No Dream of the Gift of Idle Hours

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


January 27, 2015

No Dream of the Gift of Idle Hours

My review of Nicholas Carr’s latest book The Glass Cage is up on Boundary2 Digital Studies. It raises many vital points about the possible negative impact of automation on users of technology, and it’s an important book for everyone to read, but perhaps especially for user experience designers because it targets some of the fundamental premises of the profession in an interesting way.

The article is less of a review than a response. As much as he raises really important questions, I thought the framing was slightly wrong. Carr tends to assume that the source of the problems he identifies is engineers’ techno-fetishism, perhaps their failure to appreciate human dimensions of life. But designers are just as guilty (if not more so), despite our nominal role of championing the human perspective—not because we have failed, but because we have succeeded at designing under a flawed set of assumptions. The irony of the book is that, in the internal debate about technology between designers and engineers, Carr is more on the side of the engineer even though he thinks of the book as a challenge to them.

There are also some Lacanian digressions about the difference between desire and drive. These are a comment on the beautiful epilogue to the book about the joy and satisfaction found in challenge and flow, pleasures which are undermined by overly automated technologies and alleged to be a crucial part of being human. My purpose in making the analytical distinction between desire and drive is to show how the issues Carr identifies have a much broader relevance. If there’s a critical point in there, it is that the abstract concern with what technology is doing to our humanity misses far more urgent social and political consequences of which our inability to derive satisfaction in struggle is symptomatic.

To recover that focus, one must draw the psychoanalytic distinction between plaisir and jouissance. I’m tempted to argue that the concern with the abstract question marks a certain kind of failure, as if Carr and other who write like this sense the need for these values without knowing exactly why, and so must resort to musing about the nature of humanity when a much more pointed social critique could be made.

Here’s a taste of the review:

The Glass Cage calls for a fundamental shift in how we understand error. Under the current regime, an error is an inefficiency or an inconvenience, to be avoided at all costs. As defined by Carr, a human-centered approach to design treats error differently, viewing it as an opportunity for learning. He illustrates this with a personal experience of repeatedly failing a difficult mission in the video game Red Dead Redemption, and points to the satisfaction of finally winning a difficult game as an example of what is lost when technology is designed to be too easy. He offers video games as a model for the kinds of technologies he would like to see: tools that engage us in difficult challenges, that encourage us to develop expertise and to experience flow states.

But Carr has an idiosyncratic definition of human-centered design which becomes apparent when he counterposes his position against the prominent design consultant Peter Merholz. Echoing premises almost universally adopted by designers, Merholz calls for simple, frictionless interfaces and devices that don’t require a great deal of skill, memorization or effort to operate. Carr objects that that eliminates learning, skill building and mental engagement—perhaps a valid criticism, but it’s strange to suggest that this reflects a misanthropic technology-centered approach.