Turn Off the Autopilot Now and Then



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


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