A few years ago, I read Sherry Turkle’s Alone Together, which studied the effects of social media on our relationships. Though I really liked the book, I couldn’t relate as well to the earlier portions that focused on the development of robots. “What does this have to do with me?” I wondered.
I feel differently now. A few weeks ago, I saw a headline about developing robot nurses to treat Ebola patients. Last week I saw another headline, this one about a Google computer that programs itself. Drones regularly appear in headlines (and even in YouTube videos when they become the hapless prey of cruising red tailed hawks). More and more, problems I didn’t know I had are being solved through various electronic devices. Where is it all headed?
When I heard about Nicholas Carr’s new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us in this interview on NPR, I was intrigued. Several times as I read it, I remembered Carr’s comment in The Shallows that he missed his less distractible, pre-internet brain. Clearly he’s found it again. A more thoroughgoing discussion of the inroads automation is making in our lives (even those of us who don’t think of ourselves as “techies”) is difficult to imagine. From the autopilot capabilities of the aviation and automotive industries, to the computerization of the medical industry, to the software used by architects, to the GPS on our iPhones and the auto suggest when we perform a Google search — and more — Carr unpacks the question of what reliance on machines does to us.
There are several things I liked about the book (though the picture it gives us is quite sobering). One is Carr’s balanced perspective. He is not anti-technology, but rather a proponent of thoughtful engagement with it. A devotee of the technology-centric approach to life would be hard-pressed to find reasonable evidence that Carr is a strident neo-Luddite and can therefore be dismissed.
The factual content of the book makes it a fascinating read. Though I felt dismayed by many of the developments discussed in these pages, I learned a great deal and found it unfailingly thought-provoking. Whether I was reading about Inuit hunters, Robert Frost poems, airline accidents, Google Glass, or the contrast between human-centric and technology-centric design, I kept wanting to put the book down and think about it. Carr’s discussion is insightful and encompasses the personal, intellectual, physical, and moral dimensions of automation, leaving us with plenty to think about.
Some of it made me mad. For instance, I read that the Rand corporation did a study using a simulator around ten years ago and reported giddily that medical care would be greatly improved if it transitioned from paper to electronic records. Millions of taxpayer dollars were immediately poured into the process only to reveal a few years later that it wasn’t panning out after all. We can’t go back. We have to live with that — even though it seems to be resulting in worse patient care and higher costs.
Some of it made me sad. When I read that the younger generation of Inuit hunters, legendary for their navigational skills using cues from nature, are becoming dependent on electronic GPS and consequently experiencing more accidents and even deaths, I thought about how quickly the inheritance of knowledge and wisdom can die out — only to be replaced by something vastly inferior.
Some of it made me feel hopeful because it vindicated my own hunches. For instance, did you know that those who use paper maps (vs. electronic GPS) actually grow more gray matter? Did you know that they age better? Well, okay, those weren’t hunches…. but I have felt that my iPhone’s GPS frustrates me by giving me such a small segment of the picture, and making me a blue dot in the center. (It’s similar to the way my Kindle strands me on a single page, without a tactile sense of the context among other pages or an easy way to flip backward and forward.) I’m apparently not alone in my attachment to paper maps.
Edited to add: Today (Nov. 8), I see a news story about how in 2025, 50% of today’s occupations will no longer exist. Before reading The Glass Cage, I would have probably laughed this article off. But the book does include discussion of the impact of technology in the workplace, and in fact automation does replace people. Maybe I’m glad to be in the humanities after all. Robot humanities faculty would be a contradiction in terms… wouldn’t it? In any case, the article exhibits typically rose-tinted glasses regarding the way technology frees people from the monotonous and the mundane so that their work can be more interesting and creative. We’ll just hope that’s not code for “collecting unemployment.”
I suppose that you could put this book in a nutshell by saying it’s an extended development of the familiar mantra “Use it or lose it.” Highly prized skills and capabilities can atrophy when we are reduced to merely monitoring the screens in our lives. But ultimately The Glass Cage exhorts us to think about what it means to be human, and how we can preserve wholeness, risk, creativity, physicality, moral reasoning, and mastery over the gadgets and systems so solicitous to provide friction-free lives before we even ask. Dependence on technology is really dependence on the human entities behind it — entities that may be quite sincere in their belief that they are improving our quality of life, but that have a strong personal interest in commercial success and may not share our values and beliefs. We are better off in the long run if we interrogate the “improvements” that stream our way and think about what really gives our lives meaning. We may find we don’t want so much labor saved after all.