I’m reading The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr and really: if you deal with technology (and by deal with it, I mean use it, and so I’m talking about all of us) you need to read this book.
For some time I’ve been weaning myself from a wee case of internet addiction. What can I say, I earned my livelihood being online since 1997, so it’s not too surprising it had an effect on me. From where I stand now, the effect of that near 20 year interaction is startling. My real creativity waned (I was an artist and writer at one time), my interactions with the world became goal-oriented, and my happiness took at hit. I was vaguely aware this was happening, but mostly I was charmed and amazed by each new clever shiny thing being offered up by technology, even as I was daily driven more by what a given program or device could do than I was by experiencing the process.
And here’s a true story from way back at the dawn of time when I worked at a now ubiquitous internet company. In those days, we slaved. Day and night, the company, the idea, the technology consumed us, captivated us. After a few dog years, some of us started to leave, as I did later. What I noticed was this: almost all the people were drawn to new professions, interests, occupations that involved the body. It was uncanny. Yoga, massage, environmental work, cycling, carpentry, art, you name it–they wanted somehow to use their bodies, their senses. Striking.
Fast forward to The Glass Cage and I finally understand what was happening thanks to one of the many ideas Carr is working with: embodied perception. We perceive the world around us with so many of our senses, sense we often don’t know are happily toiling away doing what they are meant to do. Many of these senses involve the physical experience and cognition of our environment. And automation has a tendency–by making things simple, easy and quick–to impede that vast cognition.
E. J. Meade, the Colorado architect, said something revealing when I talked to him about his firm’s adoption of computer-aided design systems. The hard part wasn’t learning how to use the software. That was pretty easy. What was tough was learning how not to use it. The speed, ease, and sheer novelty of CAD made it enticing. The first instinct of the firm’s designers was to plop themselves down at their computers at the start of a project. But when they took a good hard look at their work, they realized that the software was a hindrance to creativity. It was closing off aesthetic and functional possibilities even as it was quickening the pace of production. As Meade and his colleagues thought more critically about the effects of automation, they began to resist the technology’s temptations. They found themselves “bringing the computer in later and later in the course of a project….For the unwary and the uncritical, it can overwhelm other, more important considerations.
The book is full of studies and stories that clarify the instinct of my co-workers when they left the machine we were building, and no doubt most if not all of them use technology in their lives in a big way, just as I do. Carr’s questions, however, are valid. Are technology and automation tools that encourage us to go deeper, live more fully, or have we imbued them with more than they deserve, a creative, intelligent function they do not have…and have we outsourced those functions because we tilt towards fast and easy, even as we sense an urge towards an embodied experience of the world?
I’m happy to say that as devices and their functions have been somewhat demoted in my daily life, the process, rhythm, taste and feel of life itself have taken precedence. I still struggle with time-and-attention devouring devices, but since they have their place, let the struggle continue. Keeps me on my toes.