Found in the Digital Age, is a portrait of, as well as a meditation on, what he comes to think of as inner climate change. It’s the idea that just as we’re losing diversity of plant and animal species due to changes in the climate, so too are we losing the diversity and range of our minds due to changes in our cognitive environment. Beacon Broadside editor Christian Coleman caught up with Axelrod to chat with him about it.
Christian Coleman: Would you consider The Stars in Our Pockets to be a kind of sequel to your first book, The Point of Vanishing? Or a companion book? Something else entirely?
Howard Axelrod: Companion is a good word. Stars considers the questions I’ve wrestled with since returning from the Vermont woods: How do environments, both natural and digital, change our orientation in the world? And if adapting to the digital environment means losing traits that you value, how do you determine which trades are worth making?
CC: You begin the book with your concept of inner climate change. When did you become aware that this idea was coming together for you?
HA: At first, it just seemed a helpful metaphor. But then I was reading Oliver Sacks’ book The River of Consciousness, and what he wrote about Gerald Edelman’s theory of “neural Darwinism” amazed me. It was in perfect accord with the metaphor I’d been using and offered a scientific justification for it. That was an exciting day!
CC: Now that we find ourselves in 2020, why do you think inner climate change is helpful to talk about adapting to both digital and physical environments?
HA: We’re disoriented in our very disorientation—we haven’t known what maps to look to; we haven’t had a unified theory of digital life’s impact on the cultural convulsions of our times. Using the theory of inner climate change as a way of understanding what’s been happening, we can have more practical conversations about the lenses through which we see the world and what shape we do or don’t want them to have.
CC: You begin each chapter with endangered traits. For example, the first chapter begins with lostness, memory place, and survey map. Chapter two begins with event time and flow. Where did you get this idea?
HA: On some of its endangered species lists, The World Wildlife Federation uses this poignant and practical structure: endangered species, background, why it matters, threats, what you can do. So I adopted that structure for my chapters. It was a framework within which I could associate, reason, ruminate, and try to understand as deeply as possible the trades we’re making.
CC: What I like about The Stars in Our Pockets is that you’re never prescriptive about how to find a balance between life lived online and offline. When you’re making your case about the traits that we’re losing or trading as we habituate ourselves toggling digital technology and the physical world, the tone is contemplative and invites the reader to come to their own conclusion. How do you decide to take this approach to writing the book?
That’s just how I think. It was a question I was trying to figure out, a question to which I didn’t have the answers for myself, and trying to convince readers of something as a way of trying to convince myself clearly would have been laborious to write and dreadful to read!
CC: And lastly, why did you dedicate the book to Oliver Sacks?
HA: He was a friend. And I miss him. And I hope, hope, that he would have loved this book.
About Howard Axelrod
Howard Axelrod is the author of The Point of Vanishing: A Memoir of Two Years in Solitude, named one of the best books of 2015 by Slate, the Chicago Tribune, and Entropy Magazine, and one of the best memoirs of 2015 by Library Journal. His essays have appeared in the New York Times Magazine, O Magazine, Politico, Salon, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the Boston Globe. He has taught at Harvard, the University of Arizona, and is currently the director of the Creative Writing Program at Loyola University in Chicago. Connect with him at howardaxelrod.com.