Perpetual Dislocation and the Angst of Techno-Conservatives

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Nicholas Carr is a thinker I struggle with. (I mean, I struggle with his thoughts as expressed in written form, I don’t struggle with him personally or physically. Just so we’re clear.) Ever since introducing the rhetorical question “Is Google making us stupid?” I’ve been skeptical of his, let us say “conservative” perspective on technology. By this I mean he is among those who have taken it upon themselves to serve as dampening pedals on the otherwise boisterous enthusiasm generally expressed for new technologies. This is an important role, and I don’t mean to diminish it – it’s at times when societies go barreling into uncharted territories with unearned confidence that we need smart people to counsel some moderation. And he’s good at it. I just also happen to disagree with him more often than not.

In reviews of his new book, The Glass Cage, I keep seeing this snippet about the ubiquity of things like GPS and Google Maps:

The more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation.

I plopped it into my Evernote bucket-o’-things-to-consider-writing-about, and it grates on me every time I see it. It reads like a parody of an Internet alarmist. Hey man, if you don’t get lost, then you are truly lost. Whoa.

I needed more information, because there’s clearly more to whatever Carr’s argument is here. I don’t have the book, and I’ve been wondering if I’d give it a shot, but obviously I haven’t yet. So I went to Amazon’s look-inside-the-book feature to see this quite in a fuller context. And as I’m reading, this idea jumps out at me: This reads like a David Brooks column. I know, I’m predisposed to be pro-technology, and the few paragraphs to which I’m exposing myself are not a fair appraisal of Carr or his entire book, but it is nonetheless my reaction. You know what I’m talking about? The way Brooks seems like he’s going out of his way, and twisting his mind in all sorts of weird directions, to ensure that he feels uneasy about something that is pretty much entirely good. It’s tut-tutting progress for the sake of the tuts. That’s what it felt like for those few paragraphs.

But then I went back a little bit, to the run-up to the “dislocation” quote in question, and what I read made my jaw drop. And I saw it immediately after my David Brooks revaluation (emphasis mine):

A GPS device, by allowing us to get from point A to point B with the least possible effort and nuisance, can make our lives easier, perhaps imbuing us, as David Brooks suggests, with a numb sort of bliss. But what it steals from us, when we turn to it too often, is the joy and satisfaction of apprehending the world around us – and of making the world a part of us.

I know! Can you believe it! I mean, what are the chances? Again, I want to be fair to Carr, I do. But you have to admit, that’s kind of funny. Especially if you find comparisons to David Brooks funny. And I do. But it’s not that much of a coincidence, I suppose. Brooks and Carr both fulfill in their respective places the role of the conservative. Not in the Tea Party sense, but in the sense of “someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” In other words, their role is to publicly suffer ulcers over the largely-positive changes and developments in politics and culture (Brooks) or technology and society (Carr). That can be a useful role, even if it does often induce eye rolls.

Fun aside, I want to give genuine credit to Carr, who, also like Brooks, is no slouch in turning a phrase, and poses serious questions. Before his citation of Brooks, Carr writes this, which deserves contemplation:

While we may no longer have much of a cultural stake in the conversation of our navigational prowess, we still have a personal stake in it. We are, after all, creatures of the earth. We are not abstract dots proceeding along thin blue lines on the computer screens. We are real beings in real bodies in real places. Getting to know a place takes effort, but it ends in fulfillment and in knowledge. It provides a sense of personal accomplishment and autonomy, and it also provides a sense of belonging, a feeling of being at home in a place rather than passing through it. … We may grimace when we hear people talk of “finding themselves,” but the figure of speech, however vain and shopworn, acknowledges our deeply held sense that who we are is tangled up in where we are. We can’t extract the self from its surroundings, at least not without leaving something important behind.

I take that seriously, the idea that place – both connection to a place and an awareness of where one is alien – is part of the fabric of who we are. Where I disagree is with the idea that these are crucial aspects of who we are, or that we are somehow undefinable or “less ourselves” without them. Place, like pretty much everything else our minds perceive, is a construction, just like the Internet. We imbue in with whatever value it possesses. It is not an innate value. In a future hypothetical time in which place truly has no bearing on our lives, we will still find ways to distinguish ourselves, still find ways to learn and enrich ourselves, and even become alienated. Place for now is part of our fabric, but it can be replaced by other fibers.

And as someone who has a terrible – and I mean abysmal – sense of direction and orientation, I’m literally liberated by both the ability to navigate to a near-universal extent, and the removal of “place” as a geographical construct brought by cyberspace. For many people (I assume including Carr), I have no doubt that this is jarring; that this really does feel like a kind of perpetual dislocation, and for them I feel sincere sympathy.

But for me, may this dislocation be indeed perpetual. I have plenty of other challenges in my life, and more than enough scenarios in which alienation builds my character. I’ve been lost quite enough for one lifetime, thank you very much.

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