The promise — and creepiness — of the web. This week Paul Ford and Rich Ziade talk to Nicholas Carr, the author of books including The Shallows, The Glass Cage, and, most recently, Utopia Is Creepy. Topics covered include our addictions to devices, the internet’s influence on political discourse, shifting perceptions of digital technologies over time, and Rich’s desire to see less baked ziti on his Facebook feed.
Paul Ford: Hi, I’m Paul Ford. I’m a co-founder at Postlight. And this is Track Changes, our official podcast. I am joined by my co-founder.
Rich Ziade: Rich Ziade. We’ve got a great guest today, Paul.
Paul: Who is our guest, Rich?
Rich: Nicholas Carr.
Paul: Oh, we gotta talk to him. He is…suspicious.
Rich: He’s going into “I told you so” mode.
Paul: Yeah, I mean, it’s a tricky time. So look, we should talk about two things before we talk about…
Paul : Or talk with Nick.
Paul: OK? The first one we should talk about is that we’re going somewhere.
Rich: We’re actually going to leave the building, and that’s a big deal.
Paul: It’s big deal for us.
Rich: So we wanna tell everyone.
Paul: We don’t necessarily love to travel. It’s not our strong suit.
Rich: We had three meetings before we decided to go somewhere.
Paul: It’s hard for us to buy plane tickets to go schmooze.
Paul: But we’re going to a conference, what’s it called? The NewCo Shift Forum, which is hosted by our friends NewCo, who actually hired us at one point to launch a website. They were an early client.
Paul: And the Shift Forum is an executive conference on capitalism at a crossroads, and boy, is it at a crossroads right now. [laughter] So we’re going to be in San Francisco from February 6th to 8th. We’ll let people know about it in the newsletter and here, and we’re going to be happy attendees at that event. If you want to talk to us at that event, just come up and say, “Hello.” I’m the very large, tall, greying fellow, and Rich is…how do we describe you?
Rich: You know, it may not work this way. I think it’s probably better if the people email us.
Paul: Oh, that’s a good idea.
Rich : Hello@postlight.com, that they’re at the event, which at the St. Regis Hotel in San Francisco.
Paul: Good problem solving.
Rich: Or if you’d like to meet up, we’ve been talking about making it out to the Bay Area for a while, and there’s a lot of people we would love to talk to. But if you want to meet up, we’re not going to be at that conference every minute of the conference.
Paul: Yeah. We’ll go…we’ll go for coffee —
Rich: We’ll venture out.
Paul: Meet a bunch of people at once, or if you have something to talk with us about, too.
Paul: Whether it’s sales-y, or job-y, or just if you want to check in, we’ll do our best.
Rich: Yes, we love to talk.
Paul: That’s February 6th to 8th, in San Francisco, Paul Ford, and Rich Ziade. This is your chance to connect if you want to go.
Rich: We’ll sign autographs, too, Paul.
Paul: I know, I’ll give you anything you want. [laughter]That is pretty market-y, but we have even more market-y stuff to market, when we market our market-y selves.
Rich: We always have stuff to market, but this is just something that —
Paul: Something cool happened.
Rich: Something cool happened. We launched a Chrome, a Google Chrome extension.
Paul: One of those little things that lives in the top right corner of your Chrome browser.
Rich: Correct. Called Mercury Reader. And it’s built on top of the Mercury platform, which we should explain about in a minute. The adoption has been amazing. Mercury Reader, by the way, it’s worth noting, is a decedent of Readability. It is a brand new, ground-up codebase that parses web pages and makes them very readable.
Paul: It’s a product of Postlight Labs. You go to a web page, and it’s filled with stuff, and it’s long and you don’t know where the story begins and ends. And you tap the little rocket ship for Mercury in your Chrome browser, and suddenly, seriously, a well-designed, very simple version of that page appears.
Paul: It’s good for people who have accessibility issues. It’s good for people who have just a desire for a clean, clear, reading experience. The reason we’re talking about is is that it got to…how many?
Rich: At this moment, over 1.2 million installations.
Paul: I think it’s up to 1.3.
Rich: I think it might be.
Paul: 1.3 million human beings or some division of that, it’s always hard to tell with web stuff.
Rich: Installed the thing, yeah.
Paul: Have installed it, and are using it. It launched with a little bit of a head start. We had a couple hundred thousand people in there from Readability.
Rich: Yep, and then it just kept going.
Paul: This is, ironically, given that it’s logo is a rocket ship, kind of a rocket ship in Chrome plug-in terms.
Rich: Oh yeah, it’s definitely. The Chrome extensions is definitely a niche world.
Paul: Yeah, like the one for Microsoft Office has like 2.4 million installs or something like that.
Rich: It’s not massive yet. This brings Chrome to parity with Safari, which was the reader function.
Paul: Especially if you’re on iOS mobile, you notice it. You can get that similar —
Rich: You can get that reader view, yeah. I think a lot of people love Chrome. Chrome is a great browser. It’s my browser of choice.
Paul: And they’re used to it.
Rich: To have that functionality finally be there. As far as we know, we did some research, there really isn’t any other extension that bothers to do this.
Paul: It’s real fast. It runs in the browser.
Rich: It runs in the browser. It has shortcut keys, it’s really cool. It’s free, go check it out. We’re very proud of the team that made it happen.
Paul: How do they check it out?
Rich: If you just go to the Chrome web store.
Paul: And type in Postlight Mercury, that’ll work.
Rich: Or Mercury, just type in Mercury.
Paul: And you can also go to Mercury.Postlight.com.
Rich: You can go to Mercury.Postlight.com.
Paul: You’re looking for Mercury Reader. That’s the name of it.
Rich: Also, there is the Mercury Toolkit, which is an API ecosystem that’s out there. It’s an automated Google AMP converter that’s out there —
Paul: You can —
Rich: That is also seeing amazing adoption.
Paul: You can also —
Rich: Thousands of API keys are —
Paul: You can use this thing to parse pages and turn them into a more usable format. So people build things like web spiders…
Rich: They use it for migration. They use it for research.
Paul: That happens a lot in our world. Like people will…a healthcare company will be migrating a million old web pages from their…
Rich: That’s right.
Paul: All over the place into a new format.
Paul: We’re the shortest path. So that’s what’s up with Mercury.
Rich: Yeah, and —
Paul: Thank you to the 1.3 or so million people who are checking it out.
Rich: And thank you to the team that made it happen, from soup to nuts, from the technology to the design. It’s really great work.
Paul: Yeah, it’s a product of Postlight Labs. And if you poke around on Track Changes, we’ll put the link in the newsletter post for this podcast, but if you poke around, you’ll see there’s a big write-up on the design by Matt Quintanilla, our director of design. It’s worth reading. There’s a lot of work under the hood to make these things happen, and just as much work to make them look good and feel good. So that’s a lot of marketing. Let’s talk to Nick Carr. Sounds like a plan?
Rich: Sounds great. Let’s do it.
Paul: All right, let’s talk to him. Nick, hi.
Nicholas Carr: Hi.
Paul: Nick Carr, thank you for being on Track Changes.
Rich: I just want to cover, I mean, Nick is a writer. He writes on the internet, continues to somewhat write on the internet. Used to write a lot more on the internet, as many of us did. He’s written a handful of books. His most recent book is called Utopia is Creepy. So he’s just kind of — all bets are off at this point. [laughter] The title, it is what it is. Before that, in 2014, he wrote The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us. Before that, he wrote The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains. This is 2011. And before that he wrote The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google. If you look at the titles of these books, there’s almost a narrative just across the titles, which I think is kind of interesting. Nick, welcome.
Nick: Thanks. Thanks, Rich. It’s good to talk to you.
Rich: I hope that was a glowing intro. [laughter] I was aiming for a glowing intro.
Nick: It was pretty good.
Nick: I’m not complaining.
Paul: So wait, why is utopia creepy? Let’s start there.
Rich: Let’s start there.
Nick: The title is meant to work on a couple of levels: one, a general level about portrayals of utopia in art and in fiction and even in kind of social conversation. They all, when you experience them, they all, even though they’re intended to produce this feeling of this glowing paradise, they end up being repellent, because utopia requires us to get rid of all of our flaws, all of our nasty emotions, and what ends up is everybody starts acting like robots.
Then I also tried to make a more particular point about the promises that have been made about the internet and the web and social media over the last 10, 15 years, since the post-crash arrival of what used to be called Web 2.0. These portrayals kind of imply that by connecting everybody more closely, we’ll have this worldwide harmony break out, and democratic forces will free the media to give lots more viewpoints and stuff
If you look at all these promises that were made back in 2005 and that have continued since then, the best you can say is everything is much more complicated than we thought it would be. And the worst you can say is pretty much the opposite has happened. And all of the beautiful predictions for what the web would do have kind of been turned on their head in actual practice.
Paul: What do you think the motivation was for those predictions? I mean, the easiest answer would be economic upside. Let’s tell everyone that things are going to be great, because then they’ll buy my product. Is there anything else going on?
Nick: Yeah, no. I think there was a genuine frustration with media and with communications and with economics. And there was this sense that if we connect everybody and open up access to the information much more broadly than it used to be, that everything would get better and that, you know, a virtual world would solve the problems inherent in a physical world. So I don’t think it, particularly in the beginning, when a lot of these promises were made, not just by entrepreneurs, but from social critics, academics, economists, I think it was a genuine excitement. And I have to say, I shared it as well for quite a long time. It was amazing to suddenly be able to log on and have unlimited amounts of information at your fingertips, to be able to, you know, publish your own blog or whatever. I think it was both economic interest, and I think that became more pronounced as social media started to generate huge amounts of money. But I think in the beginning it was this genuine feeling that we were on the doorstep of a new world.
Rich: You just can’t help but think that progress and just advancement, like a computer that goes four times faster than one that was built two years ago or three years ago, and the ability to, you know, call my relatives that are 7,000 miles away and have a video call with them is…just the technical achievement of it, I think makes you sort of —
Paul: It’s a significant pleasure. It feels like magic. You get to see your —
Rich: It feels like magic.
Paul: Your cousin’s new baby in your hand as you walk down the street in Manhattan.
Paul: That’s what Verizon was promising us in 2000. [laughter] We were going to be able to fax from the beach. It was going to be great.
Rich: Right, exactly. There are some amazing things that feel magical.
Nick: Yeah. I mean, we don’t all spend all day looking at our phone because it’s miserable. It’s something that draws us in. It’s diverting. There’s a lot of pleasure involved. But one way to think about it is, you know, originally the personal computer was this incredible multi-functional tool that progressed very quickly. You bought new applications and you installed them on your hard drive and it gave you new capabilities and then you started to connect to first CompuServe, or America Online, or whatever, and then the internet. And it was really amazing, and it was kind of built for individuals to use as they saw fit and to install and own these tools and the data.
In around 2005, I think personal computing changed. It went from being a product business, a tool-making business, to a media business. And suddenly we weren’t in charge of things anymore. We began, if you look at how it’s progressed since then, it’s still lots of amazing capabilities, but it’s much more centralized, it’s much more about collecting information about us, and I think something fundamentally has changed. We’ve lost a lot of that…what I think was the best thing about personal computing, which was that it was this incredible array of tools that we could pick and choose from and use to fulfill our own purposes. Now it feels very, very much like the medium of the computer or the smartphone is kind of controlling our attention and controlling our thoughts and giving us lots of pleasure along the way, but it feels kind of oppressive to me.
Rich: So we’re consumers.
Nick : Right.
Rich : We’ve become…more and more of our time is dominated by consumption rather than…
Nick: Which is precisely the opposite of what was promised from Web 2.0 and social media and stuff, that we would become quote-unquote “pro-sumers”, and we would take charge of production, rather than being consumers. Now we’re…we produce a lot of stuff, but it makes money for the, for the Facebooks and Googles of the world. We end up in a more passive consuming mode, even, I would argue, when we’re sending out messages or tweets or whatever.
Paul: But you know what I think is tricky here is that these are now these global computing, global social platforms. The promise of the personal computer was that utopian promise, that everybody would become more creative, more empowered, very sort of Whole Earth Catalog, “We are as gods,” kind of stuff. But to have a giant product that everybody wants to hold in their pocket, like, most people don’t create. They like to consume. So if I’m a giant technology company and I want to grow and grow and grow, which is my…whatever reason, you know, whether it’s my stockholders or my —
Paul: My hubris, my ego, or just my hunger, I don’t see another way. I’m not that interested in enabling people to become that much more powerful. I want to give them more tools to, l buy and consume content, and kind of hope that the rest of it works out.
Nick: I think you’ve just laid out exactly the business model that’s become the dominant one. It’s to give people kind of an illusion of freedom, an illusion of choice, but direct their attention in ways that allow you to collect more information about them, and feed them more advertisements, and keep them basically hooked on their screen, on their phone.
Paul: What’s interesting with this is 2005 was kind of the end of the pure Windows era. And remember you’d buy a Windows machine, and it would come with AOL as an icon on the desktop, and you couldn’t get rid of it. It drive everybody crazy, and everybody hated it. And then Apple shows up with a device that you hold in your hand that has AT&T built in, and you can’t control it in any way, and everyone just started to go, “It’s so simple. It’s so great.”
Paul: It’s the same thing, but it just got packaged so much better, and now, 10 years later, here we are.
Rich: Let’s face it. Copy and paste on the phone didn’t come until five years after the iPhone had —
Paul: It’s still not functional.
Rich: It still doesn’t work.
Paul: It’s not real.
Nick: Exactly. It’s horrible.
Paul: Yeah, right.
Rich: It is a consumption device. To me there were two milestone events that kind of changed the game. One was always being connected. I’m old enough to remember when it was a big deal to dial on to the internet. It was expensive, and I didn’t have it in my pocket, so I had to get back to my 486, and sit down on a computer, and dial in on my DSL or whatever I had for internet. So my time was value — like, I thought about my time. And I wasn’t always sitting in front of my computer in my bedroom. I only had it certain periods of time. So I think those two things, always being connected and having that thing in your pocket where the inter — I mean, everybody kept banging at this problem, and nobody got it until Apple got it with the touchscreen. Yeah, they threw a keyboard at you, which was at the bottom half of the glass display, but it was really about consumption. And then you had in the background this thing growing like a weed, which was Facebook. It was really a perfect storm, in many ways, as I see it. Now, one of the things I cringe at is when I start to think of big companies as evil, I think it’s a ridiculous…
Paul: I don’t think that’s what anybody’s saying.
Rich: No, I know. I know.
Paul: I think there’s a schism —
Rich: But I think —
Paul: They have their own motivations that are separate from empowering individuals.
Rich: Which are normal motivations, right?
Rich: I look at and I admire a company like Medium, for example, because I feel like that company’s almost like a counter argument. It’s trying to do something else, for Christ’s sake, for a minute, so that you’re not staring at baked ziti getting cooked in 30 seconds on a Facebook page. It’s giving me a little more respect, in a way. Are there platforms, are there services that you look at, Nick, and say, “Oh jeez, thank God. Somebody’s going in this direction a little bit?”
Nick: You mentioned how WordPress just kind of sits unused on your computer.
Nick: I still think of WordPress, which I use for my blog, I mean, I’ve gone from blogging probably three posts a day to three posts a month, maybe, over time, you know. I still think that a tool like WordPress, which, first of all, makes pub — individual publishing very easy, but it also doesn’t impose much on you. You retain control. To me, that remains kind of an ideal.
Now there’s no doubt that…well, I shouldn’t say there’s no doubt, I mean, a lot of people still publish good blogs. They tend to become much more specialized over time. But that is, I think, going against the grain of what goes for progress online, which is much more about kind of reducing all discourse to banter. Because that’s quick, that’s easy. It doesn’t — if you’re a Google or a Facebook, and I’m not saying they’re evil, I’m not quite sure about Facebook. I’m pretty sure Google is not evil. [laughter] But they don’t — their economic interest is to keep you moving very, very quickly and consuming lots of information in short bursts. They don’t want contemplative thought. They don’t want you to sit on one, you know, piece of information a long time, and then go away and think about it, because they’re not… [laughter]
Rich: Yeah, they need you engaged.
Nick: They’re not making any money at that point. They tell themselves, I think, that, “Oh, the more activity there is, then that has to be better, and people are grabbing information,” but I think they’re kidding themselves. I think they’re very much, at this point, particularly Google is kind of…has been in a self-justifying mode for a long time and refuses to kind of even consider the fact that a lot of what they’re doing actually has negative consequences for people’s lives, for the way they think, for the way they communicate. So I think the old model of giving power to individuals, creative power, some people are out there still taking advantage of it, thank goodness. But I think both at a business level and at a technical level, the momentum of the digital world is very much going in a different direction.
Paul: Now what kind of changes would you like to see? I mean, do you think…are we doomed? Are we just going to be good consumers? Is there a path that we should be taking? What should individuals be doing?
Nick: I think individuals should be carefully assessing their relationship to their phones, to their smartphone. This is pretty clear from when I look at my own behavior to when I look at others’ behavior, and when I look at the studies that are done on peoples’ behavior, people have become very, very dependent on their smartphone to the extent that they have anxiety and panic when their phone isn’t near them or when the battery goes dead. One thing you see all the time today is people kind of scouting out power outlets, as if the role of human beings is to keep our smartphones going. I think that’s ultimately an unhealthy and a destructive dependency. If we could go back at least a little bit to thinking about computers, including our phones, as tools that are in our power, that I think we’d ultimately have a healthier relationship with them. We’d be able to leave them at home or turn them off, and kind of go out and do other things.
Again, that might be seen as kind of a naïve or quixotic kind of belief, but I do think if we’re going to have a better system, it begins with people thinking a little more carefully about how…how this technology is influencing their moment by moment behavior, and whether it’s enriching their lives or having the opposite effect. Once that happens, I think then…if people begin to change their view and behavior, then software developers will naturally respond to that. But I think it has to begin with…and I don’t rule this out, because I think it’s possible we’ll see a counter-cultural movement against constant connectivity, but I do think it has to begin with the consumer, and then flow out from there. Because I don’t think there’s much incentive for a company like Facebook to go in a different direction at this point.
Rich: Yeah, like, “Take a break.” A little box comes up.
Paul: See, I’m even more pessimistic here, because I think the way things are going, if there was a movement, let’s say 5% of expected consumers started to leave stuff at home, the immediate focus would be to create some little device that you wear on your wrist or gets implanted into your neck through a tranquilizer dart that gives you little updates. It buzzes or it lets you know where your friends are.
Rich: Right. Yeah.
Paul: There’s such a…there’s a pressure to get smaller and more embedded than the phone that makes me feel that maybe the horse left the barn, or the cow or whatever animal leaves the barn.
Nick: Yeah, I…I agree with you. If I’m more optimistic than you, Paul, that would be amazing. [laughter] But I do think that there…what we always see in modern society that you get some kind of dominant culture. And then — and it’s always young people who revolt against it, but then you get this movement by the young to kind of reject that culture. And I think at this point what I’ll call the digital culture, you can call it anything you want, is so dominant, and it’s not a youth culture. It’s very much an adult culture, I think, that I do think it’s possible we’ll see a rejection of it by young people at some point.
Paul: It’s true. We talk about it as being something associated with teens. Like there’s just this endless obsession with teens. But it’s grey-haired dads and moms just as much.
Rich: Yeah. I don’t know if that generation’s come in yet. I feel like it may not be this generation. It may be the next one that decides —
Paul: I think it will be.
Rich: That, “Hey, this is ridiculous. Let’s go hiking.”
Paul: When I grew up, they were obsessed with kids watching too much TV, when I grew up. They’re like, “Don’t watch so much TV.” I was like, “OK.” And I didn’t watch that much TV. I got a computer. I have two five-year-olds. I have five-year-old twins. They’re not actually that interested in my phone.
Paul: Sometimes it makes me sad, because they bring it to me when I’m sitting quietly. They’re like, “Oh Dad, you need your phone.” [laughter]
Rich: Oh, that is depressing.
Paul: That’s horrible.
Rich: That is really sad.
Paul: Yeah, it is. Then I sit there and check Twitter when they bring it to me. I think that’s possible. I think there could be a new generation that just doesn’t care. The thing that bugs me is that, and this is again back to the motives of very large, truly media companies, they have to fill their attention hole somehow, or they —
Rich: Yeah. Yeah, exactly. The model, you’ve got such a massive devaluation of what an advertising unit is, and then you have technology that’s willing to go endless for you. Let’s just open the fire hose. It all kicks in. It’s like, “Hey, yeah, so what it’s .001 penny? We’ll give you 300 of them.”
Paul: We better pray to God that Facebook can keep its valuation with what’s coming, or otherwise we’re just all going to get chips in our face. [laughter]
Nick: It’s true. The goal of media companies has always been to capitalize on the audience’s attention, but until the arrival of constant connectivity and a powerful computer device that’s on a person’s person all the time, they haven’t had — it’s only recently that that actually has become a real opportunity to actually capitalize on people’s attention from the moment they wake up to the moment they go to sleep, and then if you have insomnia at 3 in the morning, you’re going to grab your phone so you can get it then, too. So it’s a natural progression of the media industry, but it’s a kind of leap to this kind of domination and control over people’s attention that, as I say, I don’t think is particularly healthy.
Paul: That’s true. We’ve eliminated the air gap. There used to be a little space where you had to subscribe to the magazine or whatever.
Rich: So zooming out a little bit, I want to talk a little bit about the sort of…maybe these aren’t, there isn’t direct causation here, but just that the macro effects — I mean, give me your thoughts as you were watching the last 12 months of media in the United States as this election was unfolding, right? I’m obviously leading the witness here a little bit, but…
Nick: Yeah. I think we saw, and I started off by talking about how lots of the effects of digital communication, digital media have been the opposite of what people expected, and I think we saw that very clearly with political discourse during the primaries and then the presidential campaign. And two things in particular: one is that instead of people going deep when they have unlimited amounts of information and messages available to them, they get very caught up in short bursts of information. We thought the internet might cure soundbite culture, but I think it’s made it even worse, that people simply are so distracted and so interrupted by notifications and alerts that they begin to take in information in a very emotional way, in a very irrational way. It gives somebody like Donald Trump on Twitter the ability to control the news cycle in a very dramatic way, and we’re still seeing that, of course, even more so during the transition.
So on the one hand, I think we saw the loss of context, which requires you to pay attention, to back away from the stream of information, to reflect on things, in order to fit incoming bits of information into a broader context. I think, I think we saw the destruction of context, so every little message began to control people’s minds and their opinions in a very emotional rather than a rational way.
And then the other thing is we also thought that by having unlimited amounts of information, people would broaden their perspectives, they’d kind of dig into alternative views, they’d kind of discuss, discuss issues from many points of view. And what we saw instead is that you give people endless amounts of information, they’re going to gravitate toward the information that reinforces their existing biases. That will make those biases even stronger, and you’ll get this polarization of people.
I think we saw both of those things, kind of a shallowing of the discourse and a polarization of the discourse, people not listening to each other. And the media, the kind of traditional media, I think, was caught in the whirlwind and didn’t really know what to do. I still don’t think they know what to do.
Paul: There was a…I think it was George Washington who came out against political parties. And the idea was that America, the laws of America would be formed by people rationally discussing and figuring out what the best strategy was for the Republic, and then parties show up. You kind of get a big pre-set raft of ideas that you can jump into.
Rich: It’s packaged.
Paul: It’s packaged. The internet was the same. It was, the idea was we would have this intense, immense civil discourse and come to an almost, like, post-government strategy. There’s this great and slightly ridiculous John Perry Barlow document where he sort of says, “Get out of here governments. We’re done with you.” And it’s a Declaration of Independence for Cyberspace is what it’s called. I think we just saw in the last 20 years that whole implosion happen again. We’re just looking at a party system has arisen. It’s alt-right on one side and Twitter-left on the other plus Tumblr. [laughter] It’s viciously at war, and now the larger party superstructure has started to soak it in.
Nick : Right.
Paul : And so we’re back where we started, but maybe worse, in some ways. [laughter] We have Wikipedia, too. There’s good trade-offs here.
Rich: Yeah. I don’t know a lot about the early history of media and newspapers. If I’m not mistaken, I think the word is muckrakers. When the early newspapers started, the ethics and sort of guidelines, and even the legal boundaries for the press weren’t really sorted out yet. You had this kind of ridiculous, almost fantastical kind of approach to telling the news where you just sort of…it was just bananas. And you just — we somehow came out of that, and then the Washington Post showed up, and The New York Times, and a few big Supreme Court cases landed. We sort of came out of this stupor, so to speak.
You would think in the middle of that, right, that we were all going down. You’ve got these tools that are going to just fool everybody, and the power structure would sort of run these things and trick us all, but we somehow came out of it. And I’m, by default, an optimist. I’m just going to assume…well I’m not going to assume much, but I’m going to follow the thinking that we’re not going to get fooled again. But again, I don’t have a lot to back that up. [laughter]
Nick: I think you’re right that there was never this golden age of a deeply thoughtful, you know, mass population hashing out differences and stuff.
Nick: On the other hand, there was never…I think what’s different and what’s concerning is that yeah, there was plenty of muckraking in newspapers and other places, but there was still this kind of rhythm to people’s intellectual lives where yeah, maybe you’d spend part of an hour or so looking through newspapers or stuff, but then you’d be forced back onto yourself where you’re in some kind of thoughtful mode where you weren’t constantly distracted, and you actually had to think about things and maybe, you know, read longer things. What worries me is that we’re so inundated not just with going out and grabbing information, but with having information pour through us, through notifications and alerts and everything, that I worry that we’ve crowded out the room for people to be attentive and thoughtful and contemplative and all the things you need to build up kind of personal knowledge and personal context. So —
Rich: Right. The IV needle is in your arm all day long.
Nick: Right. It seems like something has changed. And I hope you’re right, that maybe we’re at kind of peak stupidity at the moment. [laughter]
Rich: That’s the title. You’ve got the next book title, Nick. Free of charge. [laughter]
Paul: I think we’ll…I think we’ll probably find that it’s like anything. It’s a wave. As long as the world is here —
Paul: These weird immune systems arise, like we were talking about earlier. Well maybe the next generation isn’t as compelled by screens, but they might be in their self-driving cars just tootling around.
Paul: Nick, you’ve got here a software company. And we’re listening. What should we be thinking as we’re building stuff?
Nick: Yeah. Well, in the book I wrote before the latest one, The Glass Cage, it’s about automation, which, and automation not only in the workplace, but in our lives and in our leisure time and in our lives as people who go through the world and do stuff, I think there’s no doubt that more and more of our days are getting scripted, more and more of our activities are getting scripted by software writers, because we are always connected. And I think, the argument I make is that we’ve fallen victim to what some people call technology-centered automation, which means the software developer says, “What can the computer do? Everything the computer can do, I’ll have the computer do. Whatever is left over at that will be what the human being does.”
And that seems, to me, a recipe — and I think there’s pretty clear evidence for this — for deskilling people, for pushing people to the sidelines of the activities they do at work and in their leisure time, to the point where we’re not getting experience, we’re not facing challenges, because of course what software writer really want to do is find any place that takes time or burns productivity and represents a challenge, and then automate it so it makes our lives easier.
And I think ultimately that is a recipe for a loss of talent, for increasing passiveness, and ultimately for dissatisfaction in our lives, because a lot of, I think, psychological studies show a lot of the pleasure we get is actually through developing rich talents, facing challenges, and overcoming them. So there’s this tension between the software design philosophy that says, “Make everything as easy and convenient as possible,” and the source, deep sources of human satisfaction.
What I would like to see is software developers begin to think about ways to develop software that actually puts human talent and unique human skills at the center, and then says, “How can the computer, how can the software, kind of compliment these skills, rather than replace them?” Compliment them, deepen them, challenge them. There’s no doubt that human beings are flawed thinkers. We have our own biases, and there’s lots of things that data and software can do to challenge us. But we have to…I think we have to switch the fundamental, our fundamental approach to software development and put ourselves ahead of the computer.
Rich: Isn’t that video games?
Nick: Video games is probably the best example. I mean, video games — and by the way, video games can become problematic in that they begin to become manipulative, because they know how to keep people feeding at the trough, but never —
Rich: Oh yeah, the most lucrative video games are problematic.
Nick: Yeah, I mean, if you look at good video games, what you see is a very kind of deep appreciation for the fact that people like to be challenged, and they like to develop their skills, and then they like to move on to the next challenge and the next challenge. Outside of video games, though, that kind of insight into human psychology and human satisfaction is almost lost entirely. It’s not about figuring out how to keep people challenged and developing skills. It’s about how to relieve people of challenge.
As a result, and I don’t think this is necessarily by design, but as a result, you begin to see a loss of talent, a loss of skill. The ideal thinking about software or automation or mechanization is that every time you relieve a human being of some challenge or some chore, the human being will jump up to a higher level of challenge, a higher level of skill. But in reality, that isn’t the dynamic that we often see — if you look at, say, pilots as they adapt to ever-more automated autopilot run flight, they’re not gaining higher level skills. They’re becoming computer operators. In fact, when they have to take over in an emergency, you see a loss of skills that often has tragic consequences.
I think we see this with ourselves in becoming dependent on Google Maps to get around. It doesn’t give us a greater skill in navigation. It reduces us to, you know, people without navigational skills who become passive consumers of Google Maps or GPS instructions or whatever.
So I think as we push forward and as Marc Andreessen said, as software eats the world, we have to really think about what role people are going to have, and whether we’re going to move into a world that’s really designed for us or designed for robots, in which we become the kind of backup system in case something goes wrong
Rich: Interesting. How many hours of a day do you spend on your computer/phone?
Nick: Quite a few.
Rich: Are you on Facebook?
Nick: I have a Facebook account, in fact, numerous Facebook accounts for if I need to do research or something, but I’d say I’m signed into Facebook maybe 10 minutes a month.
Rich: Wow. Do you have friends on Facebook?
Nick: Well, if I was — yeah. You lose something —
Rich: I’d like to friend you on Facebook, Nick.
Nick: One thing you learn if you’re not on Facebook is that nobody wishes you happy birthday anymore, so it’s kind of distressing. [laughter] I mean, seriously.
Paul: Distressing or wonderful? That sounds great.
Nick: It’s strange, but I think what I’ve learned is that we’re all…we’re all drawn to streams of information. This is pretty clear from the psychological studies, we do have this deep instinct to want to know everything that’s going on —
Nick: Particularly if there’s any kind of social nature to the information. I feel that myself. I’ve just decided that the only way for me to carve out some time where I can actually not be attracted to screens and not be distracted and so forth is to just say no. I think Facebook, for all the benefits it has, Facebook is very much designed to turn us into lab rats going after these morsels of informational food. The only way I can counter that is just not participate.
Paul: When you’re away from the screen, what do you do?
Rich: Let’s pause for a second and just reflect on how insane that question is. [laughter] Here we are, right? If this was 19…63 and you heard that question in the future, it would be, the world’s upside down. Think about that.
Paul: Yeah, sure. [laughter] At that point, they were talking about kids being addicted to TV, though.
Rich: Yeah, yeah.
Nick: Yeah, but the difference was they didn’t carry a TV around in their pocket all day long.
Nick: There were limits to the addiction just by the nature of the technology and the nature of the day. You know, I read, I go outside, I hike. I live in Colorado. There’s a lot of trails around, so there’s plenty of opportunities to go out and do stuff. You know, I’m not presenting myself as some kind of model for a person who’s figured this out, because I spend a lot of time looking at a screen. Some of that I think is very productive. I’m a nonfiction writer. I can get a lot done through tools like Google, that used to take a lot of time and a lot of nuisance. So I’m not by any means kind of dismissing the power of the tools that we still have, and even things like Google.
But I do think that, and this probably makes me a nostalgist, but I still think that the best computer is the desktop computer where actually you can get up and walk out of a room, and then you’re away from it. You have to choose when you go back. Most of my time, I spend actually very little time on my smart phone. Most of it is still with a desktop, because I find that that model of computing is still my ideal, that there are tools here that I can use to get things done that I want to get done, but I can get up and walk away.
Paul: That’s a very specific kind of Luddite philosophy, which is revert to your desktop computer.
Nick: I know, absolutely.
Rich: I think he’s trying to control it, right?
Paul: No, I agree. I understand.
Rich: I’m in control. I set the boundaries here. This is a tangible thing. I don’t know what’s going to happen or if anything will happen that causes sort of this tipping point moment where…like, we’re talking about this, and we’re a small podcast. We’re self-proclaimed intellectuals and whatnot, but let’s face it, when does this break out onto the cover of People magazine as a thing, as a real, tangible, something that people are talking about in barbershops? I don’t know how or when that happens.
Paul: When celebrities care about it.
Rich: Is that what is? Celebrities?
Paul: Yeah, sure. Sure.
Nick: I do think there is a kind of level of concern that’s out in the population, out in celebrity culture that there’s this kind of generalized worry that, boy, maybe I’m giving the gadgets and the companies that program the gadgets too much power over my moment-by-moment life. Maybe it is reducing my thoughtfulness and making me a scatterbrain and so forth. The real question is does that general kind of anxiety, low-level anxiety actually get to the point where people start changing their behavior? I don’t see any sign of that. I don’t rule it out, as I said before, but…
Nick: At some deep level, we love our phones. We love the flow of data. We love, we love gathering information. Even when it becomes pernicious, we still love it.
Paul: Famously Anna Wintour and Beyoncé have flip phones.
Nick: Right, right.
Paul: But they have people to check the internet for them.
Rich: I feel like this is a Matt Damon move, or a DiCaprio move.
Paul: That’s right.
Rich: They’re just going to come out with a 40-minute documentary and tell me my brain is a bowl of oatmeal and that’s that.
Paul: Or maybe you’ll get a DiCaprio phone, and it shows you —
Rich: Pictures of him 12 hours a day?
Paul: Scenes from Titanic. Yeah.
Rich: OK, Nick, this was really, really interesting. Glad we got to dive into it a little bit. You know, it’s funny, obviously we don’t have all the answers, but I think the fact that we’re having a conversation about it is really good, and the fact that we’re technologists having a conversation about it is really good.
Paul: I like the challenge of empowering and skill preservation in terms of software. That’s something for us to think about.
Rich: That is a great…that starts to take us out of critic mode and into…
Rich: Production, and not just that, that this could potentially be a great thing, right?
Paul: That’s right.
Nick: I mean, there is — I think there is sometimes this sense of inevitability about the design decisions people make, whether it’s software design or product design or whatever. And actually there are always alternatives, and to the extent that people like you are in the business, say, gee, maybe we could go about this in a different way. Maybe we could take a hint from some of the better video games or whatever. You know, I think that’s all to the good.
Rich: Interesting. Cool. Thank you so much for doing this, Nick. We’re still a digital products studio, Paul.
Paul: We are.
Rich: Our services are still available. [laughter]
Paul: Right, but we engage in a critical manner. People who also want to engage in a critical manner should go out and buy a copy of Utopia is Creepy and think some thoughts, damn it. [laughter]
Rich: Yes, yes.
Paul: That’s what we’re here for.
Rich: Thank you so much, Nick. This was really great.
Nick: Thank you.
Paul: Thank you.
Nick: My pleasure, thanks.
Nick: Bye bye.
Paul: I mean, you know, Rich, let’s just think about that for a minute.
Rich: There goes the marketing strategy.
Paul: Whoof. It’s good to have people who challenge the assumptions of technology being a universal perfect good-for-all.
Rich: I think great tech comes from thinking outside of tech.
Paul: Also just working all that stuff through.
Paul: This is why you look at what happens in Silicon Valley, and people come up with the same product over and over for their friends. It’s a social network for guys who make over $200,000 a year and love cars!
Paul: So it’s important to sort of contextualize this stuff with a little bit of, a little bit of, you know, sour in with the sweet.
Rich: Without a doubt.
Paul: Thank you, Nick Carr, for coming on to Track Changes, the official podcast of Postlight. Postlight is a digital products studio at 101 Fifth Avenue in New York City. We build your apps. We build your websites. We build your big platforms.
Rich: Responsibly. [laughter]
Paul: That’s right. We’re going to start thinking about ways to empower and avoid deskilling in our users. We’re taking that as a mission. [laughter] Rich, anything to add?
Rich: No, but if you’ve got questions, email us at email@example.com.
Paul: Great address. We enjoy listening to what people have to say, and we’ll respond on upcoming episodes. If you want to rank us, rate us, give us stars, five if possible.
Rich: Five preferred.
Paul: Five preferred on the iTunes podcast listing. You know how to get there. Thank you, listeners.
Rich: Have a great week.
Paul: We appreciate you. Don’t lose your skills.
Rich: Stay sharp.
Paul: Stay sharp. Bye!