Notes on The Glass Cage

1. Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage is an apparent extension of his earlier book The Shallows, an account of recent social science research that suggests that our reliance on computers and technology is deskilling us in ways we don’t seem to be thinking through, and something integral to the experience of “being human” is in danger of being lost. Google isn’t just making us dumber; it is making us subhuman.

2. But the book is not merely a humanist critique of automation — of how, say, using GPS degrades our ability to know where we are, both literally and figuratively. It is also a conservative critique of capitalism, albeit in code, where “automation” and “technology” and so on generally stand in for capitalism and capitalists as the enemies. Often, critiques of technology will lament the negative effects of it on our lives (making us lonely, depressed, stupid, narcissistic, selfish, etc.) without offering much of an explanation for why it has been successfully foisted on us. You get the impression that it’s the fault of consumers, who are too lazy or short-sighted or weak-willed to resist the blandishments of technology, or it’s the cosmic fault of perverse progress that marches inevitably forward with irresistible inertia. If you substitute “technology” for “culture” in this sentence from Andrew O’Hehir’s critique of A.O. Scott’s “Death of Adulthood” essay, you get the point:

Scott’s essay appears to treat “culture” as a sealed and self-referential system, one that shapes and reflects human consciousness but has only an incidental relationship with economic, political and social factors that lie outside its purview. 

Some of Carr’s book works that way. He’ll note things like “New technology, once valued as a means to a greater good, came to be revered as a good in itself” without giving an explanation for why, leaving the implication that technology itself is just weirdly seductive (people are “unwittingly” falling for it) and can mutate itself to be more so, as if it were organic and capable of evolving independent of human will.

But Carr also works in critique of capitalism as the driving force of how tech has been developed and implemented. “Learning requires inefficiency,” he writes in one of his paeans to intellectual struggle,  but “businesses, which seek to maximize productivity and profit, would rarely, if ever, accept such a trade-off. The main reason they invest in automation, after all, is to reduce labor costs and streamline operations.” Later, discussing Intel’s enthusiasm for automating everyday life, Carr points out that “instilling such dependency in customers would also, it seems safe to say, bring in a lot more money for Intel and other computer companies. For a business, there’s nothing like turning a customer into a supplicant.”

3. Technology automates and deskills because it benefits companies’ bottom line. It makes consumers more helpless and dependent, and further addicts them to short-term comfort and convenience over the long-term life satisfaction rooted in the “deep skills” of knowing how to make things. In Marxist jargon, this is the “real subsumption” of desire, what human beings within a society think to want is reformatted to suit what yields opportunities for capitalist profit and growth.

4. Concern over deskilling at the hands of automation leads Carr into some Shop Class as Soulcraft–type celebrations of the dignity of hard work and the flow states stemming from manual labor. But this seems to keep the burden of resistance on individuals, operating on an individual level — which will never address the root of the problem. You might commit to never using GPS, but its hegemony will make it inescapable and ultimately render one’s personal resistance a private insignificance. In other words, there is no point resisting technology without resisting capitalism, and furthermore, resisting technology is not equivalent to resisting capitalism. Resisting capitalism requires a different form of collective action. It is not a matter of the conservative’s standing athwart history and saying no. To quote O’Hehir again, on the limitations of personal-choice politics: “The freedom and autonomy each perceives in himself is better described by some other term, a force of compulsion or overdetermination … that disguises itself as liberation.”

5. If “true” value rests only with human effort and striving, it’s puzzling to think of automation as both labor-saving and profit-enhancing. If capitalism wanted to produce more value, wouldn’t it find new ways to generate and subsume human labor, the source of all value? Isn’t that among the fatal contradictions of capitalism that capitalists are reliant on living labor but constrained by competition to try to eradicate it and save on labor costs?

One can argue that capitalism is a warped system that teaches humans to value fetishes and illusions instead of the “true” value of effort, and this opens up the possibility of a system where money can be made from robots making and circulating things for other robots to enjoy. (The endgame here is the Matrix vision of a world where enwombed humans passively provide the power for an essentially automated virtual world.)

Alternatively, one can argue that automation doesn’t save or reduce labor, but it makes it more abstract and fungible, more a matter of interchangeable clicks and links amid a universe of digitized commodities and processes. Convenience doesn’t lead to us working less; it leads us to doing more of simpler work, work that masquerades as entertainment or work whose essential quality is to render us inert. Automation makes us work at keeping ourselves inert. (The secret of Adderall.)

6. If automation makes work more abstract, generic, it does the same to desire: hence the complaints that convenience and standardization vulgarizes people’s palates and tastes and so on. The work to be distinctive in those ways has been rendered less productive; quality has been trumped by quantity in consumption, etc. Deskilling is a matter of acceleration as much as automation: Processing higher volumes of information is more lucrative than investing value in a few things through more sustained attention and care. 

Despite the deskilling of desire, one must still work, continually, on self-becoming. Because this work has been standardized and made digitally accessible, it is more exploitable than ever. It is only that the interminable work yields a self that becomes ever more constrained to tokens of its virality, of its ability to push volume in the network. The unlimited growth of the self is constrained to the unlimited number of notes your Tumblr can garner.   


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