A couple of years ago I read The Shallows, a fascinating book on how the internet is changing the way we think. It was written by Nicholas Carr, and he has followed it up with a book about automation. In many ways it covers similar ground. Technology is not neutral, he argues. It empowers and it disempowers. New technologies do not just substitute for human labour or capacity, they “alter our perception of the world and what the world signifies to us.” The internet is changing the way we think and work, and all the same processes are at work in automation.
Automation is a hot topic at the moment, perhaps most obviously around the advent of driver-less cars. The book feels timely in that regard, though concerns about machines taking human jobs go back a long way. Carr discusses the Luddite movement, or the ‘technological unemployment’ that haunted workers in the 1930s. Though he briefly discusses the political aspects of this, he is more concerned with the philosophical ones. What do we lose when we cede control to machines? Is our experience of the world diminished? Are we at risk of de-skilling ourselves?
Some of that de-skilling is already apparent. We’ve all read the stories of people driving their cars into fields, or even the sea, because the GPS told them to. Most of us wouldn’t accidentally drive to Croatia, but we may well lose our map-reading skills. Our sense of orientation may atrophy as we rely on gadgets to navigate. Perhaps this is a trivial loss to most of us, but as Carr suggests, this is actually an important part of being human, of belonging in the world. “To never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation. If you never have to worry about not knowing where you are, then you never have to know where you are.” Defaulting to technology to orient ourselves disconnects us, draws us away from the world around us.
There’s also the danger of being dependent on technology. The book illustrates this with examples from aviation, where unforeseen events cause autopilot to shut down and pilots suddenly find themselves in control. Sometimes this ends well and the pilot is hailed as a hero – like the time a plane landed on the Hudson river in 2009. But later that same year a pilot panicked, forgot all his training, and dived an Airbus A33o into the Atlantic. It is from aviation that the book gets its title, and from the history of autopilot that it draws its central metaphor: the ‘glass cockpit‘. That’s the name for an electronic, highly automated flying experience. When that level of automation leads to “an erosion of skills, a dulling of perceptions, and a slowing of reactions”, that glass cockpit could become a glass cage.
That’s a somewhat gloomy conclusion, and the book risks accusations of doom-mongering with the extreme examples presented in the back cover blurb, and the subtitle ‘who needs humans anyway?’. Carr is a more thoughtful writer than this though, and the book is by no means anti-technology. He praises computer games that challenge us, or ‘adaptive automation’ that responds to people and works alongside them.
The important thing is that technology opens up our human capabilities, rather than closing them down and leaving us as passive minders of our gadgets. “The digital technologies of automation, rather than inviting us into the world and encouraging us to develop new talents that enlarge our perceptions and expand our possibilities, often have the opposite effect” he writes. “They pull us away from the world.”
What we lose is often a sense of ‘flow’, a one-ness of physical and mental purpose, of being absorbed in our activity. (This is what concerns Matthew Crawford about digital culture too, in his book The World Beyond Your Head) Carr cites the Robert Frost poem Mowing as an example, exploring the scythe as a congenial technology that feels like an extension of us. I know several people who would agree. Many people feel a sense of flow while driving, incidentally, something that would fall away if Google gets its way with its autonomous cars.
The book also describes photographers choosing between digital and film, or architects using sketchbooks as well as computer-aided design. The point is not to reject technology, but to resist it, says Carr. Don’t let it go unexamined, don’t let technological advance be a good in its own right. “As computers become our constant companions, our familiar, obliging helpmates, it seems wise to take a closer look at exactly how they’re changing what we do and who we are.”