Fly on the Wall—Off the Grid as an Online Student

David Abram and the Alienating Paradox of Our Digital Epoch

Being swept away by meaningful yet ineffable moments of joy, desolation, or brilliance is a powerful part of being human.  As students, such magical life mysteries extend to the realm of reading, where words on a page morph into ideas and imagery that whisk us away to realms unimaginable.  When we find an academic discipline that piques us in such a way, we’ve discovered gold; a lifetime’s inspiration can emerge from enrolling in a new course at AU.  Yet, one theorist claims that we could be striking an even deeper intellectual bounty if we let the natural world speak to us in the manner of written language.

David Abram suggests that, as we hominids bounded down from jungle trees, evolutionary speaking, adaptation to constant conversation—our cultural exchange—led us to privilege symbolic discourse with one another over and against interaction with our actual earthly surroundings.  Abram writes that when we hear conversations and you see visions of events unfolding in other places,  “This is, in truth, a remarkable magic, for as soon as we look at the written letters, we ‘see what they say.’ They say something to us; they speak” (online). 

Abram suggests that, over time, social sustenance began to arise more from the curation of a speech than from the finding of a food cache.  Rhetoric in a real sense came not to present and caricature reality but, in a manner familiar to us in our meme-ocratic times, rhetoric came to almost replace reality.  Almost.  Like squirrels chattering while the nuts harvested themselves, culture came to exist for itself in an alienating tautology where we lost track of our context.  Meaning came to dispose itself as an end in itself.  Language comes to somewhat replace direct sensation and life becomes, in a sense, a form of metaphor that now seems more real than the original referent.  It’s as though we’d all stopped our minds at fiction and never opened a textbook with all its practical applications.

Meaningful Inspiration: Charlotte’s Message in Her Web

For Abram, there’s alienation in our valuation of language as the key to meaningful interactions.  We’ve become tangled in a loop of human inputs and lost the natural world as a source of inspiration.  “Much as other animals, plants, and even “inanimate” rivers and stones once spoke to our oral ancestors, so the inert letters on the page now speak to us!  This is a form of animism that we tend not to notice, but it is animism nonetheless, as mysterious as a talking spider” (Online).  For fans of Charlotte’s Web this rings too true for words!  (The story hinges on a barnyard spider who wrote a series of inspirational messages in her web, the better to motivate a pig destined for the abattoir).  Where else could one’s future as bacon versus one who fries up ideas for oneself be so aptly demonstrated than in the poignant existential struggles of that pig called Wilbur.  This illustrates Abram’s point: that as language and technology combine to privilege talking and writing, we as a species may have lost contact with that most magical of places: our earthly environment.

For Abram, this hegemony of written and spoken language impoverishes our creativity by limiting what we allow to inspire and speak to us to the narrow realm of our alphabet and its peregrinations across a page or screen.  Yet animism, the ascription of being-hood to living and speaking beings within non-human nature, is paradoxically (to Abram) implied by language: we’ve come to allow language to be the one external part of our context that is allowed to be a purveyor of direct meaning.  Abrams concludes that:

“as we enter more deeply into the world of ubiquitous computing, we increasingly seal ourselves into an exclusively human zone of interaction.  We enter into a bizarre kind of intraspecies incest.

Yet it’s the alterity or otherness of things—the weirdly different awareness of a humpback whale sounding its eerie glissandos through the depths, or an orb-weaver spider spinning the cosmos out of her abdomen; or the complex intelligence of an old-growth forest, dank with mushrooms and bracket fungi, humming with insects and haunted by owls—it’s the wild, more-than-human otherness of these powers that makes any attentive relation with such beings a genuine form of magic, a trancelike negotiation between outrageously divergent worlds” (Abram, online).

Abram also suggests that our computer lives have restrained not only the meanings that we hear but also the ones we are willing to listen to.  Think of how peaceful a babbling brook can be; some even get in-home fountains to replicate that Zenlike experience of rushing water and the accompanying pleasure of a few extra ionized water particles floating around.

He takes his research to intriguing heights by giving examples from Indigenous cultures; he reports interviews with individuals for whom key life moments were literally inspired by rocks, lichen, and birds.  One might, if of a 1960s rock and roll ilk, recall a band called the Moody Blues who summarized such epiphanies in their lyric: “the trees are drawing me near, I’ve got to find out why” (Online).  Key for Abram is that we seek “to regenerate the experience of inhabiting a world wherein everything is alive, awake, and aware.  Wherein rivers feel the presence of the salmon swimming within them, and the ground registers our steps and the needled trees hear our laughter and the crescent moon is nourished by our prayers.” (Abrams, online).

From outside our human realm, a familiar sphere rife with the same old topics and issues, new and outstanding ideas may emerge.  They have to; after all, evolution led us to adapt not to sameness but to radically unexpected circumstances, including challenges to our ability to survive.  Only recently did settled urban existence lead us to see our surroundings as just evermore human-created homogeneity.  At the core of our being, then, is interaction with surprising new moments, such as a turkey vulture flying overhead or a tree branch crashing down near our campsite – things that literally and metaphysically intrude upon the comfortable domain of our consciousness.

“Without such radical otherness, there’s no magic” writes Abram, and when it comes to renewing our private wellspring of distance education inspiration, every source is worth investigating.  It’s in difference, “alterity” as Abrams terms it, that we may do our best work remembering that the stupefying nature of comfort is only paralyzing when we lack new and significant stimuli.  So next time you’re lost in a marsh of notes and deadlines, maybe just step outside and see what your surroundings tell you – at the least you might, like countless writers who attend retreats at windy or muggy or mosquito-infested lakeside cabins, realize that you weren’t so very unmotivated after all!


Abram, D.  (2018).  ‘Magic and the Machine’.  Emergence Magazine.  Retrieved from

Moody Blues.  (1967).  ‘Tuesday Afternoon (Forever Afternoon’.  Days of Future Passed.  Retrieved from