The poem is not, of course, in any way required to appear on the device. It may choose to appear in a more tactile medium – in the book, the magazine, the chapbook, the broadsheet – but the totalizing nature of the device means that this gesture is increasingly to choose irrelevance. Books and journals, magazines and newspapers, are more and more frequently available only in electronic formats. People demand that what they read appear on whatever screen they happen to be holding in their hands. In a culture where all eyes are on devices (rarely straying from them even long enough to cross the street, eat dinner, or make love), there is a real risk that the poem chooses irrelevance by not appearing through that medium.
Choosing not to have poetry appear as machine content also risks reinforcing more absolutely the division between a broader popular culture (for which poetry is at best a curiosity) and the narrow elitist culture of poets and their readers. This division has long been widening. Refusing to have poetry appear on the device threatens to make the distance untraversable. If poetry insists on being obscure, not only by way of form and sensibility but also by way of inaccessibility through popular media, there are few who will bother to go looking for it.
The choice that the device presents to the poem, therefore, is either to appear (and become content-image-data before poem) or not to appear (and risk irrelevance and elitism), and the choice is not without moral implication, because the purpose of content is to lead unreflexively from one swipe or click to the other (swipe, swipe, swipe – click, click, click). It is to facilitate rapid and effortless consumption, to put eyes on advertisement after advertisement. Its function is to distract and sedate so that its consumers can be analyzed and in this way better targeted.
In other words, it is no longer religion that opiates the masses. It hasn’t been since the television occupied the space formerly reserved for the household shrine. It certainly isn’t now that the handheld device occupies the space formerly reserved for prayer beads, each flick of the thumb counting another Instagram Hail Mary, another Facebook Our Father. We no longer need religion to sedate ourselves. We have pro sports and reality television, social media and augmented reality, all in the palms of our hands. Why should we rely on some future religious paradise to distract ourselves from our socio-political problems when the paradise of the present is available on our twitter feeds and our YouTube channels? Content is now the opiate of the masses.
To the extent that poetry subordinates itself to the logic of the device, therefore, to the extent that it becomes just another set of content to sedate and tranquilize users, something to flick through idly – neither active nor passive, merely idling, like a car with the engine running but the transmission in park – it ceases to perform the function of art. It ceases to provoke, to defamiliarize, to discomfort. It consents to serve an economic logic, not just of its own production (as art always does to one degree or another, whether serving the honour of a patron or the bottom line of a publisher), but also of the whole culture of the device, of content exchanged for advertizing and analytics. It becomes merely one more pill in the bottle of cultural sedatives that the device keeps ever close to hand.