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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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Carr does not provide detailed answers to such questions, though he does suggest that "striking a balance" between automation and human responsibility might not be as hard as many assume. For instance, a flight automation system—or almost any other kind of automation system that might in some circumstances require human action—"can be programmed to shift control over critical functions from the computer back to the operator at frequent but irregular intervals. Knowing that they may need to take command at any moment keeps people attentive and engaged, promoting situational awareness and learning." Carr also thinks that video games are unfairly maligned, especially in this context: "In addition to their considerable ingenuity and occasional beauty, the best games … show how applications can encourage the development of skills rather than their atrophy."

But answering these questions is not Carr's chief task in The Glass Cage. He wants to think about why we are reluctant even to ask them—even to consider the possibility that automation might not fix, or even improve, every task that can plausibly be automated. Can't we muster at least a little skepticism in the face of automation's long history—and no doubt long future—of extravagant promises?

Carr thinks that such skepticism is called for not primarily in order to save lives; again, I don't think he seriously doubts that automated flying is significantly safer than manual flying was. As The Glass Cage moves along, it comes to explore some deeper questions—questions that we can't even begin to answer without some conception of what counts as human flourishing. Indeed, it is only in light of some such conception that we can even think seriously about what automation is—and does.

In one chapter, Carr considers the relationship between the Inuit people and their often-challenging environment. "The Inuit's extraordinary wayfinding skills," he writes, "are born not of technological prowess—they've eschewed maps, compasses, and other instruments—but of a profound understanding of winds, snowdrift patterns, animal behavior, stars, tides, and currents. The Inuit are masters of perception." Or rather, they were, because in recent years they have come to rely more and more on gps systems, and as a result have ceased to practice their traditional wayfinding methods as consistently, and have less reason to pass them along to the next generation. "A singular talent that has defined and distinguished a people for thousands of years may well evaporate over the course of a generation or two."

Are GPS-equipped Inuit safer than those who practiced the old ways? Let's agree that they are—though there are already stories of Inuit venturing onto thin ice because their gps systems didn't warn them and they weren't paying close attention. But even if we assume that they are safer, considerably safer, we might not conclude that as a people they are better off. Because there have been losses. For one thing, the transmission of wisdom from generation to generation has a powerful binding effect for communities. Moreover, the painstaking acquisition of difficult knowledge, knowledge that involves the senses as well as the mind, is deeply and lastingly satisfying to any person who achieves it.

Think about those old pilots who flew without instruments: they were attuned to their machine and to the air through which it flew with astonishing precision and nuance—indeed they had to be, if they were going to survive. With their arms and legs they continually adjusted the speed and attitude of the craft; their eyes moved constantly to measure the distance to the ground and scan the horizon for signs of weather; they even discerned changes in humidity by smell; and their brains continually sorted through this outrageously complex and ever-changing mass of data and made confident decisions in light of it. Once they had acquired the experience to make much of this habitual, they were able to enter into that blissful state that the psychologist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi has famously called "flow": a total absorption in the task at hand, in which body, mind, and environment seem to cohere into a single gestalt.

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