Technology promised to set us free. Instead it has trained us to withdraw from the world into distraction and dependency
By Nicholas Carr
It was a scene out of an Ambien nightmare: a jackal with the face of Mark Zuckerberg stood over a freshly killed zebra, gnawing at the animal’s innards. But I was not asleep. The vision arrived midday, triggered by the Facebook founder’s announcement – in spring 2011 – that ‘The only meat I’m eating is from animals I’ve killed myself.’ Zuckerberg had begun his new ‘personal challenge’, he told Fortune magazine, by boiling a lobster alive. Then he dispatched a chicken. Continuing up the food chain, he offed a pig and slit a goat’s throat. On a hunting expedition, he reportedly put a bullet in a bison. He was ‘learning a lot’, he said, ‘about sustainable living’.
I managed to delete the image of the jackal-man from my memory. What I couldn’t shake was a sense that in the young entrepreneur’s latest pastime lay a metaphor awaiting explication. If only I could bring it into focus, piece its parts together, I might gain what I had long sought: a deeper understanding of the strange times in which we live.
What did the predacious Zuckerberg represent? What meaning might the lobster’s reddened claw hold? And what of that bison, surely the most symbolically resonant of American fauna? I was on to something. At the least, I figured, I’d be able to squeeze a decent blog post out of the story.
The post never got written, but many others did. I’d taken up blogging early in 2005, just as it seemed everyone was talking about ‘the blogosphere’. I’d discovered, after a little digging on the domain registrar GoDaddy, that ‘roughtype.com’ was still available (an uncharacteristic oversight by pornographers), so I called my blog Rough Type. The name seemed to fit the provisional, serve-it-raw quality of online writing at the time.
Blogging has since been subsumed into journalism – it’s lost its personality – but back then it did feel like something new in the world, a literary frontier. The collectivist claptrap about ‘conversational media’ and ‘hive minds’ that came to surround the blogosphere missed the point. Blogs were crankily personal productions. They were diaries written in public, running commentaries on whatever the writer happened to be reading or watching or thinking about at the moment. As Andrew Sullivan, one of the form’s pioneers, put it: ‘You just say what the hell you want.’ The style suited the jitteriness of the web, that needy, oceanic churning. A blog was critical impressionism, or impressionistic criticism, and it had the immediacy of an argument in a bar. You hit the Publish button, and your post was out there on the world wide web, for everyone to see.
Or to ignore. Rough Type’s early readership was trifling, which, in retrospect, was a blessing. I started blogging without knowing what the hell I wanted to say. I was a mumbler in a loud bazaar. Then, in the summer of 2005, Web 2.0 arrived. The commercial internet, comatose since the dot-com crash of 2000, was up on its feet, wide-eyed and hungry. Sites such as MySpace, Flickr, LinkedIn and the recently launched Facebook were pulling money back into Silicon Valley. Nerds were getting rich again. But the fledgling social networks, together with the rapidly inflating blogosphere and the endlessly discussed Wikipedia, seemed to herald something bigger than another gold rush. They were, if you could trust the hype, the vanguard of a democratic revolution in media and communication – a revolution that would change society forever. A new age was dawning, with a sunrise worthy of the Hudson River School.
Rough Type had its subject.
The greatest of the United States’ homegrown religions – greater than Jehovah’s Witnesses, greater than the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, greater even than Scientology – is the religion of technology. John Adolphus Etzler, a Pittsburgher, sounded the trumpet in his testament The Paradise Within the Reach of All Men (1833). By fulfilling its ‘mechanical purposes’, he wrote, the US would turn itself into a new Eden, a ‘state of superabundance’ where ‘there will be a continual feast, parties of pleasures, novelties, delights and instructive occupations’, not to mention ‘vegetables of infinite variety and appearance’.
Similar predictions proliferated throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, and in their visions of ‘technological majesty’, as the critic and historian Perry Miller wrote, we find the true American sublime. We might blow kisses to agrarians such as Jefferson and tree-huggers such as Thoreau, but we put our faith in Edison and Ford, Gates and Zuckerberg. It is the technologists who shall lead us.
Cyberspace, with its disembodied voices and ethereal avatars, seemed mystical from the start, its unearthly vastness a receptacle for the spiritual yearnings and tropes of the US. ‘What better way,’ wrote the philosopher Michael Heim in ‘The Erotic Ontology of Cyberspace’ (1991), ‘to emulate God’s knowledge than to generate a virtual world constituted by bits of information?’ In 1999, the year Google moved from a Menlo Park garage to a Palo Alto office, the Yale computer scientist David Gelernter wrote a manifesto predicting ‘the second coming of the computer’, replete with gauzy images of ‘cyberbodies drift[ing] in the computational cosmos’ and ‘beautifully laid-out collections of information, like immaculate giant gardens’.
The millenarian rhetoric swelled with the arrival of Web 2.0. ‘Behold,’ proclaimed Wired in an August 2005 cover story: we are entering a ‘new world’, powered not by God’s grace but by the web’s ‘electricity of participation’. It would be a paradise of our own making, ‘manufactured by users’. History’s databases would be erased, humankind rebooted. ‘You and I are alive at this moment.’
The revelation continues to this day, the technological paradise forever glittering on the horizon. Even money men have taken sidelines in starry-eyed futurism. In 2014, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen sent out a rhapsodic series of tweets – he called it a ‘tweetstorm’ – announcing that computers and robots were about to liberate us all from ‘physical need constraints’. Echoing Etzler (and Karl Marx), he declared that ‘for the first time in history’ humankind would be able to express its full and true nature: ‘we will be whoever we want to be.’ And: ‘The main fields of human endeavour will be culture, arts, sciences, creativity, philosophy, experimentation, exploration, adventure.’ The only thing he left out was the vegetables.
Such prophesies might be dismissed as the prattle of overindulged rich guys, but for one thing: they’ve shaped public opinion. By spreading a utopian view of technology, a view that defines progress as essentially technological, they’ve encouraged people to switch off their critical faculties and give Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and financiers free rein in remaking culture to fit their commercial interests. If, after all, the technologists are creating a world of superabundance, a world without work or want, their interests must be indistinguishable from society’s. To stand in their way, or even to question their motives and tactics, would be self-defeating. It would serve only to delay the wonderful inevitable.
The Silicon Valley line has been given an academic imprimatur by theorists from universities and think tanks. Intellectuals spanning the political spectrum, from Randian right to Marxian left, have portrayed the computer network as a technology of emancipation. The virtual world, they argue, provides an escape from repressive social, corporate and governmental constraints; it frees people to exercise their volition and creativity unfettered, whether as entrepreneurs seeking riches in the marketplace or as volunteers engaged in ‘social production’ outside the marketplace. As the Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler wrote in his influential book The Wealth of Networks (2006):
This new freedom holds great practical promise: as a dimension of individual freedom; as a platform for better democratic participation; as a medium to foster a more critical and self-reflective culture; and, in an increasingly information-dependent global economy, as a mechanism to achieve improvements in human development everywhere.
Calling it a revolution, he said, is no exaggeration.
Benkler and his cohort had good intentions, but their assumptions were bad. They put too much stock in the early history of the web, when the system’s commercial and social structures were inchoate, its users a skewed sample of the population. They failed to appreciate how the network would funnel the energies of the people into a centrally administered, tightly monitored information system organised to enrich a small group of businesses and their owners.
The network would indeed generate a lot of wealth, but it would be wealth of the Adam Smith sort – and it would be concentrated in a few hands, not widely spread. The culture that emerged on the network, and that now extends deep into our lives and psyches, is characterised by frenetic production and consumption – smartphones have made media machines of us all – but little real empowerment and even less reflectiveness. It’s a culture of distraction and dependency. That’s not to deny the benefits of having easy access to an efficient, universal system of information exchange. It is to deny the mythology that shrouds the system. And it is to deny the assumption that the system, in order to provide its benefits, had to take its present form.
Late in his life, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith coined the term ‘innocent fraud’. He used it to describe a lie or a half-truth that, because it suits the needs or views of those in power, is presented as fact. After much repetition, the fiction becomes common wisdom. ‘It is innocent because most who employ it are without conscious guilt,’ Galbraith wrote in 1999. ‘It is fraud because it is quietly in the service of special interest.’ The idea of the computer network as an engine of liberation is an innocent fraud.
I love a good gizmo. When, as a teenager, I sat down at a computer for the first time – a bulging, monochromatic terminal connected to a two-ton mainframe processor – I was wonderstruck. As soon as affordable PCs came along, I surrounded myself with beige boxes, floppy disks and what used to be called ‘peripherals’. A computer, I found, was a tool of many uses but also a puzzle of many mysteries. The more time you spent figuring out how it worked, learning its language and logic, probing its limits, the more possibilities it opened. Like the best of tools, it invited and rewarded curiosity. And it was fun, head crashes and fatal errors notwithstanding.
In the early 1990s, I launched a browser for the first time and watched the gates of the web open. I was enthralled – so much territory, so few rules. But it didn’t take long for the carpetbaggers to arrive. The territory began to be subdivided, strip-malled and, as the monetary value of its data banks grew, strip-mined. My excitement remained, but it was tempered by wariness. I sensed that foreign agents were slipping into my computer through its connection to the web. What had been a tool under my own control was morphing into a medium under the control of others. The computer screen was becoming, as all mass media tend to become, an environment, a surrounding, an enclosure, at worst a cage. It seemed clear that those who controlled the omnipresent screen would, if given their way, control culture as well.
‘Computing is not about computers any more,’ wrote Nicholas Negroponte of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in his bestseller Being Digital (1995). ‘It is about living.’ By the turn of the century, Silicon Valley was selling more than gadgets and software: it was selling an ideology. The creed was set in the tradition of US techno-utopianism, but with a digital twist. The Valley-ites were fierce materialists – what couldn’t be measured had no meaning – yet they loathed materiality. In their view, the problems of the world, from inefficiency and inequality to morbidity and mortality, emanated from the world’s physicality, from its embodiment in torpid, inflexible, decaying stuff. The panacea was virtuality – the reinvention and redemption of society in computer code. They would build us a new Eden not from atoms but from bits. All that is solid would melt into their network. We were expected to be grateful and, for the most part, we were.
Our craving for regeneration through virtuality is the latest expression of what Susan Sontag in On Photography (1977) described as ‘the American impatience with reality, the taste for activities whose instrumentality is a machine’. What we’ve always found hard to abide is that the world follows a script we didn’t write. We look to technology not only to manipulate nature but to possess it, to package it as a product that can be consumed by pressing a light switch or a gas pedal or a shutter button. We yearn to reprogram existence, and with the computer we have the best means yet. We would like to see this project as heroic, as a rebellion against the tyranny of an alien power. But it’s not that at all. It’s a project born of anxiety. Behind it lies a dread that the messy, atomic world will rebel against us. What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. The screen provides a refuge, a mediated world that is more predictable, more tractable, and above all safer than the recalcitrant world of things. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us.
‘You and I are alive at this moment.’ That Wired story – under headline ‘We Are the Web’ – nagged at me as the excitement over the rebirth of the internet intensified through the fall of 2005. The article was an irritant but also an inspiration. During the first weekend of October, I sat at my Power Mac G5 and hacked out a response. On Monday morning, I posted the result on Rough Type – a short essay under the portentous title ‘The Amorality of Web 2.0’. To my surprise (and, I admit, delight), bloggers swarmed around the piece like phagocytes. Within days, it had been viewed by thousands and had sprouted a tail of comments.
So began my argument with – what should I call it? There are so many choices: the digital age, the information age, the internet age, the computer age, the connected age, the Google age, the emoji age, the cloud age, the smartphone age, the data age, the Facebook age, the robot age, the posthuman age. The more names we pin on it, the more vaporous it seems. If nothing else, it is an age geared to the talents of the brand manager. I’ll just call it Now.
It was through my argument with Now, an argument that has now careered through more than a thousand blog posts, that I arrived at my own revelation, if only a modest, terrestrial one. What I want from technology is not a new world. What I want from technology are tools for exploring and enjoying the world that is – the world that comes to us thick with ‘things counter, original, spare, strange’, as Gerard Manley Hopkins once described it. We might all live in Silicon Valley now, but we can still act and think as exiles. We can still aspire to be what Seamus Heaney, in his poem ‘Exposure’, called inner émigrés.
A dead bison. A billionaire with a gun. I guess the symbolism was pretty obvious all along.