Cramped, unpleasant and vulgar: is this the internet we planned? | New Scientist
DOES anyone remember what the internet was supposed to be? I have hazy memories of a limitless prospect, complete with William Gibson’s consensual hallucinations. Before we knew how connecting the world would play out, there was a low-res, mythical quality to our cyberspace future.
Two decades on, and Nicholas Carr’s Utopia is Creepy reveals the reality into which these promises have crystallised. Curated from his blog posts over the past 10 years, the book is full of wry vignettes and articles lampooning the motivated enthusiasm and game-changing promises of Silicon Valley’s tech bro elite.
Carr’s targets of “disruption” range from music and cars to breakfast and bras. And what have we reaped after 20 years of this disruption? Well, it’s not utopia.
Then again, Carr has never been much of an enthusiast. He’s probably best known for The Shallows, a 2011 Pulitzer finalist, in which he discussed how access to an infinitely broad but infinitely shallow information landscape has changed our brains. Not for the better, he fears. As Microsoft’s smart bra suggests, instead of utopia, our petty oppressions have just been projected into a new dimension. The bra monitors emotions and heart rate. Why? To detect stress and stop emotional eating, of course.
It’s all a far cry from Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto”, an essay celebrating technology’s potential to free us from the constraints of gender roles. Carr’s book isn’t a polemic, but a mosaic with individual tiles, by turns cute, funny or chilling. And it’s more than the sum of its parts, as two big themes emerge.
The first concerns the steady drumbeat of criticism for web 2.0 and user-generated #content. The book’s 10-year span shows the transition from promise to millstone. Content has become like a second job – we update Facebook, Twitter or Instagram to ensure our self-representation is polished and generating clicks.
Carr broadens the context: disguising unpaid labour as “fun! content! web 2.0!” lets Silicon Valley shift its overheads to “customers” and clutter up their lives. It also allows the amateur to be monetised, as the efforts of volunteers are turned into “the raw material for profit-making companies”.
A quieter theme is the fear of freedom. A memorable takedown by Carr features Facebook’s first TV ad in 2012. Called “The Things That Connect Us”, it’s a montage of cosy objects and welling music, ending with a childlike voice-over: “The universe. It is vast and dark. And it makes us wonder if we are alone. So maybe the reason we make all of these things is to remind us that we are not.”
Perhaps this explains our drive to taxonomise things to death because we fear just experiencing them. In a telling example, Carr pokes fun at a famous critic’s notion that the internet improved poetry by “disrupting” its elitist allusions. The critic cites T. S. Eliot, who had to append notes to The Waste Land to allow readers to keep up with its many allusions. Today, he writes, “no poet could outwit a reader who has an internet connection”.
You can hear Carr’s heavy sigh. The more you Google the poem, he says, the less you hear it: “Much of what’s most subtle and valuable in culture… is too blurry to be read by machines.”
This is an uncompromising portrait of the internet as a vulgar, cramped, unpleasant marketplace run by marketers, surveillance states and people shouting at you. But Carr acknowledges its upside: in 2014, the Pew Research Center showed 90 per cent of US citizens thought the internet was a force for good. Another statistic had the internet population spending $83,000 on Amazon per minute. Utopia perhaps, but an extraordinarily narrow vision of it.
Swallow the book in a few gulps and you sense we had the chance to create something new but that we let marketers and advertisers move in. Paradise lost indeed.