Looking Foward to ‘The Glass Cage’ – Random Ambiguous Thoughts

On September 29, Nicholas Carr’s book The Glass Cage – Automation and Us will be released. I have quoted Carr’s writings often on this blog, and his essay All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines might anticipate some of the ideas he is going to explore in this upcoming book.

I read non-fiction books with specific questions in mind. In order to sort out these questions upfront, I am writing a post that may turn out incoherent.

I sense an ambiguity that might be typical for many so-called knowledge workers that spend most of their working hours in front of a computers. We feel some playful affection to the gadgets we use but silently we dread our growing dependence on them – and we seek escape in dreaming up alternate realities – as working as artisans, with real stuff.

If you believe the geek turned craftsman is just a cliché – read this story about a software developer turned carpenter and watch the related video “The HemLoft – a secret treehouse, hiding in the woods of Whistler”.

This is when I realized that I’d rather be looking through the window of a cool building, than the window of an LCD laptop.

Hadn’t technology evolved in the way it did in the past decades my job would be fundamentally different or not exist at all. I define the ability to work with clients in a remote fashion as an absolutely essential part of my job, and I am determined to prove that it is not only the IT industry and companies like Automattic whose way of working has been transformed: We have recently started our first heat pump planning project that will not include any on-site meetings. So I am not in a position to question the [allow for a buzz word] disruptive nature of technology.

But proliferation of working remotely cuts both ways: I have been able to do my IT security troubleshooting for clients ‘anywhere on this planet’ – so of course professionals living in countries with lower loving costs, and this lower hourly rates, could do as well!

However, I am not interested in following that train of thoughts. Probably I am too optimistic but I think I was able to constantly move my professional slef away from anything to-be-standardized. I have seen attempts to standardize consulting failing too often. So I am still waiting for the human-like bot to replace me. Consulting is people’s business no matter how much technology helps to mediate it – just as social media is a success because of the social part.

But I cannot deny that automation became an essential part of my personal version of the alternate artisanal reality: In the last two posts I mentioned my playing with database servers – all targeted to further automating data collection and evaluation for heat pump systems.

Would I want to stand outside in the cold and reading off data from a display myself for hours?

To some extent I probably would. I am eager to read The Glass Cage especially because of this quote:

Drawing on psychological and neurological studies that underscore how tightly people’s happiness and satisfaction are tied to performing meaningful work in the real world, Carr reveals something we already suspect: shifting our attention to computer screens can leave us disengaged and discontented.

It took me a time to realize that the reasons I use in defence of automation are all tied to my work. I have never been your typical computer freak or early adopter of gadgets who is interested to play with new technology ‘just because’. I am rather reluctant of using many appliances that are said to make our lives so much easier and allow us to ‘focus on what we really want’ and ‘get rid of the repetitive grunt work’.

I use a scythe to cut the grass. We don’t have an egg cooker, an electrical bread cutter, or a dryer. I could say I am just energy-conscious or trying to avoid clutter – but these are actually positive side-effects.

The shocking truth is that I like some healthy dose of simple, repetitive work. This even extends to the professional sphere: Against the mantra of focussing on your core business I do accounting and controlling – gleefully. This includes some boring data entry that better interfaces between those distributed software systems might do away with.

Most of the computer technology I finally got to use also as a consumer was actually driven by professional needs. I purchased my first cell phone as I wanted to be available for clients. I am thinking about the purchase of a tablet just because I could test some tools for managing digital certificates. I am considering a better internet connection to handle parallel remote sessions.

But wait – I have loved my Kindle eReader and I was a rather early adopter. However, I loved it because it was a 1:1 replacement of its real-life counterpart – a device just for reading: no internet, no e-mails, and no social media and sharing of inspirational snippets quoted out-of-context.

Is this because I am not a digital native?

In my first jobs as an experimental physicist and materials scientist about 95% of my job was repetitive grunt work: Cutting slices from crystals, grinding and polishing samples of material, adjusting optical components, waiting in front of a not-yet-computerized machine to see the paper coming out, take that paper and copy the curve using semi-transparent sheets, entering data, entering more data, being interrupted by some nasty sound as something broke, spending the next hours repairing the diamond wire saw or the leaky vacuum equipment.

Watching crime shows like CSI makes me laugh: They did a splendid job on making standardized lab work look so cool and sci-fi-style. We used to joke about create an image video for our research showing off the fancy colored laser beams in the dark lab – but that was meant satirical.

This combination of 5% thinking hard about the problems and drawing conclusions and 95% lab work was absolutely fine for me. If all repetitive, boring work – manual or computer-based – would be taken away from us, what would happen? Not to our professional selves devoid of jobs but to our human selves?

We could focus on the remaining hard and interesting problems, realize our potentials as humans, don’t we? We would be able to create and take decisions non-stop – until the bots will take over. But I am not quite sure if I would enjoy creating and deciding all the time. I imagine it could feel like jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink and skimming texts instead of reading a long piece.

I have read Life Hacker’s Bible recently – Tim Ferriss might answer you would finally have time to travel the world or learn to dance the tango, after you would have fully outsourced (that is: automated) your self-running internet business. World economy or crisis thereof, job options, realistic development of technology aside: Is this what the majority of people really want?

As I said, I am aware of the ambiguity and those pesky where-to-draw-the line questions. For sure I want high-tech surgery, perhaps a international expert or an AI-driven robot operate on me over that high-bandwidth connection. But I will keep mocking biometric keys for house doors, and sensors that turn on the light if I clap my hands.

Are my clinging to some boring work and my inconsistent argumentation just a shortcoming of our currently carbon-based species – to be replaced or extended by transhuman partly virtual-silicon-whatever beings? I read some books by transhumanists and radical technology enthusiasts – and they did not speak to me. I think I could re-iterate their arguments – this is the necessary pre-requisite for substantial criticism – and they seem to be self-consistent.

But I cannot yet track down why I don’t follow even less radical claims about the benefits of automation and technology. I always imagine myself being among the last human beings fighting the machines in a dystopian future. Perhaps I have seen too many movies or not enough of the good ones.

Anyway, I am waiting for Mr. Carr’s insights.

18 Comments Add yours

  1. bert0001 says:

    Loved your articles. One side note: ” Tim Ferriss might answer you would finally have time to travel the world or learn to dance the tango, after … ”
    It appears to me that all that free time is still translated into cash for the managers and owners of the big companies leading this planet, and not any of it trickles down to the masses. (except for the flatscreen TV’s and the add-driven tablets, that makes ‘us’ even more vulnerable) Unfortunately.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Bert, and I agree! But I think (hope?) there is a growing number of people who deny consumerism and refuse to ‘fuel economy’ by buying things they need to require to enjoy their spare time. But probably these things have never changed: I am now reading a classic in self-sufficient and most simple living – ‘Walden’ by Henry David Thoreau who has built a very small house and taught himself farming practices in order to sustain himself, living in solitude – more than 100 years ago.
      His book is part documentary of this experiment and part personal reflection on life, work, and nature. What he has to say about ‘modern’ technology and its shallow users is surprisingly modern still – you would believe a modern critic has written it if you replace ‘railway’ and ‘telegraph’ by modern counterparts.

      1. bert0001 says:

        I remember Thoreau’s Walden — it’s a pity he died so early …

  2. I just bought the book on Google Play for $15.99 and will let you know how it goes.

    1. elkement says:

      I’ve also bought it at the day of the release and I have read about 2/3 now – I withhold judgment until my upcoming review post!

  3. Your comment on lab work dredges up so many boring hours spent in chemistry labs. While I never minded messing about with physical apparatus–tinkering, adjusting and generally messing around is something I see as fun–doing the more routine stuff; things associated with chemistry used to drive me bonkers.
    I do find comfort in many repetitive jobs though. Things I’ve done hundreds of times and can do by heart are always a source of relaxation and comfort and, yes, that does include basic carpentry and cutting the grass!
    I will keep an eye out for that new book. Looking forward to it.

    1. elkement says:

      I enjoyed growing crystals from solutions as a child – I still have that chemistry book I used back then :-)

      I am happy I am not the only one enjoying such repetitive work – but I feel sometimes you need to ‘pretend’ you only enjoy the brainy, new, challenging, leading edge etc. stuff :-) I liked the story of that software guy turned carpenter because sometimes colleagues in IT had revealed such dreams to me – however only in private.

  4. Joseph Nebus says:

    I wouldn’t think it cliche to jump from computer work to something practical and physical. Since I’ve started working at home I’ve found terribly many days where the most useful thing I do is walk away from the machine and start sweeping up or fixing nagging little things from around the house. It’s not far from that to carpentry.

    1. elkement says:

      I totally agree – I am also working in my ‘home office’ most of the time.
      Re this cliché I rather thought about that dream of completely ditching anything computer-related or ‘virtual’ and turning to a down-to-earth profession full-time instead, like working as a farmer or potter – or carpenter. I have heard that sort of confession more often from tech-worker than I would have imagined.

  5. I just hope we won’t need to fight the machines, but coexist harmoniously. After all, it is the goal of many scientists to improve humanity with technology, so machines built with that intention shouldn’t be hell-bent on eradicating us organics. of course, the dystopian in me says that humans will mistreat the machines out of fear of their potential power, and that the machines WILL fight back one day. But I hope it will not be until one kind is eliminated, because by then, Humans will be so dependent on machines that wr won’t have a chance

    1. elkement says:

      It would be definitely interesting to time-travel to the future – to find out what really will happen!

  6. My response is not very original and certainly not insightful. But I can report that my most satisfying work is that which does not involve computers or technology of any sort. Perhaps my greatest professional rewards are not to be found in my professional life because I am not an applied physicist or an engineer or an astronomer or a chemist. In the same way that you are pleased to cut your grass with a scythe, I too derive my greatest pleasure from a ‘physical’ job well done. I do wonder about our dependence on machines and how our dependencies may be influencing us in ways that we cannot know. A very interesting consideration. How have we changed as individuals, populations, societies, and cultures since the dawn of the ‘computer age.’ I wonder how we differ psychologically and emotionally. Certainly many of us seem less eager, willing, and able to participate in jobs which require hard physical labor. Sorry … I am rambling. This post touches on a valuable idea and that is the psychological fallout of technological development. It is certainly changing us. Now, to find out in exactly which ways is intriguing to be sure. The system is operating as a positive feedback loop however, one with without inherent control. And, those never end well. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks for your comment, Dave! I guess – given the way most of us feel about technology – your reply _is_ original.
      I do derive pleasure from such jobs, no doubt, but it is hard for me to tell what I consider tangible and what is really just a ‘computer job’ that leaves without anything palpable. It might be arbitrary but if I use IT as a tool, say, for controlling some ‘real machine’ or collecting or processing measurement data is seems quite physical (and meaningful) to me. To me, this is like moving tons of steel – a car – with my hands.
      I am really looking forward to reading this book for some inspiration – about how to distinguish between meaningful automation and the one that does not change our lives for the better.
      In his previous book, The Shallows, Carr has researched how using computers has indeed changes our brains – bottom line is we go better at taking decisions fast (click this hyperlink or not…) but our attention spans got lower and we cannot memorize things anymore. There were some surprising results cited: E.g. students were allowed to use the internet while reading some educational text. I turned out that those who did not use the internet did better when inquired about the content. The surprising part was that internet users did worse – even if they only used the internet to research about the topic of that article.

    2. You might be a little surprised (maybe) to discover that I, too, feel that way. By far my favorite work tasks involve working collaboratively with others. Perhaps it’s working with students who visit the commons, looking at their work and seeing if we can find ways to improve on it and perhaps it’s doing something similar with colleagues. Either way I love the exchange of thoughts and ideas, something best done as we sit and talk.

      1. elkement says:

        I am sure these students working with you could call themselves fortunate, Maurice!!

  7. M. Hatzel says:

    You have described the winter (of my discontent) that I endured working remotely in a national chain of marketing magazines last year. Imagine 16 hour days in front of a computer, plugged into Skype with phone and texts, email and a non-stop barrage of problems hurling at you, all demanding a combination of psychological and creative problem solving, while under it all you need to CREATE content, based on research, and then still have the social skills to be a normal person. I had a heavy workload. One other editor had been assigned more, and she once joked that we needed an expense account to charge our purchases of adult diapers, so bathroom breaks could also be eliminated.

    It was indeed this: “I imagine it could feel like jumping from hyperlink to hyperlink and skimming texts instead of reading a long piece.”

    I completed in four months what I thought would take me eight months to do, and what most staff were given a year to accomplish. On my last week in the job I was talking to a parent at my daughter’s school who was also a nurse, and she told me to take two weeks just to sleep. She said I’d need at least 12 hours a night to start healing. It was excellent advice. As for my former colleague, I was glad to notice recently that her workload had eased up a bit, and I hope she is able to experience a normal life now.

    Thus, for me, the human-machine hybrid experiment failed. My body rejected the computer, and I think this is the underlying factor in deciding that I can’t do on-line marketing writing any more. I need a bit more space to be a human, with conversations that use my vocal chords. My husband is also trying to adapt to now having a desk job with all these on-going renovations.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Michelle! I can relate so much!! A few years ago (before I finally decided I wanted to work with more tangible, and more hands-on engineering stuff) I was also in ‘popup overload’ mode – having to deal with the corporate equivalents of status updates… all reporting errors and super urgent problems. THE main reason I shunned interactive social media for a long time any sort of popup reminded me of that. However, I was fully accountable as I said yes to each single engagement as a freelancer.

      Today I am still doing the same type of troubleshooting though – just working with fewer clients I have known since a very long time (self-selecting effect: The ones who don’t find this combination of IT and engineering services too odd). The weird things I am totally enjoying it now – I was actually even missing the thrill of it at the end of last year after I had cut off nearly the all the ties to my former world. Then, ‘magically’, the ‘perfect’ requests show up my inbox.

      I fully agree with the advice on sleep, too :-) From past stressful periods I feel you need about the half the time to cool as the stressful period took – so 1 year to really recovery from 2 crazy years. No sabbatical could ever cover that, so you need to change your life.

      As for the human-computer thing I am still exploring and testing. Connecting with heat pump clients online is great fun – I like this combination of down-to-earth and ‘virtual’.

      BTW – ‘technical comment’: It seems you can like comments here with a click as you have turned this feature on for your blog, but I cannot like yours (?) This is just to let you know – I like your comments despite I cannot to it ‘technically’.

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        I think my last winter of work came on the heels of a generalized burn-out period, and I didn’t quite connect that until your remark about saying yes to every opportunity. Using your ratio as a guide I feel a lot more comfortable with saying I need a bit more time for other things. However, it wasn’t much of an issue right now in my family life, as my husband is struggling again with a high level of demand. He couldn’t find the time in the day right now to look after himself, so he’s in full support of me easing up on work if I’m here to cook and wash his clothes. It’s easy to see, having gone through this, that he needs the support.

        I’m also in full observation mode, curious about the human-computer balance. It helps to have a garden again, and I actually like doing cleaning. I am trying to bring some other artisan/craft work into my daily life.

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