Must-Reads: Is Technology Bringing Us Down? Zadie Smith and David Carr Discuss

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This weekend, essays in the New York Review of Books and the New York Times tackle giant questions about the hold technology has on our daily lives. Zadie Smith's "Generation Why?" is ostensibly a review of David Fincher and Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network, but it is much more. It is a discussion of People 2.0 and technology's role in the evolving sense of self. David Carr's "My Own Private (Rental) Island, in the Bahamas" is on the surface a travel essay, but addresses similar questions as Smith's, but from a different place. That's what makes juxtaposing the pair's writing interesting.

Carr is a public person -- the author of an addiction memoir and a frequent Twitter user. He is extremely web savvy. Smith paints herself as the opposite -- nostalgic for privacy and technologically stunted. But it's not a generational issue because counter-intuitively, Carr is Smith's senior. Both are illuminating on their respective, and overlapping, subjects.

Smith's writing is a joy to behold:

Eisenberg even chooses the correct nerd walk: not the sideways corridor shuffle (the Don't Hit Me!), but the puffed chest vertical march (the I'm not 5'8", I'm 5'9"!).

Her entire essay is a pleasure to read and the movie review within is insightful and fun. But there is, as usual, a larger point. It is about technology and it is about disconnect. She is a 1.0 person, she writes, when she should be a 2.0. Her evidence comes both from watching the film -- "I'm so utterly 1.0 that I spent an hour of the movie trying to detect any difference between the twins" -- and from extrapolating its effects on the larger world. Of the "little swell of pride" she felt watching the film's characters program on laptops, Smith writes of the "2.0 generation":

They've spent a decade being berated for not making the right sorts of paintings or novels or music or politics. Turns out the brightest 2.0 kids have been doing something else extraordinary. They've been making a world.

But it's her subtle, nuanced criticisms of technology that really take hold:

What's striking about Zuckerberg's vision of an open Internet is the very blandness it requires to function, as Facebook members discovered when the site changed their privacy settings, allowing more things to become more public, with the (unintended?) consequence that your Aunt Dora could suddenly find out you joined the group Queer Nation last Tuesday. Gay kids became un-gay, partiers took down their party photos, political firebrands put out their fires. In real life we can be all these people on our own terms, in our own way, with whom we choose. For a revealing moment Facebook forgot that.

Smith uses a lot of quotation marks in a discussion of Facebook terms, like "Groups" or the real Zuckerberg's favorite word, "connect." This is a device to show her distance from that world.

She eventually concludes that a private person "no longer exists." The very "idea of personhood," she writes, is "certainly changing." She indicates dubiousness at the idea that "selves" evolve on their own and follows to give people what they want, not the other way around. At the very end of the essay, Smith cannot help but rant a little bit against Facebook: "Step back from your Facebook Wall for a moment: Doesn't it, suddenly, look a little ridiculous?"

Carr, meanwhile, writes of his "chronic need to both feed and be fed by the so-called digital grid -- the e-mail, the Twitter, the RSS feeds." It was hard for him to go on vacation and unplug: "The last time I got on an airplane without a laptop, there were no laptops." He agrees to try it and in a survey of the nearby technology, he finds only "puzzles, ancient board games and some old swimming fins." This leads him to read books.

Carr writes of the difficulties of cooking on the island and the absence of most non-natural light. But most interesting to this reader was the undercurrent of the essay: Carr was able to relax because he was away from work, but he really centered himself because he was away from technology. He had to convince himself this was best, but in the end the reward is substantial: love!

These are the things I carried: an iPad jammed with various kinds of media, enough batteries to stock a Wal-Mart, a BlackBerry, a bunch of DVDs, 7,000 songs on my iPod, and a bottle of extra virgin olive oil.

These are the things I needed: My wife.

Carr goes the whole trip without his "gadgets and gewgaws" and concludes:

When we got back to the world, they would all jump to life with their whirring and downloading, reconstructing and reiterating all I had missed. As we took the boat back to the mainland, I thought about what life would be like if I chucked them overboard.

I resisted the urge, but when the time came and they roared to life, I boycotted for an hour or two. I knew without looking that the world had gotten along just fine without me.

The placement of his discussions of technology -- in opposition to his desire for human contact (with his wife) and at the end of his essay -- indicates importance. Carr, older than Smith, is much more 2.0, to use Smith's distinction. Carr tweets multiple times a day; Smith quit Facebook after only two months.

Of leaving Facebook, Smiths asks a question: "Are you ever truly removed, once and for all?" She means "Do they save your data?" Sort of -- she also means it in a more abstract, philosophical way:

We know that having two thousand Facebook friends is not what it looks like. We know that we are using the software to behave in a certain, superficial way toward others. We know what we are doing "in" the software. But do we know, are we alert to, what the software is doing to us? Is it possible that what is communicated between people online "eventually becomes their truth"?

For Carr, time without technology is a vacation; for Smith, it is a substantial and essential rebellion. And though it's not exactly adversarial, a quiet war wages on.

Generation Why? [NYRB]
My Own Private (Rental) Island, in the Bahamas [NYT]


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