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<nettime> "The Taming of Tech Criticism", by Evgeny Morozov
agent humble on Mon, 30 Mar 2015 11:58:07 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> "The Taming of Tech Criticism", by Evgeny Morozov


The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, by Nicholas Carr, W. W. Norton,

What does it mean to be a technology critic in todayâs America? And what
can technology criticism accomplish? The first question seems easy: to
be a technology critic in America now is to oppose that bastion of
vulgar disruption, Silicon Valley. By itself, however, this opposition
says nothing about the criticâs politicsâan omission that makes it all
the more difficult to answer the second question.

Why all the political diffidence? A critical or oppositional attitude
toward Silicon Valley is no guarantee of the criticâs progressive
agenda; modern technology criticism, going back to its roots in Germany
at the turn of the twentieth century, has often embraced conservative
causes. It also doesnât help that technology critics, for the most part,
make a point of shunning political categories. Instead of the usual
left/right distinction, they are more comfortable with the
humanist/anti-humanist one. âWhat if the cost of machines that think is
people who donât?ââa clever rhetorical question posed by the technology
author George Dyson a few years agoânicely captures these sorts of
concerns. The âmachinesâ in question are typically reduced to mere
embodiments of absurd, dehumanizing ideas that hijack the minds of
poorly educated technologists; the âhumans,â in turn, are treated as
abstract, ahistorical ÃmigrÃs to the global village, rather than
citizen-subjects of the neoliberal empire.

Most contemporary American critics of technologyâfrom Jaron Lanier to
Andrew Keen to Sherry Turkleâfall into the cultural-romantic or
conservative camps. They bemoan the arrogant thrust of technological
thinking as it clashes with human traditions and fret over what an ethos
of permanent disruption means for the configuration of the liberal self
or the survival of its landmark institutions, from universities to
newspapers. So do occasional fellow travelers who write literary essays
or works of fiction attacking Silicon ValleyâJonathan Franzen, Dave
Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Leon Wieseltier have all penned passionate
tracts that seek to defend humanistic values from the assault of
technology. They donât shy away from attacking Internet companies, but
their attacks mostly focus on the values and beliefs of the companiesâ
founders, as if the tech entrepreneurs could simply be talked out of the
disruption that they are wreaking on the world. If Mark Zuckerberg would
just miraculously choose a tome by Isaiah Berlin or Karl Kraus for his
ongoing reading marathon, everything could still go back to normal.

Meanwhile, a more radical strand of tech criticism, confined mostly to
university professors, barely registers on the public radar. Thoseâlike
Robert McChesney or Dan Schiller or Vincent Moscoâwho work on
technology, media, and communications within Marxist analytical
frameworks, hardly get any attention at all. The last radical critics to
enrich the broader public debate on technology were probably Murray
Bookchin and Lewis Mumford; for both, technology was a key site for
struggle, but their struggles, whether for social ecology or against
hierarchical bureaucracy, were not about technology as such.

That radical critique of technology in America has come to a halt is in
no way surprising: it could only be as strong as the emancipatory
political vision to which it is attached. No vision, no critique.
Lacking any idea of how sensors, algorithms, and databanks could be
deployed to serve a non-neoliberal agenda, radical technology critics
face an unenviable choice: they can either stick with the empirical
project of documenting various sides of American decay (e.g., revealing
the power of telecom lobbyists or the data addiction of the NSA) or they
can show how the rosy rhetoric of Silicon Valley does not match up with
reality (thus continuing to debunk the New Economy bubble). Much of this
is helpful, but the practice quickly encounters diminishing returns.
After all, the decay is well known, and Silicon Valleyâs bullshit empire
is impervious to critique.

Why, then, aspire to practice any kind of technology criticism at all? I
am afraid I do not have a convincing answer. If history has, in fact,
ended in Americaâwith venture capital (represented by Silicon Valley)
and the neoliberal militaristic state (represented by the NSA) guarding
the sole entrance to its cryptâthen the only real task facing the
radical technology critic should be to resuscitate that history. But
this surely canât be done within the discourse of technology, and given
the steep price of admission, the technology critic might begin most
logically by acknowledging defeat. Changing public attitudes toward
technologyâat a time when radical political projects that technology
could abet are missingâis pointless. While radical thought about
technology is certainly possible, the true radicals are better off
theorizingâand spearheadingâother, more consequential struggles, and
jotting down some reflections on technology along the way.

The Self-Driving Critic

Nicholas Carr, one of Americaâs foremost technology critics, is far from
acknowledging defeat of any sortâin fact, he betrays no doubts
whatsoever about the relevance and utility of his trade. In his latest
book, The Glass Cage, Carr argues that we have failed to consider the
hidden costs of automation, that our penchant for delegating mundane
tasks to technology is misguided, and that we must redesign our favorite
technologies in such a way that humans take on more responsibilityâboth
of the moral and perceptual varietiesâfor operating in the world.

Carr makes this case using his trademark style of analysis, honed in his
previous book, The Shallows. Drawing on the latest findings in
neuroscience and timeless meditations from various philosophers (Martin
Heidegger stands next to John Dewey), he seeks to diagnose rather than
prescribe. The juxtaposition of hard science and humanities is
occasionally jarring: a deeply poetic section, which quotes Maurice
Merleau-Ponty and Robert Frost, is abruptly interrupted to inform us
that âa study of rodents, published in Science in 2013, indicated that
the brainâs place cells are much less active when animals make their way
through computer-generated landscapes than when they navigate the real

The Glass Cage is subtitled âAutomation and Us,â and Carr tries hard to
direct his critique toward the process of automation rather than
technology as such. His material, however, repeatedly refuses such
framing. Consider just three of the many examples that appear under
âautomationâ: the automation of driving via self-driving cars, the
automation of facial recognition via biometric technologies, and the
automation of song recognition via apps like Shazam, which identify a
song after just a few seconds of âlistening.â They do look somewhat
similar, but differences abound as well. In the first example, the
driver is made unnecessary; in the second example, technology augments
human capacity to recognize faces; in the third example, we create a
genuinely new ability, since humans canât recognize unknown songs. Given
such diversity, itâs not obvious why automationârather than, say,
augmentationâis the right framework to understand these changes. What
are we automating with the song identification app?

Carrâs basic premise is sound: a little bit of technology and automation
can go a long way in enabling human emancipation but, once used
excessively, they might result in âan erosion of skills, a dulling of
perceptions, and a slowing of reactions.â Not only would we lose the
ability to perform certain tasksâCarr dedicates a whole chapter to
studying how the introduction of near-complete automation to the flight
deck has affected how pilots respond to emergenciesâbut we might also
lose the ability to experience certain features of the world around us.
GPS is no friend to flaneurs. âSpell checkers once served as tutors,â he
laments. Now all we get is dumb autocorrect. Here is the true poet
laureate of First World problems.

Carr doesnât try very hard to engage his opponents. Itâs all very well
to complain about the inauthenticity of digital technology and the
erosion of our cognitive and aesthetic skills, but it doesnât take much
effort to discover that the very same technologies are also widely
celebrated for producing new forms of authenticity (hence the excitement
around 3-D printers and the Internet of Things: finally, we are moving
from the virtual to the tangible) and even new forms of aesthetic
appreciation (the art world is buzzing about the emergence of âThe New
Aestheticââthe intrusion of imagery inspired by computer culture into
art and the built environment). Why is repairing a motorcycle deemed
more pleasurable or authentic than repairing a 3-D printer?

Carr quickly runs into a problem faced by most other contemporary
technology critics (the present author included): since our brand of
criticism is, by its very nature, reactiveâwe are all prisoners of the
silly press releases issued by Silicon Valleyâwe have few incentives to
exit the âtechnological debateâ and say anything of substance that does
not already presuppose that all communications services are to be
provided by the market. Itâs as if, in articulating a program, Silicon
Valley had also articulated all the possible counter-programs, defining
a horizon of thought that even its opponents could never transcend.

As a result, Carr prefers to criticize those technologies that he finds
troubling instead of imagining what an alternative arrangementâwhich may
or may not feature the technology in questionâmight be like. His
treatment of self-driving cars is a case in point. Carr opens the first
chapter with rumination on what it was like to drive a Subaru with
manual transmission in his youth. He notices, with his usual nostalgic
flair, how the automation of driving might eventually deprive us of
important but underappreciated cognitive skills that are crucial to
leading a fulfilling life.

This argument would make sense if the choice were between a normal car
and a self-driving car. But are those really our only options? Is there
any evidence that countries with excellent public transportation systems
swarm with unhappy, mentally deskilled automatons who feel that their
brains are underused as they get inside the fully automated metro
trains? One wonders if Nicholas Carr has heard of Denmark.

Note what Carrâs strand of technology criticism has accomplished here:
instead of debating the politics of public transportationâa debate that
should include alternative conceptions of what transportation is and how
to pay for itâwe are confronted with the need to compare the cognitive
and emotional costs of automating the existing system (i.e., embracing
the self-driving cars that Carr doesnât like) with leaving it as it is
(i.e., sticking with normal cars). Disconnected from actual political
struggles and social criticism, technology criticism is just an
elaborate but affirmative footnote to the status quo.

The inherent latent conservatism of Carrâs approach is even more
palpable when he writes about the automation of work. He starts from the
depressing premise that we are all, somehow, born alienated, and the
best way for us to overcome this alienation is by . . . working. Carr
draws on research in psychologyâMihaly Csikszentmihalyiâs notion of
âflowâ is crucial to his argumentâto posit that challenging, engaged
work does make us happier than we realize. Its absence, on the other
hand, makes us depressed:

    More often than not . . . our discipline flags and our mind wanders
    when weâre not on the job. We may yearn for the workday to be over
    so we can start spending our pay and having some fun, but most of
    us fritter away our leisure hours. We shun hard work and only
    rarely engage in challenging hobbies. Instead, we watch TV or go to
    the mall or log on to Facebook. We get lazy. And then we get bored
    and fretful. Disengaged from any outward focus, our attention turns
    inward, and we end up locked in what Emerson called the jail of
    self-consciousness. Jobs, even crummy ones, are âactually easier to
    enjoy than free time,â says Csikszentmihalyi, because they have the
    âbuilt-inâ goals and challenges that âencourage one to become
    involved in oneâs work, to concentrate and lose oneself in it.â

Thus, as our work gets automated away, we are likely to get stuck with
far too many unredeemed alienation coupons! Carrâs argument is
spectacular in its boldness: work distracts us from our deeply alienated
condition, so we have to work more and harder not to discover our deep
alienation. For Carr, the true Stakhanovite, work is a much better drug
than the soma of Huxleyâs Brave New World.

As with the transportation example, something doesnât quite add up here.
Why should we take the status quo for granted and encourage citizens to
develop a new ethic to deal with the problem? In the case of work, isnât
it plausible to assume that weâd get as much âflowâ and happiness from
doing other challenging thingsâlearning a foreign language or playing
chessâif only we had more free time, away from all that work?

Were he not a technology critic, Carr could have more easily accepted
this premise. This might also have prompted him to join the long-running
debate on alternative organizations of work, production, and life
itself. Carr, however, expresses little interest in advancing this
debate, retreating to the status quo again: work is there to be done,
because under current conditions nothing else would deliver us as much
spiritual satisfaction. To be for or against capitalism is not his game:
he just comments on technological trends, as they pop outâin a seemingly
automated fashionâof the global void known as history.

And since the march of that history is increasingly described with the
depoliticized lingo of technologyââprecariousnessâ turns into âsharing
economyâ and âscarcityâ turns into âsmartnessââtechnology criticism
comes to replace political and social criticism. The usual analytical
categories, from class to exploitation, are dropped in favor of fuzzier
and less precise concepts. Carrâs angle on automated trading is
concerned with what algorithms do to tradersâand not what traders and
algorithms do to the rest of us. âA reliance on automation is eroding
the skills and knowledge of financial professionals,â he notes dryly.
Only a technology criticâwith no awareness of the actual role that
âfinancial professionalsâ play todayâwould fail to ask a basic follow-up
question: How is this not good news?

Nicholas Carr finds himself at home in the world of psychology and
neuroscience, and the only philosophy he treats seriously is
phenomenology; he makes only a cursory effort to think in terms of
institutions, social movements, and new forms of representationâhardly a
surprise given where he starts. Occasionally, Carr does tap into
quasi-Marxist explanations, as when he writes, repeatedly, that
technology companies are driven by money and thus are unlikely to engage
in the kind of humanistic thought exercises that Carr expects of them.

But itâs hard to understand how he can square this realistic stance with
his only concrete practical suggestion for human-centered automation: to
push the designers of our technologies to embrace a different paradigm
of ergonomic design, so that, instead of building services that would
automate everything, they would build services that put some minor
cognitive or creative burden on us, the users, thus extending rather
than shrinking our intellectual and sensory experiences. Good news for
you office drones: your boring automated work will be made somewhat less
boring by the fact that youâll have to save the file manually by
pressing a buttonâas opposed to having it backed up for you automatically.

This user-producer axis exhausts Carrâs political imagination. It also
reveals the limitations of his techno-idealism, for his proposed
intervention assumes, first, that todayâs users prefer fully automated
technologies because they do not know whatâs in their best interest and,
second, that these users can convince technology companies that
redesigning their existing products along Carrâs suggestions would be
profitable. For if Carr is sincere in his belief that technology
companies are driven by profit, thereâs no other way around it: he is
either a cynic for advocating a solution that he knows wouldnât work, or
he really thinks that consumers can renounce their love of automation
and demand something else from technology companies.

Carr firmly believes that our embrace of automation comes from
confusion, infatuation, or lazinessârather than, say, necessity. âThe
trouble with automation,â he explains, âis that it often gives us what
we donât need at the cost of what we do.â In theory, then, we can all
live without relying on the wonders of modern technology: we can
cultivate our cognitive and aesthetic skills by ditching our GPS units,
by cooking our own elaborate dishes, by making our own clothes, by
watching our kids instead of relying on apps (au pairs are so last
century). What Carr fails to mention is that all of these things are
much easier to do if you are rich and have no need to work.
Automationâof cognition, emotion, and intellectâis the intolerable price
we have to pay for the growing corporatization of everyday life.

Thus, thereâs a very sinister and disturbing implication to be drawn
from Carrâs workânamely, that only the rich will be able to cultivate
their skills and enjoy their life to the fullest while the poor will be
confined to mediocre virtual substitutesâbut Carr doesnât draw it. Here
again we see what happens once technology criticism is decoupled from
social criticism. All Carr can do is moralize and blame those who have
opted for some form of automation for not being able to see where it
ultimately leads us. How did we fail to grasp just how fun and
stimulating it would be to read a book a week and speak fluent Mandarin?
If Mark Zuckerberg can do it, what excuses do we have?

âBy offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to
imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers
and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided
desire for release from what we perceive as toil,â notes Carr in an
unashamedly elitist tone. Workers of the world, relaxâyour toil is just
a perception! However, once we accept that there might exist another,
more banal reason why people embrace automation, then itâs not clear why
automation à la Carr, with all its interruptions and new avenues for
cognitive stimulation, would be of much interest to them: a less
intelligent microwave oven is a poor solution for those who want to cook
their own dinners but simply have no time for it. But problems faced by
millions of people are of only passing interest to Carr, who is more
preoccupied by the non-problems that fascinate pedantic academics; he
ruminates at length, for example, on the morality of Roomba, the robotic
vacuum cleaner.

Carrâs oeuvre is representative of contemporary technology criticism
both in the questions that it asks and the issues it avoids. Thus,
thereâs the trademark preoccupation with design problems, and their
usually easy solutions, but hardly a word on just why it is that
startups founded on the most ridiculous ideas have such an easy time
attracting venture capital. That this might have something to do with
profound structural transformations in the American economyâe.g., its
ever-expanding financializationâis not a conclusion that todayâs
technology criticism could ever reach.

>From There and Thou to Here and Now

A personal note is in order, since in surveying the shortcomings of
thinkers such as Nicholas Carr, Iâm also all too mindful of how many of
them Iâve shared. For a long time, Iâve considered myself a technology
critic. Thus, I must acknowledge defeat as well: contemporary technology
criticism in America is an empty, vain, and inevitably conservative
undertaking. At best, we are just making careers; at worst, we are just
useful idiots.

Since truly radical technology criticism is a no-go zone for anyone
seeking a popular audience, all we are left with is debilitating faux
radicalism. Some critics do place their focus squarely on technology
companies, which gives their work the air of anti-corporate populism
and, perhaps, even tacit opposition to the market. This, however, does
not magically turn these thinkers into radicals.

In fact, what distinguishes radical critics from their faux-radical
counterparts is the lens they use for understanding Silicon Valley: the
former group sees such firms as economic actors and situates them in the
historical and economic context, while the latter sees them as a
cultural force, an aggregation of bad ideas about society and politics.
Thus, while the radical critic quickly grasps that reasoning with these
companiesâas if they were just another reasonable participant in the
Habermasian public sphereâis pointless, the faux-radical critic shows no
such awareness, penning essay after essay bemoaning their shallowness
and hoping that they can eventually become ethical and responsible.

In a sense, itâs just a continuation of the old battle between
materialism and idealism. At the very start of my career as a technology
critic, I fell into the idealistic trap, thinking that, with time, good
ideas could crowd out bad ones. As Silicon Valley was extending its
reach into domains that were only lightly touched by information
technologyâthink of transportation, health, educationâthese fields were
suddenly overflowing with half-baked, stupid, and occasionally dangerous
ideas. Those ideas could and should be documented, studied, and opposed.
This, I thought, was the true calling of the technology critic.

Serious technology criticism, I thought, could tie the tongues of our
digital gurus, revealing their simplistic sloganeering for the cheap
dross that it is. All that hankering for frictionlessness and eternal
bliss, the cult of convenience and total transparency, the thoughtless
celebration of self-reliance and immediacy: so much in Silicon Valleyâs
master plan smacked of teenage naivetÃ. Instead of waxing lyrical about
the utility of appsâthe bailiwick of conventional technology
criticismâthe technology critic could reveal the political and economic
programs that they helped to enact. Thus, I thought, it was possible to
be neither romantic nor conservative while keeping politics and
economics front and center.

To pick an example from my own work: A smart trashcan that uploads
snapshots of its contents to Facebookâyes, it existsâmight be read as an
experiment in getting our online friends to police our behavior. Or it
might be read as an extension of political consumerism to the most banal
domestic chores. Placed under the right theoretical lens, even mundane
objects could help illuminate the contemporary condition. Moving between
such objects and ideologies, the technology critic could reveal how
important, critical questions are not being asked and how certain
marginal interests are being sidelined. To recover these lost
perspectives and continue a debate that would otherwise be closed
prematurely: this is what the best kind of technology criticism could

Well, goodbye to all that. Today, itâs obvious to me that technology
criticism, uncoupled from any radical project of social transformation,
simply doesnât have the goods. By slicing the world into two distinct
spheresâthe technological and the non-technologicalâit quickly regresses
into the worst kind of solipsistic idealism, paying far more attention
to drummed-up, theoretical ideas about technology than to real struggles
in the here and now.

In a nutshell, the problem is this: given enough time, a skilled
technology critic could explain virtually anything, simply by assuming
that somebody, somewhere, has confused ideas about technology. That
people have confused ideas about technology might occasionally be the
case, but itâs a case that ought to be made, never taken for granted.
The existence of Facebook-enabled trashcans does not necessarily mean
that the people building and using them suffer from a severe form of
technological false consciousness. Either way, why assume that their
problems can be solved by poring over the texts of some ponderous French
or German philosopher?

Alas, the false consciousness explanation is the kind of low-hanging
fruit that no technology critic wants to pass up, as it can magically
transport us from the risky fields of politics and economics to the
safer terrain of psychology and philosophy. Itâs so much easier to
assume that those trashcans exist due to humanityâs inability to peruse
Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty than to investigate whether the inventors in
question simply tapped into available subsidies from, say, the European

Such investigations are messy and might eventually prompt uncomfortable
questionsâabout capital, war, the role of the stateâthat are better left
unasked, at least if one doesnât want to risk becoming that dreadful
other type of critic, the radical. Itâs much safer to interpret every
act or product as if it stemmed from some erroneous individual or
collective belief, some flawed intellectual outlook on technology.

Take our supposed overreliance on apps, the favorite subject of many
contemporary critics, Carr included. How, the critics ask, could we be
so blind to the deeply alienating effects of modern technology? Their
tentative answerâthat we are simply lazy suckers for technologically
mediated convenienceâreveals many of them to be insufferable, pompous
moralizers. The more plausible thesisâthat the growing demands on our
time probably have something to do with the uptake of apps and the
substitution of the real (say, parenting) with the virtual (say, the
many apps that allow us to monitor kids remotely)âis not even broached.
For to speak of our shrinking free time would also mean speaking of
capital and labor, and this would take the technology critic too far
away from âtechnology proper.â

Itâs the existence of this âtechnology properâ that most technology
critics take for granted. In fact, the very edifice of contemporary
technology criticism rests on the criticâs reluctance to acknowledge
that every gadget or app is simply the end point of a much broader
matrix of social, cultural, and economic relations. And while itâs true
that our attitudes toward these gadgets and apps are profoundly shaped
by our technophobia or technophilia, why should we focus on only the end
points and the behaviors that they stimulate? Here is one reason:
whatever attack emerges from such framing of the problem is bound to be
toothlessâwhich explains why it is also so attractive to many.

If technology criticism were solely about aesthetic considerationsâIs
this gadget well made? Is this app beautiful?âsuch theoretical
narrowness would be tenable. But most technology critics find themselves
in a double bind. They must go beyond the aesthetic dimensionâthey are
decidedly not mere assessors of designâbut they cannot afford to reveal
the existence of the rest of the matrix, for that, too, risks turning
them into something else entirely.

Their solution is to operate with real technological objectsâthese are
the gadgets and apps we see in the newsâbut to treat the users and
manufacturers of those objects as imaginary, theoretical constructs.
They are âimaginaryâ and âtheoreticalâ inasmuch as their rationale is
imposed on them by the explanatory limitations of technology criticism
rather than grasped ethnographically or analytically. In the hands of
technology critics, history becomes just a succession of wise and
foolish ideas about technology; there are usually no structuresâsocial
or economic onesâthat get in the way.

Unsurprisingly, if one starts by assuming that every problem stems from
the dominance of bad ideas about technology rather than from unjust,
flawed, and exploitative modes of social organization, then every
proposed solution will feature a heavy dose of better ideas. They might
be embodied in better, more humane gadgets and apps, but the mode of
intervention is still primarily ideational. The rallying cry of the
technology criticâand I confess to shouting it more than onceâis: âIf
only consumers and companies knew better!â One can tinker with consumers
and companies, but the market itself is holy and not to be contested.
This is the unstated assumption behind most popular technology criticism
written today.

Well, suppose consumers and companies did know better. This would mean,
presumably, that consumers would change their behavior and companies
would change their products. The latter does not look very promising. At
best, we might get the technological equivalent of fair-trade lattes on
sale at Starbucks, a modern-day indulgence for the rich and the doubtful.

The first optionâgetting consumers to change their behaviorâis much more
plausible. But if the problem in question wasnât a technology problem to
begin with, why address it at the level of consumers and not, say,
politically at the level of citizens and institutions? The lines
demarcating the technological and the political cannot be drawn by those
forever confined to think within the technological paradigm; one needs
to exit the paradigm to get a glimpse of both alternative explanations
and the political costs of framing the issue through the lens of technology.

Thus, technology critics of the romantic and conservative strands can
certainly tell us how to design a more humane smart energy meter. But to
decide whether smart energy meters are an appropriate response to
climate change is not in their remit. Why design them humanely if we
shouldnât design them at all? That question can be answered only by
those critics who havenât yet lost the ability to think in non-market
and non-statist terms. Technological expertise, in other words, is
mostly peripheral to answering this question.

But most of our technology critics are not really interested in
answering such questions anyway. Liberated from any radical
inclinations, they take the institutional and political reality as it
is, but, sensing that something is amiss, they come up with an ingenious
solution: Why not ask citizens to internalize the costs of all the
horror around them, for that horror probably stems from their lack of
self-control or their poor taste in gadgets? It is in this relegation of
social and political problems solely to the level of the individual
(there is no society, there are only individuals and their gadgets) that
technology criticism is the theoretical vanguard of the neoliberal project.

Even if Nicholas Carrâs project succeedsâi.e., even if he does convince
users that all that growing alienation is the result of their false
beliefs in automation and even if users, in turn, convince technology
companies to produce new types of productsâitâs not obvious why this
should be counted as a success. Itâs certainly not going to be a victory
for progressive politics (Carr is extremely murky on his own).
Information technology has indeed become the primary means for
generating the kind of free time that, in the not so distant past, was
at the heart of many political battles and was eventually enshrined in
laws (think of limits on daily work hours, guaranteed time off, the free
weekend). Such political battles are long gone.

In the past, it was political institutionsâtrade unions and leftist
partiesâthat workers had to thank for the limited breaks they got from
work. Today, these tasks fall squarely on technology companies: the more
Google knows about you, the more time you will save every day, as it
personalizes everything and even completes some tasks (like retrieving
boarding passes) on your behalf. At best, Carrâs project might succeed
in producing a different Google. But its lack of ambition is itself a
testament to the sad state of politics today. Itâs primarily in the
marketplace of technology providersânot in the political realmâthat we
seek solutions to our problems. A more humane Google is not necessarily
a good thingâat least, not as long as the project of humanizing it
distracts us from the more fundamental political tasks at hand.
Technology critics, however, do not care. Their job is to write about

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