Monthly Archives: September 2014

Turn Off the Autopilot Now and Then

wwnorton.com

wwnorton.com

Throughout The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a call for vigilance toward the rising tide of automation, Nicholas Carr makes clear that he’s no Luddite. Automation, he writes, has undeniable benefits: autopilot technology has helped reduce the number of accidents in commercial aviation since its introduction, and Computer-Assisted Design (CAD) software has helped architects realize buildings that could never have been designed on paper alone.

The danger comes when autopilot—in both the literal and figurative sense—becomes the norm. When machines are designed to minimize the role of their human operators rather than engage them, we grow isolated from our labor. The problem grows pronounced as automated systems take on tasks that are analytical as well as rote: “The person operating the computer is left to play the role of a high-tech clerk, entering data, monitoring outputs, and watching for failures. Rather than opening new frontiers of thoughts and action to its human collaborators, software narrows our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.”

Doing so, humans can grow less attentive and less able to respond to new situations—in a way, less human. Some air crashes have been attributed to pilots’ inability to regain manual control after their autopilot failed, and CAD software’s automatic calculations can limit creativity in the early stages of architectural design. The effect is present in everyday contexts as well, as when we lose our ability to navigate a new neighborhood without our smartphones.

Here’s Carr’s take-away point: Neither efficiency and scale nor the technologies that advance them are ends in themselves. Rather, they should be weighed against other factors, such as providing employment, and retaining the connective nature of work described above. Human concerns shouldn’t be dismissed in the name of an inevitable, and inevitably good, “march of progress.” By way of solutions, Carr calls for machines that more deeply engage their human operators, like CAD software that allows “an architect to do rough sketches in three dimensions” rather than automatically calculating for him.

Setting forth this argument, Carr is as much a science writer as polemicist, summarizing research from the annals of neurology and psychology, and making difficult concepts accessible without tying them up into suspiciously neat packages.

As with any sufficiently provocative polemic, some parts of The Glass Cage may leave you incredulous, particularly Carr’s paeans to labor. “Labor,” he writes, “whether of the body or the mind, is more than a way of getting things done. It’s a form of contemplation, a way of seeing the world face-to-face rather than through a glass. Action un-mediates perception, gets us close to the thing itself….The antithesis of transcendence, work puts us in our place.” This sounds true enough in relation to the example Carr provides, the farm work that Robert Frost described in poems such as “Mowing,” but starts to break down when applied to some low-paid labor, particularly in the service industry. I was a customer service representative for four months a couple years ago, and while I appreciated the paycheck and spoke with some charming people, I wouldn’t call it a contemplative experience. (It certainly put me in my place, though.) I wonder how those who spend their careers in the service sector—people without my good fortune of moving onto better work—would feel about an intellectual telling them that making burritos or greeting Wal-Mart customers or putting just the right amount of cream into Starbucks’ decadent fall drinks brings them “close to the thing itself.”

Carr hardly mentions the role students and educators can play in improving our relationship with automation. No book can be expected to touch on everything, but children really are the future, and it would have been helpful for Carr to suggest how educators can prepare a new generation to build and operate machines that put humans back in control. In this smart, sprawling polemic that features pilots, architects, gamers, soldiers, and legions of lab rats, it’s a glaring but forgivable omission.

–Available September 29th from W.W. Norton

“The Children Act”: An Artful Novel Maligns People of Faith

knopfdoubleday.com

knopfdoubleday.com

I

At the start of Ian McEwan’s latest novel The Children Act, Fiona Maye, an English judge well into middle age, listens to her husband tell her he’d like to spend time with a younger and more exciting woman. The next day, she’s assigned the case of Adam Henry, a 17-year-old Jehovah’s Witness with leukemia refusing a blood transfusion. The hospital wants to administer the transfusion against his will, for withholding it would kill him, but his parents want the hospital to respect their, and his, wishes.

It’s tempting to call McEwan’s narrative style, which follows characters’ thoughts as they go about their days, “stream of consciousness.” In one passage here, Maye starts a day at court while thinking about global warming, her childlessness, aging, and regrets over previous rulings. This mental meandering is common throughout his novels. In Saturday, a neurosurgeon enjoys a day off while reflecting on turmoil in his family and the post-9/11 world.

“Stream of consciousness” isn’t quite fair, though, as the term brings to mind a fragmented narrative, something pieced together from vignettes. The stream of consciousness in McEwan’s novels flows as smoothly as a good essay. McEwan shows and tells: by what characters are thinking and what their actions mean, he reveals more than he could through action and dialogue alone. (Does anybody really believe in “show, don’t tell”? I’ve only heard that maxim when it’s being refuted.)

McEwan takes the reader into the minds of thinking, perhaps over-thinking characters, as when Maye imagines the children she never had:

“The almost-existing children, the husky-voiced daughter, a museum curator perhaps, and the gifted, less settled son, good at too many things, who failed to complete his university course, but a far better pianist than she. Both always affectionate, brilliant at Christmases and summer-holiday castles and entertaining their younger relations.”

The novel doesn’t take place entirely in Maye’s head, however. The plot follows her relationship with Adam, which begins during when she visits him in the hospital and later takes an unhealthy turn.

The Children Act is not without eroticism—extramarital yearnings are prominent—but it’s blissfully free of the clunky sexuality that has marred some of McEwan’s previous novels. Rather than describing the awkward mechanics of a wedding night (On Chesil Beach) or a man losing his penis to frostbite (Solar), McEwan describes memories of and longings for sexual love. Of Maye and her husband’s first time, he writes: “When for the first time since she was seven years old, she screamed in pleasure.” It’s melodramatic, sure, but not as cringing an image as a philanderer searching for his genitals in the snow.

Like McEwan’s best novels, this is melodramatic to good effect: The characters and their feelings are often exaggerated, but the effect is compelling rather than cloying.

 

II.

My objection to The Children Act is not aesthetic but religious. In previous novels and interviews, McEwan had made his sympathies for New Atheism clear, and they show here as well.

The people of faith in this novel—Adam (at the beginning) and his parents—are doctrinaire, clinging blindly to their beliefs and the institution that imposes them. When an opposing lawyer notes that Jehovah’s Witnesses have condemned blood transfusions only since 1945, the father replies “If there are changes in the teaching it’s because God only gradually reveals his purpose.” Adam practices the violin and writes poetry, yet refuses the transfusion: imagine his potential, the novel asks, if it weren’t for his faith.

However, many people of faith question the institutions they’re part of and the rules they’re told to follow. Among Methodists, many congregations advocate for fuller acceptance of homosexuals—including ordination and marriage—even as the General Conference refuses it. Among Mormons, less known for a spirit of free inquiry, groups advocate for the rights of women (Ordain Women) and homosexuals (Mormons Building Bridges).

After Adam loses his faith in a contrived plot twist, he comments that his old worldview involved “thinking that everybody’s watching and caring and that the whole universe is all about you.” But that’s hardly the Christian worldview. A personal relationship with God may sound absurd, but it doesn’t mean thinking “that the whole universe is all about you.” It means knowing that you’re loved and that you have a place, not at the center of the universe but somewhere within its clockwork.

And not all faith manifests itself through actions like the refusal of lifesaving medical treatment, which place rules above good. More often, faith is manifested through good works and kindness. Jesus said He wasn’t from this world, but through actions and teachings He implored us to get our hands dirty within it, giving to the needy and confronting injustice.

Of the teen’s relationship with the judge, McEwan writes, “He came to find her wanting what everyone wanted, and what only free-thinking people, not the supernatural, could give. Meaning.” Beautifully written, but wrong. McEwan draws a false dichotomy when he implies that either “free-thinking people” or “the supernatural” can give meaning. The supernatural created the world, which makes meaning possible, but “free-thinking people” are left to find that meaning—often through faith.

 

III.

In objecting to McEwan’s portrayal of faith, I’m not denying that The Children Act is an artful novel. I’m only disagreeing with it. Just as novelists have the right to disagree with, upset and infuriate readers, readers have a right to respond.

The Children Act doesn’t have a balanced view of faith, and neither claims or needs to. Rather, it succeeds in telling the story of “[a]n abandoned fifty-nine-year-old woman, in the infancy of old age, just learning to crawl” as she handles overlapping personal and professional ordeals.

–Published September 9th by Doubleday

ADHD Brought into Focus

simonandschuster.com

simonandschuster.com

Many coming-of-age stories—in fiction and memoir, literature and film—place their protagonist at the center of the world, ignoring his effects on others en route to self-actualization. The effect can be mawkish. I, for one, loved Catcher in the Rye at 15, but suspect that Holden may seem less of a role model upon a second reading.

Timothy Denevi’s Hyper: A Personal History of ADHD avoids this pitfall. As Denevi recounts his struggles with ADHD growing up in the Bay Area in the 80s and 90s, he acknowledges the struggles of his teachers and parents as well. He also traces the history of ADHD diagnoses and treatments from the late 1800s to the present day, including debates over the definition and causes of the disorder.

Denevi frequently threw tantrums and got into fights, and was haunted by the sense that something was fundamentally wrong with him. Undergoing a brain scan as an elementary-school student, Denevi “understood the message being transmitted along the veil of wires, spoken as if in my own tongue: I am evil.”

He and his parents often clashed with teachers and medical professionals. His third-grade teacher Pamela Kovalenko is a particularly insensitive figure: she said (in the author’s words) “that my specific therapy for hyperactivity amounted to special treatment,” and, once, after dragging his desk into the hallway, replied to his protests with “I have twenty-five other students.”

The passages about Kovalenko demonstrate Hyper’s fortunate lack of easy villains. Rather than turning Kovalenko into a two-dimensional cruel authority figure, Denevi lets the reader see her as a teacher struggling to deal with a challenging student without neglecting the rest of her class (“I have twenty-five other students”). This isn’t to approve of Kovalenko’s attitude, of course: students with special needs should be placed where they can most interact with their mainstream peers.

Likewise, Denevi writes that “monstrous” as some early treatments for ADHD may seem, they often represented a step forward from existing treatments, or at least an attempt at one. In the 1950s, doctors experimenting with a sedative that adversely affected muscle movement were looking for a “less-drastic treatment than seclusion in a residential center.” (I’m woefully unqualified to fact-check the historical parts of this book, but can say that, just like the memoir, it’s free of suspiciously simple statements.)

“Is it ever possible,” Denevi asks, “to explain yourself in a medical fashion and not come off like you’re making excuses?” Yes. He succeeds in doing so here by looking empathetically at figures in ADHD’s treatment and his own development, even those who are less than sympathetic, or plainly wrong.

–Published September 2nd by Simon & Schuster

A Journalist Abroad

simonandschuster.com

simonandschuster.com

In his memoir Foreign Correspondent, H.D.S. Greenway looks back on his career as a reporter and columnist covering postcolonial convulsions from 1960’s Vietnam to present-day Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the extent that this book has a theme, it’s that American nation-building failed during the Vietnam War and continues to do so today. “It seems that throughout my career in the news trade,” he writes, “America has been fighting and intervening against people whose fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers fought against Europeans telling them what to do or what they want.” In light of Islamists’ recent victories in Iraq, the story of America leaving South Vietnam with inadequate support to defend itself against the North is eerily familiar.

Anyone writing on colonialism and decolonization’s failures risks being accused of kneejerk leftism. But Greenway take a nuanced view of the conflicts he covered, noting, for example, the brutality of Israeli occupation in Palestine without vilifying the Jewish state. (He writes that “Israel’s tragedy was that it acquired an alien and hostile people just when colonialism was discredited and dying all over the world.” Like Greenway’s memories of Israel in general, this sentence does not “[imply]…that Israel aspires to be a latter-day Victorian England,” as a reviewer for the Wall Street Journal contends. It merely acknowledges the difficult situation Israel’s been in since the Six-Day War. Calling Israeli occupation what it is doesn’t necessarily ascribe imperial intent to the occupier.)

In the longest and most compelling stretch of Foreign Correspondent, Greenway recounts his time as a reporter in Vietnam. He moved throughout the conflict, granted the freedom that today’s embedded reporters lack, and noted that “the war looked very different up close than it did in these Saigon briefings.” Throughout the book, Greenway excerpts his articles.

Describing war, his prose grows uncharacteristically beautiful: “My first recollection of combat is that it is not at all like the movies in which the sound is synchronized with the motion. In real combat the sound travels well behind the sight.” His prose is mostly workaday, but occasionally indulges in clichés worthy of only the most lifeless travel writing, including, but not limited to, calling Laos a “colorful and tragic land.”

Greenway worked for publications including Time magazine and the Washington Post in an age when the journalism industry was more prosperous and stories were written by typewriter. After describing the vibrant, bustling Time building in London in the 1950s, he remarks “The last time I inquired Time’s sole London correspondent worked from home on a laptop.” He also recounts many journalists’ quips, and well as stories of drinks and surreptitiously edited expense accounts.

Unfortunately, many of the interesting stories and characters in Foreign Correspondent are introduced and then forgotten after a few paragraphs, so this book often reads like a catalog of anecdotes. This may simply be reflective of a foreign correspondent’s nomadic lifestyle, but makes for a jarring narrative regardless.

In Greenway’s memories of Vietnam, Foreign Correspondent transcends its often fragmented nature to tell the story of a journalist looking for the truth in a troubled region, unsatisfied with official reports alone.

“Without reporters in the field,” Greenway writes, “the giant is blind, barging into rooms and breaking the furniture.” “Journalists” are often reduced to a monolithic, distorting entity in popular discourse, but Foreign Correspondent demonstrates their necessity and humanity, even if it stumbles along the way.

–Published in August by Simon and Schuster