Friday, May 18, 2012

Five notable books on the impact of the Information Age

Nicholas Carr writes about technology, culture, and economics. His most recent book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, wass a 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominee and a New York Times bestseller. Carr is also the author of two other influential books, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and Does IT Matter? (2004).

With Alec Ash of The Browser, Carr discussed five top books on the impact of the Information Age, including:
Super Sad True Love Story
by Gary Shteyngart

Tell us why you’re closing with Gary Shteyngart’s novel Super Sad True Love Story.

I think that novelists, and other artists, are only beginning to grapple with the implications of the Internet, smartphones and all of that. Literature provides a different and very valuable way of perceiving those implications, so I decided to end with a novel. This book is both funny and extremely horrifying. It’s set in a future that is very close in some ways to the present. Shteyngart takes phenomena and trends that are around us but we don’t even notice, pushes them a little more extreme, and suddenly it gives you a new way to think about not only where we’re heading but where we already are.

The setting is a dystopian New York, with America on the brink of economic collapse, funded by its Chinese creditors – so not too far from reality.

Yes, the totalitarian backdrop of the novel is financial meltdown, with national guard troops all over. Yet everybody’s just staring into their cellphones, what he calls “äppäräts”. So it’s a mix of a dark, 1984-like political scenario with more of Huxley’s Brave New World to it, because everyone is so involved in themselves and pleasure seeking, wrapped up in media.

Pushing the satire to a further extreme, Shteyngart reveals how we’re enthralled not only by our media devices but in a world where we need to measure everything. The New York of the novel is full of screens which flash the credit rating of whomever passes by them. People determine their and others’ worth based on these measures of financial success and so on. So the book reveals a lot of trends that are already underway.

Here’s further evidence of the distractions of the online era. As you talked there I’ve just bought the book on Kindle in four clicks.

Indeed! In the novel itself books are referred to as “media artefacts” and considered smelly, weird things. Only very few people read books, and they’re looked at as weirdos.

Do you think we’re heading that way?

As is true with most dystopian science fiction, I don’t think it’s an attempt to portray what’s going to happen. It’s more an insight into how much we and our societies have changed in a very short time, without really being aware of it. If somebody from even 10 years ago suddenly dropped into the world and saw us all walking down the street staring at these little screens, hitting them with our thumbs, it would seem very strange.

It is becoming more and more normal to monitor your smartphone even while having a conversation with a friend, spouse or child. A couple will go out to a restaurant and the first thing they will each do is stick their iPhone or Android on the table in front of them, basically announcing that they’re not going to give their full attention to the other person. So technology seems to be changing even our relationships and social expectations.

In a hundred years’ time, what do you think the legacy of the early Internet will be?

I think the legacy will both be of enormous benefits – particularly those that can be measured in terms of efficiency and productivity, but also the ability for people to communicate with others – and also of more troubling consequences. We are witnessing an erosion not only of privacy but of the sense that privacy of the individual is important. And we are seeing the commercialisation of processes of communication, affiliation and friendship that used to be considered intimate.

You’re probably right to talk about a hundred years to sort this all out. There’s a whole lot of threads to the story that being in the midst of it are hard to see properly, and it’s difficult to figure out what the balance of good, bad and indifferent is.

What’s next in the immediate five or 10 years for the information age?

More of the same. Overall I think the general trend, as exemplified by social networks and the evolution of Google, is towards ever smaller bits of information delivered ever more quickly to people who are increasingly compulsive consumers of media and communication products. So I would say more screens, smaller screens, more streams of information coming at us from more directions, and more of us adapting to that way of living and thinking, for better or worse.

So we’re not at the apex of the information age? That peak is yet to come?

All indications are that we’re going to see more rather than less.
Read about another book Carr tagged at The Browser.

Super Sad True Love Story appears on Charlie Jane Anders's list of ten satirical novels that could teach you to survive the future.

The Page 99 Test: Nicholas Carr's The Big Switch.

--Marshal Zeringue