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  1. Opinion

The Reading Files: Automated and unaware, working North Dakota's oil and plumbing the depths of consciousness

The technology takeover

Nicholas Carr's new book, "The Glass Cage: Automation and Us," is excerpted on the blog Longreads. Read "Your Inner Drone: The Politics of the Automated Future" in full at Here's an excerpt.

The prospect of having a complicated technology fade into the background, so it can be employed with little effort or thought, can be as appealing to those who use it as to those who sell it. "When technology gets out of the way, we are liberated from it," the New York Times columnist Nick Bilton has written. But it's not that simple. You don't just flip a switch to make a technology invisible. It disappears only after a slow process of cultural and personal acclimation. As we habituate ourselves to it, the technology comes to exert more power over us, not less. We may be oblivious to the constraints it imposes on our lives, but the constraints remain. As the French sociologist Bruno Latour points out, the invisibility of a familiar technology is "a kind of optical illusion." It obscures the way we've refashioned ourselves to accommodate the technology. The tool that we used to fulfill some particular intention of our own begins to impose on us its intentions, or the intentions of its maker.

Sweat, hustle, disappointment

Writing for "The Atlantic," Maya Rao works behind the counter of a truck stop to take the measure of the oil boom in North Dakota. Read "Searching for the Good Life in the Bakken Oil Fields" in full at Here's an excerpt.

It might sound like the butt of some East Coast urbanite's joke: a guy named Blackneck and a one-legged fry cook and a man called Aerosmith who didn't really look like anyone from Aerosmith trying to make it big on the Great Plains. Yet they represented an enduring American ideal: going where the opportunity was and working hard, no matter how miserable it got. No excuses. No government programs. Just sweat and hustle.

Companies could exploit this pioneering spirit. Some men said they'd come out here on a promise that they'd make twice as much as they ended up making, or that a firm would pay for their housing, only to wind up sleeping in their trucks through winter. When the oil boom began, everyone was desperate for truckers and they paid them well. Now, there was a glut of trucks, and wages had dropped. A lot of other players wanted their cut.

"By the time it gets to the guy actually doing the work, not much money," Aerosmith explained as we waited for a call from his boss one morning. He was exhausted from driving until 2 in the morning. ... "They're all going to make a profit," he said, referring to the trucking companies. He wanted them to make a profit, just as long as he got his, too. … But as a man who normally prided himself on following the rules, Aerosmith had initially been bothered by the North Dakota Way. Unlike (his old employer) Tyson, his current employer did not ask him to keep a log book to show how many hours he drove, when he stopped and fueled, and how much he slept. His employer did not ask him to take a drug test. Hell, nobody asked anyone much of anything.

Inside the president's 'football'

In "Smithsonian," Michael Dobbs tells "The Real Story of the 'Football' That Follows the President Everywhere." Read his piece in full at Here's an excerpt.

Contrary to popular belief, the Football does not actually contain a big red button for launching a nuclear war. Its primary purpose is to confirm the president's identity, and it allows him to communicate with the National Military Command Center in the Pentagon, which monitors worldwide nuclear threats and can order an instant response. The Football also provides the commander in chief with a simplified menu of nuclear strike options — allowing him to decide, for example, whether to destroy all of America's enemies in one fell swoop or to limit himself to obliterating only Moscow or Pyongyang or Beijing.


In the "New Yorker," Alan Lightman writes about the state of research into "consciousness." Read "Attention" in full at Here's an excerpt.

I asked (the neuroscientist Robert) Desimone about the strange experience of consciousness, to me the most profound and troubling aspect of human existence. How does a gooey mass of blood, bones, and gelatinous tissue become a sentient being? How does it become aware of itself as a thing separate from its surroundings? How does it develop a self, an ego, an "I"? Without hesitation, Desimone replied that the mystery of consciousness was overrated. "As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of 'What is consciousness?' will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction," he said. As Desimone sees it, consciousness is just a vague word for the mental experience of attending, which we are slowly dissecting in terms of the electrical and chemical activity of individual neurons. …

I am a scientist and a materialist myself, but I left Desimone's office feeling bereft. Although I cannot say exactly why, I do not want my thoughts, my emotions, and my sense of self reduced to the electrical tinglings of neurons.