The Glass Cage, inscribed

Psst. Barnes & Noble has some signed copies of my new book for sale. Here.

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The one who searches and destroys


I skimmed Will Self’s essay “The Fate of Our Literary Culture Is Sealed.” Here’s what I picked up:

tossed from wave to wave of language as we relapse into the wordsea

no forensic or analytic account of reading can do justice to the strange interplay between levels of reality we apprehend when we

or the street map of Dublin

the reader strives to see in them, see through them, and to discern the connections between them

what it might be like to not have to read deeply at all

finding in digital reading new forms of stimulus and

valorisation of the printed word – its fusty scent, its silk, its heft – is a rearguard action

words and revenue

not only did the reviews in the quality press mean something

one big, thick pipeline carrying half the revenue from British retail book sales disappears deep into Jeff

exactly the same iron laws of supply and demand

church was a repository of scholarship for its own sake

academics publishing online in order to secure professional advancement,

“I just want to be misunderstood”

and use digital media to develop new forms of understanding

effectively, a monetised intellectual prosthesis

were this resource to be truly incapable of being owned, then yes, the tweeting Arab Spring might have culminated in a warm

a global field

none of this, however,

no going back

no point



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Uncaged, in Seattle and San Francisco


Fulfilling its Manifest Destiny, the Uncaged Tour has arrived at the western edge of the continent. I will be speaking about The Glass Cage at Town Hall Seattle tonight at 7:30 (details). And then, on Wednesday at 6:30 pm, I’ll be at the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco for a conversation with Salon’s Andrew Leonard (details). If you’re around, please swing by.

And here are a few choice quotes from recent Glass Cage reviews:

Hiawatha Bray, Boston Globe:

[Carr] suggests that automated systems should require humans to participate in vital activities. An aircraft autopilot might require the pilot to manually change the plane’s course, altitude, and speed; a medical diagnostic program might run regular quizzes to teach radiologists to spot unusual cancers. And once self-driving vehicles arrive, we might require their human owners to take the wheel every now and then.

Of course, this kind of automation with a human face would be more costly and timeconsuming, making it less likely that businesses will race to embrace it. More likely, we’ll have to tolerate a world of ever smarter machines, operated by ever less capable humans. Not a cheerful prospect, but we can’t say we weren’t warned.

Michelle Scheraga, Associated Press:

Without resorting to scare tactics or sermonizing on the dangers of overautomation, [Carr’s] book details in careful, measured ways both the promise of mechanization and its drawbacks since the earliest days of the Industrial Revolution, drawing connections between the blue-collar worker operating factory equipment and the white-collar worker inputting data in a computer, both using machines meant to shoulder most of the heavy physical or mental labor.

His historical, inclusive approach makes an issue most of those already deeply steeped in technology won’t find at all surprising — that what we’re losing might outweigh what we gain by relying on computers — a stimulating, absorbing read.

Elisabeth Donnelly, Flavorwire:

In his new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Carr provides an elegantly written history of what role robotics have played in our past, and the possible role that they may play in our future. In a world where there’s a lot of technology cheerleaders, Carr is one of our most valuable skeptics. […]

Carr shows how maps and our concept of them, have changed with the GPS. Where once we had to read an area, to see where we were in relation to the world, to figure it out with our heads, GPS satellite technology has made the world shrink to our perceptions of it. These technologically adept maps start with where we are and tell us, simply, how to get to the next place. It reduces our cognitive abilities with its ease. “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,” he writes. Carr pulls off this incredible synthesis, over and over, starting with something like maps and what technology’s done with them, bringing history, literature, culture, economics, and science, all together to reveal a window into who we are and what we’re becoming.

James Janega, Chicago Tribune:

The Glass Cage is a worthy antidote to the relentlessly hopeful futurism of Google, TED Talks and Walt Disney, and just as statistically probable as a world in which devoted digital assistants will book our anniversary dinners, route us around traffic jams, and send the perfect Mother’s Day floral arrangement on our behalf.

Jacob Axelrad, Christian Science Monitor:

Will smart phones, tablets, and applications imprison us in a “frictionless world”? Do devices and programs dull our senses? Are we – as tech critics sometimes suggest – outsourcing our brains?

These questions are posed by Nicholas Carr in The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a thoughtful extension of some of the questions raised in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. The Glass Cage is smart, insightful, and at times funny, as it takes readers through a series of anecdotes, academic research, and current and historical events to paint a portrait of a world readily handing itself over to intelligent devices.

Mark Bauerlein, The Weekly Standard:

There is a long tradition of automation zeal, and Carr provides revealing examples, including Oscar Wilde’s prediction that “while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure .  .  . or making beautiful things, or reading beautiful things, or simply contemplating the world with admiration and delight, machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.”

Nicholas Carr’s warnings run against that pleasing vision, which puts him in a minority of culture-watchers. […] The future he paints is a dicey one: We may soon reach a point at which automation—in hazardous settings from cockpits to battle zones—allows mistakes to happen less frequently but more catastrophically, because humans are unprepared to resume control. The technophile’s solution is to augment the automation, thereby decreasing the very toil that keeps humans sharp. Better to think more about the human subject, Carr advises.

And, finally, here’s a report on the hair-raising joyride I took through the streets of D.C. with NPR’s Robert Siegel during last week’s East Coast segment of the Uncaged Tour.


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Siri, how should I live?


Longreads is today featuring an excerpt from The Glass Cage. It’s a piece taken from the second to last chapter, “Your Inner Drone,” which examines the ethical and political implications of the spread of automation from factory production to everyday life.

It begins:

Back in the 1990s, just as the dot-com bubble was beginning to inflate, there was much excited talk about “ubiquitous computing.” Soon, pundits assured us, microchips would be everywhere — embedded in factory machinery and warehouse shelving, affixed to the walls of offices and homes, installed in consumer goods and stitched into clothing, even swimming around in our bodies. Equipped with sensors and transceivers, the tiny computers would measure every variable imaginable, from metal fatigue to soil temperature to blood sugar, and they’d send their readings, via the internet, to data-processing centers, where bigger computers would crunch the numbers and output instructions for keeping everything in spec and in sync. Computing would be pervasive. Our lives would be automated.

One of the main sources of the hype was Xerox PARC, the fabled Silicon Valley research lab where Steve Jobs found the inspiration for the Macintosh. PARC’s engineers and information scientists published a series of papers portraying a future in which computers would be so deeply woven into “the fabric of everyday life” that they’d be “indistinguishable from it.” We would no longer even notice all the computations going on around us. We’d be so saturated with data, so catered to by software, that, instead of experiencing the anxiety of information overload, we’d feel “encalmed.” It sounded idyllic.

The excitement about ubiquitous computing proved premature. The technology of the 1990s was not up to making the world machine-readable, and after the dot-com crash, investors were in no mood to bankroll the installation of expensive microchips and sensors everywhere. But much has changed in the succeeding fifteen years. …

Read on.

Image: detail from John William Waterhouse’s “Consulting the Oracle.”


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