For my most recent assignment, we were tasked with writing a literary essay that combined traditional modes of argument with a creative flair. I chose to interpret Walt Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” by writing a song. What follows is the song (called “Broadcast”) and a breakdown of my lyrics as they relate to the original poem.
Whitman’s “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” brings up the idea that while zealous study and assimilation of a given subject might make someone a scholar on said subject (i.e., astronomy), all of the technical knowledge actually detracts from the implicit wonder of the “stars” (subject matter). I saw this as a metaphor applicable to the way one’s life is now premeditated in an online world. For example, in “real-life” conversations are free flowing, we fumble, make word blunders and are impulsive. Online, there is a propensity to edit, shape, and create a presentable version of oneself for mass consumption. We arrange the “columns”, “proofs”, and “figures” of ourselves into a “learn’d” configuration (using digital skills and the foresight that the end result is specifically intended for the public), instead of simply looking at the stars in silence (living our lives without digital anxiety).
We tinker to the point of ridiculousness with our online “profiles”. This reminds me of the old fiction-writing adage of treating your story like a fragility, whereby too much tinkering can destroy or maim the end result. And while my own interpretation is aimed more at susceptible youths just starting out online, these pitfalls can apply to anyone who is sucked too far into the façade of “rules” for how to be a digital person. My interpretation is based on a pejorative view of living online as a sculpted “character”, and the song below is told from the viewpoint of one who succumbs to losing their individuality for the sake of online notoriety.
Look out the window and what do you find,
They’re all standing in line, cash in hand
Hoof to hoof they all seem paralyzed
Bleating oblivious cries of what’s ahead
- This image is of a line outside an Apple store or other such tech-emphatic company where consumers flock to purchase the newest gadget. The allusions to livestock are meant to show the submissive nature of the crowd, as well as bring up the idea of their being led to slaughter (their own detriments from over using technology, which they are oblivious to).
Tripping on cable littered floors
I don’t know anymore, what goes where
- This shows the mass accumulation of products that we “need” to continue our digital involvements, which eventually pile up as newer versions come out. A good example would be old cellphones and music players, or the amount of remotes in the average American living room. The cables too are reminders that we must stay “plugged in” as often and as quantitatively as possible.
Update, refresh, display the under score
Corrupt the core, reduce the glare.
- This technical jargon is used to elicit the imagery of the dissociative user interface. In the real world, our updates are automatic—they are our thoughts and recalibrations of our priorities. Online, however, these must be manually, manically updated to keep up with our life events (and to not fall behind in the face of more involved users). In doing so, we “corrupt our core” (a pseudo-spiritual theme of damning oneself through edited insincerity online), and yet “reduce the glare” of those who would judge us for not being involved at all (anyone without a Facebook or smart phone is nearly deemed a leper in modern society).
Here to buy my everything
- This is the people in line again. They’re here to buy the thing that will bring them fulfillment—their “everything”. This shows how we often put the newest techno wonder on a utopian pedestal.
Look at all the joy it brings
- Advertising and branding fool the user into thinking that their life will be fuller as a result of purchasing the newest gadget, or by participating in online social media.
Just a momentary sting
- This refers to the ideological sacrifice required to “join up” with the rest of the masses living online; it is the price to pay for assimilation.
Now you don’t feel anything
- Here the (superficial) numbing euphoria of belonging takes over, overriding any insecurities or apprehensions. This is meant as a pejorative view, whereby the user succumbs to social pressure and becomes a group-think joiner, rather than maintaining their own individual voice and views.
Kept my knees close to my head and chest
And you know the rest, we sat about it
- This refers to the nearly encouraged practice of airing extremely personal information online for the purpose of gaining notoriety. The pose of being in a tight ball (fetal position) represents the achieved state of melancholy required for mass attention (the more sensationally/personally one presents oneself online, the more notoriety they receive); “you know the rest” because it was publicly posted; and we “sat about it” within the comments, hashing out the conversations that stemmed from the initial posting.
Center stage is where it feels the best
Where every breath is allowed in
- Again, this is the perceived comfort of being in the limelight (when in actuality, anonymity and personal boundaries disappear, and the user is at the mercy of the “crowd” of followers). “Every breath” refers to the manic act of posting every mundane thought one might have (the worst parts of Twitter & Facebook).
Sold our souls to be on the radio
Trapped here in the glow, will you subscribe?
- This is the overall compromising of one’s privacy and personal boundaries to gain notoriety online, effectively “trapping” one in the spotlight (must keep posting, keep updating—one becomes a slave to the process). “Subscribe” refers explicitly to blogging or friending on social media.
All my thoughts are now in stereo
Streamed around the globe, a swarm of flies
- This juxtaposes the amazing fact that one can reach the entire planet through online personas and online networking with the undeniable fact that most social personas online have little or nothing to say/contribute (their updates/posts are like the buzzing of a “swarm of flies”).