It's Not the Internet's Fault We're Dumb

Review: Nicholas Carr, 'Utopia Is Creepy: And Other Provocations

Still from 'Lost in Space'
January 14, 2017

Nicholas Carr's newest anti-Internet book, after his Pulitzer Prize finalist The Shallows, is a contradiction in terms. Carr became famous for warning us that the answer to his Atlantic Monthly article "Is Google Making Us Stupid" was a resounding yes. We get what we searched before, we flit from hypertext to hypertext, and our brains become unable to consider ideas in depth, drifting into the titular shallows of his last book. The Internet traps us in transience so we waste our time and skim along the surface.

Books, real books—that is to say, dead trees whose pages you have to turn, like the edition of his newest book that I read (though you can get it on Kindle as well)—apparently block out the distractions of flitting about in the shallows to allow in-depth thinking, which Carr thinks the digital age is gradually robbing us of. However, the paradox is that the content of Utopia Is Creepy, with all of its dead tree pages that you have to turn, is largely a collection of transitory blog posts starting in the pre-historic (for the Internet) year of 2005, with a handful of other journalistic writings.

How does the evanescent content of the Internet fare when made permanent? And does this prove or disprove his central thesis that it's the Internet itself that condemns us to the shallows?

Let's say "proves it," in that reading all these one-offs written to various topics of the day (the introduction of a new gizmo, a biography of media guru Marshall McLuhan) are almost unreadable when lined up as a coherent series of numbered pages in a book. Each blog post—and some are as short as a single line, though most are several pages in printed form—points in a different direction, and we are left trying to see what they have in common. We can do this, but only by mentally throwing away nine-tenths of each piece to salvage the bit that lines up with the next piece, and the next, and the next. This format forces us to consider and then reject the very ephemeral world that Carr thinks the Internet has condemned us to.

And that's also how this book contradicts his point. Back in 2005, when Carr began to blog, we knew the issues he was responding to in that day's blog post. All that has faded the way daily gossip fades, replaced by new gossip. So the book suggests that Carr is wrong that the relentless triviality and me-centeredness of the net is actually changing the way we think. We do know how to make the distinction between the evanescent and the more permanent. And we do this by saying, Why is all this daily traffic now printed in a book? The Internet hasn't made us stupid after all.

Still, it's possible to discern Carr's main point with all the transitory brambles hacked away. The title essay, about a page and a half long, tells us that "utopia is creepy … because utopia requires its residents to behave like robots, never displaying or even feeling fear or anger or jealousy or despair or bitterness or any of those other messy emotions that plague our fallen world." As Carr puts it in another piece, machines can think, but they aren't thoughtful. So fine. Carr's work is a plea for human messiness. Being a messy human, I'm all for that. Amen.

And surely Carr is right that machines aren't human. They do only what machines are programmed to do. The lawn mower cuts grass, it doesn't play chess. Of course we have made machines that play chess, and that beat messily human opponents. But even so they can't sigh and look out the window at a bird between plays, or suggest we stop and go out for pizza. People can. People: endless possibilities. Machines: predictable. Roger that.

But the technical argument of Carr's writings is that in fact our brains are being reprogrammed by our machines so that we now flit from flower to flower to flower, as short of attention as, say, Dory in Finding Nemo. There are scientists who suggest the opposite, that the flitting is making us nimble. A non-scientist like me, a mere English professor, can't say who is right.

Thankfully, this technical argument is not at the center of Carr's true preoccupation, which is to insist that people are not machines. The philosopher John Searle is the type of thinker whose work stands behind Carr's, with Searle's reiterated insistence that thinking is something only minds do, not machines. The whole debate around artificial intelligence is a form of this question: Are human beings unique or just something that is bound to be replaced by technology?

One of the central tenets of A.I. thinking is Isaac Asimov's insistence in his "Three Laws of Robotics" that machines should never harm their creators. The fear that they might do so—or Carr's fear that they are already doing so—is the source of many dystopian fantasies, where robots take over. The possibility that they are indistinguishable from people in fundamental ways is behind HBO's new series "Westworld," about a robot-inhabited Wild West that future people can travel to in order to participate with the robots in the grisly excitement—shootouts, rapes, and the likes. (The robots have their memories erased each night and are ready to go the next day for a new crop of paying visitors.)

Clearly, then, we're worried that machines can turn against people. But why are we so obsessed with machines?  It's a no-duh that machines do what machines do, and of course they can harm us. That's not just machines, though. Lots of people were injured by horses before the invention of cars, and gossiping over the back fence wasted a lot of the day back in the Middle Ages, too. Read Petronius for lots of wasted existences. People aren't machines, machines can harm us (but so can falling tree branches), people have to be taught the difference between the transitory gossip world and the world of deeper ideas they ought to have thought about at least once before they die. Right.

But the Internet didn't invent the transitory, and it doesn't force us to look at it. And the nature of the transitory is that it's always the same and always new. We seem to be interested in it, but not for long. The Net didn't change that at all.

Published under: Book reviews