The Glass Cage, by Nicholas Carr

the glass cageA 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.”

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11 Comments on “The Glass Cage, by Nicholas Carr”

  1. Dichasium September 5, 2016 at 10:43 pm #

    This topic always reminds me of the fable of the animal or human, (can’t remember which as not relevant to the moral), who goes around wanting, and gaining, bits of everything it likes from other animals, and finally, when it sees what a mess it has become, it is filled with remorse and desires only to be itself again. Alas, it is too late!

    Just think of all the powers we have adapted for ourselves. It makes me think not only ‘who needs humans anyway’, but also ‘what are humans anyway?’ It is certainly interesting. I’m glad people still find these questions thought provoking – enough to write books on the matter. And thanks for the post Jeremy.

    • Jeremy Williams September 6, 2016 at 9:16 am #

      Yes, this does get to the very question of what it is to be human. And part of being human is to be a user of tools, to extend beyond ourselves to effect change in the world. That’s natural too, so it’s all a matter of balance, of keeping our technologies in perspective and not being controlled by them.

      • Dichasium September 6, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

        Can anyone really think the over-riding perspective of humanity is generally towards balance or that technology & tools have helped us toward balance. The cost of our benefits and changes grow evermore out of balance for all.

        I’m sure that the most important benefit of technology is that it enables us to see clearly what a huge mess we make. (It acts like the water reflecting the monster the creature in the fable has become, showing him his errors). Personally, I don’t see humanity responding appropriately. But you and I always see different perspectives. I wonder which of us has the best optician .

        • Jeremy Williams September 6, 2016 at 3:16 pm #

          No, balance is not the over-riding perspective. I’m suggesting the challenge is for each of us to find the right balance, and work out for ourselves how and where we use technology.

          Every technology is an opportunity to reach beyond ourselves, and that’s a distinctly human thing. So the problem is not technology itself, but the glorification of technology. The trouble comes when we lose sight of the purpose of technology, and pursue it as a good thing in itself. Means become ends, and we forget that technology is supposed to serve human flourishing. It’s not a goal in its own right.

  2. Dichasium September 6, 2016 at 7:49 pm #

    Oh yes! When we are speaking on an individual basis, of course, I totally agree. Thanks for clarifying. It would be great to see our schools helping our children more to realise this.

  3. Beating-Drum September 7, 2016 at 12:37 pm #

    How can I forward this to any one?
    It’s so relevant. I find your emails so interesting and often wonder who forwarded them to me cos I used to DELETE them – whoosh – just like that!
    Sommat – my angel, no doubt – woke me up to the fact that they were not; but rather another important step on the Adventure of Life.
    So,
    thank you and Love2U all, Beating-Drum

    • Jeremy Williams September 8, 2016 at 7:44 pm #

      Well thank you Mr Drum. At the bottom of the post there’s a line that says ‘share this’ and a series of round icons. The far left grey circle with an envelope on it is the one you want. Click that and you can email a post from the page.

  4. DevonChap September 7, 2016 at 10:48 pm #

    It’s terrible that almost every one in Britain has lost the skill to knap flints to make a hand axe. What have lost from our prehistoric selves!

    Focusing on pilots is ironic since they, rather than technology are the main cause of plane crashes. For every passenger saved by pilots’ skill 10 or more die because of their mistakes. Most modern plane journeys involve the pilots for less than 4 minutes, taking off and landing by autopilot and are far safer for it.

    The key fault here is the arbitrariness. All ‘old’ technology we should mount resistance to keep was once new and subject to exactly the same complaints as made here. Film photography was less human and was going to lose the skills of painting.

    As for ‘flow’ I’m quite pleased i don’t need to spend hours in the fields feeling the flow of using a scythe but instead a computer controlled GPS guided combine harvester does the job for me. Many people feel a sense of flow tapping out messages on their smart phones. Yet smartphones are bad ( because they are new).

    The technology is ruining the world meme goes with the limits of resources idea. People who believe one are very likely to believe the other. Both are pessimistic that the world has peaked and the past was better. The fact is humans are adaptable and we adopt technology that fits with us and that which doesn’t falls by the wayside. Minidiscs anyone?

    • Jeremy Williams September 8, 2016 at 1:31 pm #

      Now that you’ve got that off your chest, why don’t you go back and read the post again and see if it actually says what you think it says?

      • DevonChap September 8, 2016 at 5:26 pm #

        This is another variation of the idea that technology disconnects us in some vague indefinable way from life as it should be (flow is a nicely meaningless example). This is not a new argument and as ever it fails because the what is considered fine was once new and bad. Driving has ‘flow’ now when similar writers a couple of generations ago would complain how it removed from the ‘flow’ of oneness with a bike or a horse or our feet.

        I read lot about Victorian inventions and very similar things were written then. I assume you know this is all old hat.

        I agree with Douglas Adams. Technology you grow up with is how the world should be, that which develops before you are 30 is an opportunity and anything after then is an offence against nature. Are you showing your age?

        Now if you want to look at how humans behave is situations where control is shared with automation, now that is interesting and topical given the likely transition stage of partially self driving cars. But I don’t think this is about that from your review.

        • Jeremy Williams September 8, 2016 at 7:37 pm #

          I’m doing some reading about automation because I’m interested in the matter you raise in your last paragraph. Carr is not the only author on my reading list, and as I said in the review, he’s not anti-technology. Neither am I, as you ought to know from the fact that I write about pioneering technologies all the time.

          Whether technologies disconnect us from each other or from nature is nothing to do with old and new, and all to do how and where it directs our attention. If you’ve been in a restaurant recently and seen families all on separate smartphones rather than talking to each other, or been annoyed at a doctor who spends the whole of your visit looking at his computer rather than listening to you, then you know what this disconnection can look like. Does that mean all technologies disconnect? Of course not. Email was a godsend to my internationally dispersed family when we got it in the 90s, and skype a few years later. I use apps to identify stars and wildflowers, and therefore know far more of them than I used to.

          The message of The Glass Cage isn’t ‘say no to new technology’, as you seem to assume. It’s a call to use technology wisely, so that it expands and enhances our human capabilities rather than shrinking them.

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