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 territory began to be subdivided, strip-malled and I sensed that foreign agents were slipping into my computer through its connection to the web. 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.
What Silicon Valley sells and we buy is not transcendence but withdrawal. We flock to the virtual because the real demands too much of us. 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 post-human 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.
Reprinted from ‘Utopia Is Creepy: And Other Provocations’ by Nicholas Carr. Copyright © 2016 by Nicholas Carr. With permission of the publisher, W W Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.