Prophet of Doom


Has Caleb Carr read too many nasty online reviews of his latest book, the dud science fiction novel Killing Time? The celebrated author of The Alienist and The Angel of Darkness scribbled a bona fide manifesto in Salon last week. He begins by wondering why readers hate his new book, then shifts almost immediately to the self-gratifying declaration that "[Information technology] is making people dumber." Fear not, for Carr knows the cure: A hefty dose of Internet censorship. "What can possibly check such developments?" Carr asks. "Only one thing, I believe: vigorous but enlightened government regulation."

Carr's real problem with the Web may be that he's simply "stumbled" across too much Internet porn (it happens to the best of us). When he shifts to specifics, Carr forgets for the moment the dumbing of America and instead fixates on reining in an online world he feels in populated almost exclusively by smut and pedophiles. The only thing as worrisome to Carr as pornography is rumor mongering a la Matt Drudge. The problem being, you see, that "people assume what they read on the Net is true."

In his big—big!—picture analysis, Carr argues that information technology, controlled by corporations, is turning a nation of would-be philosophers into dummies. Today's kids, he declares, are "virtual machines," who have been so bombarded with information that they have no idea how to process it into wisdom. What's more, the opium den of entertainment and materialism produced by corporations has so sated us that we are "less and less concerned with the philosophical problems and principles that underlie the successful creation and maintenance of a civil society."

It's these strange assumptions about the effect of the Web on human intelligence, not his tired calls to save the world from pornography and unlicensed news sources, that make the piece so delightfully insane. Carr is the child of Beat "muse" Lucien Carr, who introduced Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, and William Burroughs to one another. As such, we can expect his viewpoint to be skewed: Carr's childhood memories, after all, aren't dominated by TV dinners and the family dog, but by visits of Beats to the family pad to drink booze and rap about crazy cats, sweet chicks, and dissolving the state. Although Carr's early confrontation with drunken Beats didn't warm him to their worldview—quite the opposite, in fact—it may have convinced him that such heady fare was standard nosh in American living rooms.

But those of us who didn't grow up suckled by poets are left to wonder about those supposedly rapturous, pre-Internet days, when kids used their ample leisure time to ponder the "philosophical problems and principles" of "a civil society." In this sort of moment, Carr is reminiscent of Jack Kerouac who, by the end of his life, had come to loathe the youth culture that idolized him.

When Carr trolls the Web for the type of site that's destroying fertile young minds, he homes in on The Blair Witch Project site, which he casts as an insidious corporate marketing tool. Maybe. But is it really the sort of nefarious plot that justifies government regulation? It seems as likely that Book of Shadows, the awful sequel to the wildly popular and inventive film, has done more than enough to drive traffic away from the site.

At least Carr knows he's lonely in his dolorous Internet dread. In a remarkable "man vs. society" final√© worthy of a disaffected, philosophically minded teen from a more civilized age, he concludes—before deftly plugging his first two books—that government censorship of the Internet will never happen, since the corporations have duped all the politicians, and the politicians have duped the people.

On behalf of the duped, let's hope he's right.