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The Glass Cage: Automation and Us
The Glass Cage: Automation and Us
Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Company, 2014
288 pp., $26.95

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Alan Jacobs


The View from the Glass Cage

Automation and human responsibility.

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As Carr points out, this flow can be achieved in many ways, and one of the most common, people report, is in driving an automobile. Like Carr, who begins his book with an anecdote about learning to drive, I don't feel that nearly as much as I did when I drove vehicles with manual transmissions; but I feel it much more than I will when, in my dotage, I am ferried from place to place by a self-driving Googlemobile. I'll get in, tell the machine the address of my destination, and then probably read a book—a worthwhile activity, to be sure—until we arrive. I may never notice what route the Googlemobile takes me, whether we go north or south or east or west, or how heavy the traffic is. I might not even notice the weather. Perhaps the book will be sufficiently good to compensate for this loss of connection with my environment.

I don't know whether master Inuit wayfinders experience flow as they make their way through a difficult landscape, but navigation in any environment works the brain pretty hard, and we sidestep that work, even if we take over the driving from Google, when gps gives us turn-by-turn directions. As Carr points out, "Map reading … strengthens our sense of place and hones our navigational skills," and the brainwork we do with map in hand helps us orient ourselves even when we don't have maps: "Paper maps don't just shepherd us from one place to the next; they teach us how to think about space." This is marked in the brain by increasing activity in the hippocampus, whereas when we merely follow gps instructions the hippocampus remains inert. One neuroscientist Carr quotes fears that, "should the hippocampus begin to atrophy from a lack of use in navigation, the result could be a general loss of memory and a growing risk of dementia. 'Society is geared in many ways toward shrinking the hippocampus,' she told an interviewer. 'In the next twenty years, I think we're going to see dementia occurring earlier and earlier.' "

Perhaps here we will have a measurable—and terrifying—cost to automation. But more generally, Carr wants us to ask what value we place on the loss of opportunities to experience flow—the loss even of opportunities to develop and exercise skills that challenge and reward us. Carr readily admits that these are extraordinarily difficult questions. "How do you measure the expense of an erosion of effort and engagement, or a waning of agency and autonomy, or a subtle deterioration of skill? You can't. Those are the kinds of shadowy, intangible things that we rarely appreciate until after they're gone, and even then we may have trouble expressing the losses in concrete terms. But the costs are real." They are real for the Inuit, they are real for pilots, and they are real for us.

Nicholas Carr is asking us to count those costs, as a prelude to figuring out whether we can minimize them. Scanning through the early reviews of The Glass Cage, I can't help noticing how deeply reluctant people are even to begin addressing the questions he raises. I have seen Carr called a Luddite (of course), a paranoiac, and even a "scaredy-cat." And among the leading apostles of automation, Carr has discerned an Orwellian tendency to portray costs as benefits. He notes that "Peter Thiel, a successful entrepreneur and investor who has become one of Silicon Valley's most prominent thinkers, grants that 'a robotics revolution would basically have the effect of people losing their jobs.' But, he hastens to add, 'it would have the benefit of freeing people up to do many other things.'" Ah, that's better. As Carr wryly notes, "Being freed up sounds a lot more pleasant than being fired."

Thiel's comment, and the bizarrely out-of-kilter early responses to Carr's book, provide sufficient evidence for Carr's claim that "the belief in technology as a benevolent, self-healing, autonomous force is seductive"—so seductive that "we're not very good at thinking rationally about automation or understanding its implications." The result is that "the deck is stacked, economically and emotionally, in automation's favor." The great value of The Glass Cage is that it does a little to unstack that deck.

Alan Jacobs teaches in the Honors College of Baylor University. He is the author most recently of The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography (Princeton Univ. Press).

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