In 'Utopia Is Creepy', Nicholas Carr asks: Does technology mean progress?

Carr serves us all by stepping back and taking stock of what computers are – and aren’t.

Scott Keneally

In 2011, Nicholas Carr summed up Facebook’s business model like this: “The desire for privacy is strong; vanity is stronger.”

Carr spent the past dozen or so years making similar proclamations of high-tech heresy, questioning and often criticizing Silicon Valley billionaires and their armies of engineers and programmers for casting rapacious greed and manic, time-sucking online distractions as beneficial beacons of inevitable progress.

Carr's new book, Utopia is Creepy ($26.95, W.W. Norton, 360 pages), is somewhat of a greatest-hits album. And, yes, album would be the proper term, since one of Carr’s peeves is the insistence by some that the streaming, track-by-track music delivery of today improves upon the full-album experience of yesteryear. Carr’s album includes the hits (“Is Google Making Us Stupid?”), a bonus track (“The Daedalus Mission”), and chapters and posts from his previous bestsellers and his Rough Type blog.

What makes Carr effective is that he’s an ambivalent contrarian. He doesn’t live off the grid (is such a thing even possible?), he acknowledges his own irrational behavior at the mercy of smartphones and hyperlinks, and he wrestles with the blithe signing away of much of our privacy and existence during the so-called Web 2.0 era of social media.

Many times, Carr serves us all by stepping back and taking stock of what computers are – and aren’t. They’re tools for doing tasks, he writes, but they are not, and cannot ever be, infallible forces for bettering our world. And, in some cases, perhaps many, the latest may not be the greatest.

“What makes one tool superior to another has nothing to do with how new it is,” Carr writes.

Social media, in similar fashion, may have many attributes and uses, but it is not something that increases or leads to democracy or better government.

And, almost invariably, whatever it is Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and other tech giants are offering to ease and connect their users’ lives, the goal isn’t a better world but a more profitable one and more time spent checking texts and posts and links and emails. There’s a reason Apple has its world headquarters at 1 Infinite Loop.

These sound like simple observations, and they are, but few of us bother to consider such notions while pulling our phones from our pockets over and over for another injection of what turns out to be mostly ephemeral updates and disposable information. Carr is here to remind us — and to take a longer-term view of how we got here.

As he writes in his introduction, “The greatest of America’s 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.”

In the 1800s, philosophers and cultural critics crowed over technological advances and how society would be improved and perfected through constant innovation. Again and again, changes in media, from the arrival of the record and radio to the advent of TV and the Internet, were met with pronouncements that universities and schools would be utterly transformed, rendering the traditional model of teachers and students gathered in a classroom as all but obsolete.

Yet Harvard and Yale and Stanford and Cal, not to mention Florida State, Montana State, and Georgia Tech, among many others, still seem to have campuses intact.

Remember a few years ago when the Kindle spelled the end of physical books? E-book sales have leveled off and most people still favor hardbacks and paperbacks. Carr isn’t trying to argue that we’re dropping digital and going all-analog, and if he tried, it would be ridiculous. What he is doing is lending perspective on what our insatiable infatuation with iPhones and Androids and Galaxies is doing to us and asking whether we might want to put some moderation in our digital diets.

Carr spoke with me this week about “Utopia is Creepy” and the constant craving to hit the refresh button. Excerpts from our conversation are below.

Q. You write that “smartphones have made media machines of us all,” but we are without empowerment and reflectiveness.” What do you think it might take to change us, if it’s possible to change us?

The first thing that would be required to change the state of affairs is people beginning to not only question the influence of smartphones and related technologies over us, but actually changing their behavior. And as we all now know, that’s very difficult.

Because even if you have some worries about the way your smartphone determined your behavior and your attention and the way your mind works over the course of the day, the services that we crave through a smartphone are designed to play into a very deep instinct that we have to want to know anything new that’s going on in the environment around us.

Through notifications and alerts and this kind of perpetual worry that there might be some new message that we haven’t seen yet, that keeps us enslaved to the phone. We’ve kind of accepted that and, in order to change, we’d have to change our own behavior, which I think would ultimately change the way these services are designed. But until we really do change our behavior, I don’t think any other force will change the situation.

Q. Have you seen these gag products that do nothing (The Wall Street Journal wrote about empty plastic NoPhones last month) and some people going to flip phones? There are small pockets of rebellion out there.…

There are definitely attempts by both users and designers of the technology to go down a different path. We see that with some people exchanging their smartphones for so-called dumb phones and we see it with certain software designers who are trying to create less-distracting interfaces, more uni-tasking services than multi-tasking services. And I think that’s great.

It also shows us there is a broader anxiety among the public about the way we use our technology and how it might not be in our best interest, this obsessive-compulsive attachment to our phones, but both the concerns and the actions are still at the periphery of the culture.

Q. I’m wondering whether you ever feel personally the way I feel when I’m checking my phone, which is, what am I looking for?

Absolutely, because a lot of my writing comes out of my own experience. And I see through my own behavior this kind of strange, compulsive desire to discover what is predictably trivial. And even less than trivial.

I think science shows us this is truly an instinct, there is this compulsion we have to not let any little change, new piece of information float by without it grabbing our attention for a second.

And I do think companies like Facebook and other social media companies know very deeply how this works and design their services to play into that instinct.

Q. You make the observation in one of your essays that we view computers as infallible and neglect to recognize that they are human-built and prone to hacking, bugs and other malfunctions. Why do you think we have so constantly elevated technology to god-like status?

It’s a theme that has been running through American culture for a couple of hundred years now, this desire to define progress as technological rather than to see technology as one tool to promote social and cultural progress.

I think it is tied up in the American psyche, this sense that there are shortcuts to progress. And that if we simply put our faith in technology, then we don’t really have to deal with the challenges and difficulties and complexities that are truly involved in pursuing progress.

It also ties into our love of novelty. In one sense, that’s healthy because it does inspire inventors and entrepreneurs to push things forward, but it becomes counterproductive when it blinds us to the negative consequences of the technology. Too often, we allow our enthusiasm to overwhelm any kind of skepticism and that’s when we start to adopt technologies that aren’t in our best interest.

Q. (In 2012) you made a comparison of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to what you called a hierarchy of innovations, making the point that recent innovations haven’t been as transformative. How did people respond to that?

It did get a lot of reaction, both in its original form, as a blog post, and then also The Wall Street Journal asked me to condense the piece into a short op-ed. It did seem to strike a chord and one of the reasons, I think, is because there has been a lot of discussion, a lot of debate about whether innovation has become trivialized through Silicon Valley.

And there are two very different beliefs on that count. One is that we’ve never been more innovative and this is the golden age of technology and progress. And then there’s the other side held by many people, including some inside Silicon Valley, that we’re in what one person calls an innovation desert. Where we’re not seeing the huge, society-changing technological advances we saw a hundred years ago – where we had electrification and the arrival of the automobile and air conditioning, things that changed the way people lived – and I have sympathy for both of those views.

Because there seems to be more investment and more interest in innovation than ever before and yet a lot of the innovation seems trivial — features on apps for social media. That led me to this different kind of conclusion that what’s really changed are people’s needs, which are much more self-absorbed and so our innovators cater to our needs.

Entrepreneurs and innovators are going to respond to needs.

Q. Given that, would Edison be working on emojis, were he around today?

I think he may well have [laughs]. Because Edison was very much in tune with looking very carefully at society and figuring out, what are the gaps here that I can fill.

I wrote a book about Edison’s role developing the electrical grid or utility and he was on some trip out West and he saw a bunch of people working with jackhammers and he had this idea that rather than power each machine individually, maybe you could create a network for electricity to be delivered wherever it’s needed. Lots of inventors try to figure out what are people yearning for and, today, if you want to get famous and rich as an inventor, the best way is to create some little app that Facebook will buy.

Q. You mention in the book that you like gizmos, you aren’t a Luddite, but when you spend so much time writing about the deleterious effects of computers and smartphones, how does that affect your ability to enjoy those things?

It probably hampers it because I have grown quite skeptical about technology. If there’s one way I’ve tried to change my personal behavior, it’s that I used to be very much an enthusiast about new technologies and the latest software. Now I try to approach these things with a skeptical viewpoint and say, how is this ultimately going to change my life and is it going to be a change for the better or a change for the worse? But I think ultimately it’s a healthier way to approach technology because it makes the technology subservient to something bigger rather than being the end-all of your existence.

Q. Are you on Twitter, are you on Facebook, are you on Snapchat — what do you use in social media?

It became clear to me that the social networking and social media services, for all the benefits that they have, and I don’t deny their charms, but they are very much designed to keep us perpetually distracted, perpetually looking at our screen, they intrude into our intellectual and social existence.

If you look at the statistics, every few minutes during our waking hours, for a lot of people (they are checking for updates). The very first thing they look at when they wake up is their smartphone and the last thing they look at when they go to bed.

I’m not on Facebook, I have a Twitter account, but I just use it to promote my blog posts, I’m on Instagram, but just with a few people, I don’t do Snapchat. So I’ve tried to avoid (a lot of participation) because I know I’m susceptible to this kind of compulsive behavior. And you do lose something. If all your friends and family are on Facebook, then you’re out of the loop.

Q. How has social media affected the current campaign, especially given Donald Trump’s incessant tweets?

It’s had a big effect. There’s a piece called “The Snapchat Candidate” [in the book] that I wrote for Politico last year during the primaries and I argue that media does affect political discourse.

Over the last 100 years, there’s been three big changes: first was radio in the 1920s, next was television in the 1960s, and right now we’re seeing the way Twitter and Facebook and other social media does alter the way campaigns are conducted and what we expect from candidates.

You saw it with the rise of Trump, which was fueled by Twitter and by social media and it very much suited his essential identity as this kind of provocation machines that could pump out these little tweets and get lots of attention. The whole political discourse began to be influenced by these provocative tweets. … The idea of being a substantial person has faded away a bit.

Q. Of the major modern tech barons – Jobs and Gates and Bezos and Zuckerberg and so on – which, if any of them, do you admire the most and why?

That’s a good question. I admire many qualities of Jobs because he looked at computer technology as a tool that people could use in ways that could expand their minds and their opportunities, which I think is the best way to view tools.

Whereas a lot of the more recent big names in Silicon Valley – Zuckerberg, Larry Page (of Google), Bezos and so forth – I don’t think have that view. I think they see technology as a way to replace a lot of human thought and human activity and to make things easier and more convenient, not to challenge us to bigger things. The attitude of Silicon Valley, I’m speaking broadly not as a place but a state of mind, I think it’s changed and I think the change has evolved with the change in personal computing, which has gone from being a set of tools to being a kind of media environment that encloses us rather than opening up new horizons. And I think that’s unfortunate.

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