Nicholas Carr

November 10, 2014


In The Glass Cage Nicholas Carr asks us to reconsider how automation is affecting how we experience our life and work.

"All too often, automation frees us from that which makes us feel free."
~Nicholas Carr

About Nicholas Carr

I wrote in my recent Jack Covert Selects review of The Glass Cage that "Nicholas Carr writes beautiful, big-picture books on the history and future of technologies that have evolved alongside humanity." That's true, but in the original draft of that review, I wrote it a bit differently: "Nicholas Carr writes beautiful, enlightening, and sometimes scary books about the history of technology and its relationship to the human civilization that spawns them. They're beautiful and enlightening because they are well written, well researched, well thought out, and full of the best of humanity. They're sometimes scary because they deal with big issues that have changed, are currently changing, and will continue to change the world in often unconsidered, contradictory, and even carnivorous ways that could diminish what we believe is best in us."

In The Big Switch, Carr looked at how cheap computing and the internet were changing the way that companies and households operated, and would ultimately change society as much as Edison had changed it with cheap electricity through the electric grid. In The Shallows, he shifted his attention to how the internet was affecting the very structure of our brains, our focus, our memory, and our intelligence—individual and collective—as much as Guttenberg had with the printing press and bound book. In The Glass Cage, he switches his focus to automation, and this may be the most wonderful and troubling topic yet.

"In automated systems today, the computer often takes on intellectual work—observing and sensing, analyzing and judging, even making decisions—that until recently was considered the preserve of humans."

Our take on Nicholas Carr's new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us

There is a steady stream of books that celebrate innovation and the invention of new technology, that lionize the individuals and organizations that have brought about the wonders and benefits of an increasingly automated and digital world—some that even envision a potential technological or cyber-utopia. I love so many of these books. Some of the best recent examples, like Walter Issacson's Innovators and Steven Johnson's How We Got to Now are both great, broad histories of what human creativity can accomplish that leave you feeling hopeful, almost high on human achievement. Michael S. Malone's Intel Trinity is another brilliant example, journalistic deep-dive into what he calls "the most important company in the world," the one that unleashed the microprocessor and Moore's Law. In a manifesto he wrote for ChangeThis earlier this year, Malone wrote:

Mankind lived for hundreds of thousands of years with almost no change. Then, with the Industrial Revolution, we learned to inhabit a world of continuous improvement. But now, we deal with lives that experience the equivalent of an Industrial Revolution every few years. We've survived it, we've adapted to it, and now we are learning to thrive in it. And, though we barely noticed the change, we now live differently, learn differently, communicate differently, and ultimately think differently. We didn't get our atomic helicopters, but what we did get—instant access to all of the world's knowledge—was a better deal.

In other words, we have internalized Moore's Law. Its beat is now our heartbeat; its pace of change is now the heartbeat of civilization.

I agree with that, but I can't help but wonder if it's the whole story. I wonder if that "world of continuous improvement" is really improving us wholly, and if there has been a devil's bargain in some of those changes we "barely noticed." And that is why I always love when Nicholas Carr has a new book to offer. He is, in my humble opinion, the most intriguing writer working on those questions today.

Carr's new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, is not contrary to the books I mentioned above. Indeed, I view it as a companion piece. Nick also writes about the history of technology, but with a more cautious and critical eye of how it's affecting the human societies they've evolved in. And the effects of technology on the human condition are sometimes troubling.

It is troubling from an economic standpoint, first and foremost, because although the jobs lost to automation in past eras always seem to be made up as that automation spurs new economic growth, our latest economic recovery is often described as "jobless," and computerized automation may be a big reason why. We often hear that globalization is the culprit, but what we don't hear is that manufacturing jobs are being lost even in industrial powerhouses like China. As Carr writes:

Machines are replacing factory workers faster than economic expansion creates new manufacturing positions. As industrial robots become cheaper and more adept, the gap between lost and added jobs will almost certainly widen. Even the news of that companies like GE and Apple are bringing some manufacturing work back to the United States is bittersweet. One of the reasons the work is returning is that most of it can be done without human beings. ... A company doesn't have to worry about labor costs if it's not employing laborers.
Already, as popular economist Tyler Cowen tells us, "Factory floors these days are nearly empty of people because software-driven machines are doing most of the work."

But it's not just a Luddite paranoia about machines replacing us at work, though that is a concern. Like the topics of electricity and the internet that Carr tackled in his previous books, automation is not just affecting us at work. It has already become a part of our personal, daily routine, and will only continue its slow creep into how we experience and traverse the world. To that point, Carr begins The Glass Cage discussing Google's self-driving cars, which unbeknownst to most have already logged more than half a million miles—more than a hundred thousand of those miles on real, public roads in California and Nevada. Carr tells us more:

They've cruised down Hollywood Boulevard and the Pacific Coast Highway, gone back and forth over the Golden Gate Bridge, circled Lake Tahoe. They've merged into freeway traffic, crossed busy intersections, and inched through rush-hour gridlock. They've swerved to avoid collisions. They've done all this by themselves. Without human help.
Self-driving cars have been the stuff of science fiction and a dream of futurists for a long time, but if we are no longer driving our cars to work everyday, most likely staring down at our constantly buzzing, demanding personal electronic devices, no longer aware the physical world we're traversing, what do we lose? What do we gain, other than a few more minutes or hours on our devices, and therefore either "on the clock" for work or distracted by the modern marginalia of life—social media.

But the real problem, Carr suggests, is that we may be delegating the cognitive tasks and skills that fulfill us the most. Research that Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, did in the 1980s (and that Carr delves into extensively in the The Glass Cage) found that while people say they desire leisure over work, we rate our "quality of experience" much higher, and feel happier and more fulfilled when at work—and experience more boredom and anxiety during our "free time." Csikszentmihalyi found that we're most fulfilled and productive when deeply immersed and absorbed in an activity, something we're more likely to be doing while at work. This has huge implications for our quality of life as we shift more and more of those activities to machines, especially as they're no longer only the rote and burdensome ones. Carr explains:

Automation is different now. Computers, as we've seen, can be programmed to perform or support complex activities that in which a succession of tightly coordinated tasks is carried out through an evaluation of many variables. In automated systems today, the computer often takes on intellectual work—observing and sensing, analyzing and judging, even making decisions—that until recently was considered the preserve of humans. The person operating the computer is left to play the role of high-tech clerk, entering data, monitoring outputs, and watching for failures. Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and actions to its human collaborators, software narrows our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones.
And to that point, Carr ends the Chapter One with this food for thought:
Csikszentmihalyi and LeFevre found something else in their study of people's daily routines. Among all the leisure activities reported by their test subjects, the one that generated the greatest sense of flow was driving a car.

Google car or no, our lives will become more automated. There is no stopping that, and we shouldn't wish to. It is in our DNA to experiment and invent. But we can, as individuals especially, choose how we incorporate these technologies into our lives to more fully and viscerally experience the world in our short time here—to pay witness the road we're traversing—rather than allowing them to remove us from the world around us. If you're a business owner, you can choose to implement only the automation that is in service to your employees instead of employing people in service of automation. It could even prove to be a competitive advantage, as people seem to be searching for more artistry and craftsmanship in what they buy—something more hand-made than computer-generated.

Ryan wrote here recently about Martha Stewart and a Midwestern Blacksmith, and the growing economy for hand-made or finely crafted items and the "rise of DIY artists, crafters, and designers around the world." Carr talks in the book about professionals returning to more hands-on tools—photographers returning to film cameras and architects literally returning to the drawing board instead of beginning every project with CAD software. When asked why, they talk of how tools change their process, and how the more automated ones often make it less deliberate and fully considered.

I like to think this is the real "nation of makers," people taking a hands-on, more hand-made approach to the world, preserving a deeper, more knowledgeable and meaningful experience and eschewing the automation that is taking some of the richer experiences out of the rest of our lives. But it is a hard slog, because automation is enticing for many reasons, and the alternative is a deliberate engagement in sustained effort, which, as Carr knows, is a tough sell...

Is it any wonder that we're enamored of automation? By offering to reduce the amount of work we have to do, by promising to imbue our lives with greater ease, comfort, and convenience, computers and other labor-saving technologies appeal to our eager but misguided desire for release from what we perceive as toil. In the workplace, automation's focus on enhancing speed and effeciency—a focus determined by the profit motive rather than by any particular concern for people's well-being—often has the effect of removing complexity from jobs, diminishing the challenge they present and hence the engagement they promote. Automation can narrow people's responsibilities to the point that their jobs consist largely of monitoring a computer screen or entering data into prescribed fields. Even highly trained analysts and other so-called knowledge workers are seeing their work circumscribed by decision-support systems that turn the making of judgements into a data-processing routine. The apps and other programs we use in our private lives have similar effects. By taking over difficult or time-consuming tasks, or simply rendering those tasks less onerous, the software makes it even less likely that we'll engage in efforts that test our skills and give us a sense of accomplishment an satisfaction. All too often, automation frees us from that which makes us feel free.
Maybe freedom is quite literally hard work—or at least work we can immerse our full selves fully in—and not more "free" time.

"Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and actions
to its human collaborators, software narrows our focus.
We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones."


You can read our Jack Covert Selects review of the book, and be sure to check in with us tomorrow as we continue our Thinker in Residence series with some thoughts from Nicholas Carr himself about The Glass Cage.

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