Utopia is Creepy by Nicholas Carr

Nicholas Carr’s Utopia is Creepy: and Other Provocations is significant for the questions it raises about our relationship with technology. Such as, how is the Internet affecting our powers of concentration? Can personal technology seduce us away from things we find pleasurable or fulfilling? Can we have the peace and prosperity technological enthusiasts promise without an accompanying lifelessness?

‘Ours may be a time of material comfort and technological wonder,’ says Carr, ‘but it’s also a time of aimlessness and gloom.’ Technology is making our lives easier but less fulfilling. With physical work that would otherwise keep us fit delegated to machines, and mental labour now also pushed down that path, we seek desperately to escape our inertia through mediated stimulation.

We used to escape the horror of existence by means of religion, work, or oblivion. Now, with the omnipresence of the Web, Carr believes ‘social networking’ can be added to that list: ‘The great paradox of ‘social networking’ is that it uses narcissism as the glue for ‘community.’ Being online means being alone, and being in an online community means being alone together.’

Whereas new technologies have always arrived to replace old modes of production, Carr finds this particular stage of the Web so pernicious because it also appears to be replacing old modes of being. He quotes science studies which show we’re losing our capacities for memory, patience, and self-clarification. Those same studies report that confidence in our own mental abilities has never been higher. ‘The Internet may be making us shallow,’ Carr writes, ‘but it’s making us think we’re deep.’

Social media is replacing our basic need for community with a simulacrum of socializing. Only 3 percent of time spent on social media sites is actually spent interacting with others according to another study Carr cites. The rest is spent ‘browsing,’ ‘lurking,’ or ‘stalking.’ The interface vernacular of these communication websites obscures the fact that very little communication actually takes place. ‘The illusion of involvement,’ as Carr puts it, ‘conceals its absence.’

Utopia is Creepy also addresses the economy of social media sites, which he likens to a ‘modern kind of sharecropping system.’ Businesses such as Facebook, Twitter, and Yelp create spaces for their members to produce online content, then monopolize the economic value of that content. Blame lies not in any particular company’s business model but in the current structure of the Internet, where wealth tends to accelerate toward those with the biggest servers. As the tenant farmer gives his produce to the landowner because that’s who owns the land, users give their opinions, thoughts, and rankings to these businesses because they own the digital pathways. We become, in Carr’s striking expression, ‘bureaucrats of experience’ for these companies.

It used to be that leaving the home meant disconnecting from the Internet for a time. But with smartphones the digital world can be carried everywhere. Just as the demarcation between work and fulfilment is becoming starker, the demarcation between online and offline is being erased.

Carr’s scorn is directed toward the politicians and tech barons. Politicians have shrunken their messages in accordance with the new media. He likens recent electoral campaigns on Twitter to the old populist carnival circuits in the 1920s – where the loudest, silliest, most guilt-expunging voice would often win the crowd’s favour. As for the tech barons, he merely quotes their own words to show how inane and sub-literate they are.

There have always been Luddites, but the fact your predecessors got it wrong doesn’t necessarily mean you have. To purge all suffering shouldn’t require one to purge all of what makes life worth living. But that’s Carr’s biggest fear, along with the idea that those who will be most affected by the digital revolution will have no say in its course. Or even that those who claim to be guiding it have far less control over it than they claim. We’re probably being flung down a fast flowing river out of anyone’s control.

Enquire at your local library. Check if this important title is in stock by consulting the online catalogue at https://www.sllclibrary.co.uk/cgi-bin/spydus.exe/MSGTRN/OPAC/BSEARCH

384 pages in W. W. Norton & Company

First published 2016

ISBN  978-0393254549

Nicholas Carr

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