We Should Get Lost Sometimes – Nicholas Carr on Automation and Us

The Glass Cage is about automation’s human consequences. It is not intended to be your typical book about robots taking our jobs for better or for worse.

Carr gives an intriguing account of the history of automation and robotics nonetheless – from Luddites to Google’s self-driving cars. What we have known intuitively is backed up by research: We cannot all fund robotics startups, and the number of new jobs created through automation has always been low. In spite of success stories of people ‘making money online’ it is the providers of infrastructure (the ones Jaron Lanier calls Siren Servers) who actually make money. Technology changes faster than humans do, taking a ride on Moore’s law – but Carr is not a believer in technology that will automagically serve all humankind:

It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth-redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing leisure-time pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

He wonders why Google has mastered to build a self-driving car – a task once considered too difficult to be automated by any computer ever – but yet didn’t develop software that stops people from texting while driving. Perhaps because stopping distractions would run counter their business agenda?

More disturbing than the effect on employment is the way automation may impact our skills, illustrated by the history of avionics. We have come a long way since …

… the deep entanglement between human and mechanism was an elemental source of flying’s thrill,

… and pilots felt physical feedback from the machine. The books starts with a personal anecdote about Carr’s missing the sense of control and involvement when driving an automatic.

The Glass Cage is a poetic metaphor for the pilot’s cockpit. Carr returns to a topic he had dwelt upon in The Shallows: the role of maps and clocks as an essential layer put between us and space or the flow of time. In glass-cage-like workplaces former machine operators or soldiers turn into technicians reading and manipulating representations of the world. Automation and tools done right would still give us the feeling to be in control. Electronic airplane controls should rather resemble the older mechanical controls. Clunky yokes that provide sensory information let the pilot feel physical resistance – and are superior to sci-fi-style joysticks. Carr distinguishes between tools that work like mechanical extensions to our body – using the scythe as a prime example – and software-based technology that is experienced as a kind of implacable, alien force that lies beyond our control and influence. Quoting from a 1910 book on aeronautics, designing a plane to be operated is

… a trade-off between stability and maneuverability. The greater a plane’s stability, the harder it becomes for the pilot to exert control over it.

Pioneers as the Wright Brothers voted for a plane unstable as a bicycle, giving the pilot utmost freedom. Carr tries to do technology optimists justice – he is never sarcastic or derisive. He traces the hopes put into ‘software’ back to philosopher Alfred North Whitehead:

“Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.” Whitehead wasn’t writing about machinery. He was writing about the use of mathematical symbols to represent ideas or logical processes— an early example of how intellectual work can be encapsulated in code. But he intended his observation to be taken generally.

‘Automation’ can thus be understood in a very broad sense. I have written about Newton’s geometrical proofs that even Richard Feynman found very hard to reproduce. Now we have been spoilt by the elegant code-like symbols of calculus. Do really miss out if we not haven’t acquired such ancient skills? Carr believes so as we are human beings made to interact with the world directly, not via a cascade of devices and abstractions. A physics professor who has embarked on “a self-imposed program to learn navigation through environmental clues”  finally concluded that the way he viewed the world had palpably changed. Architects felt that they needed to stay away from electronic help or bring in the computer late so that the creative process is not (mis-)guided too early. A photographer tells his story of returning to the darkroom as he felt that the painful manual process forces him to make more conscious and deliberate choices – with a deep, physical sense of presence. The main point here is that these are not sentimental crusaders but people who simply wanted to do their jobs well.

… the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited to our purposes and intentions than the old thing.

Skills that come easy to an expert are learned the hard way: Pilots’ skills correlate with the time they have spent flying without the aid of automation. Neuroscience provides evidence of dedicated assemblies of neurons developed by such deliberate practice. Automation would remove complexity from jobs and thus opportunities to hone our skills. A recurring theme of the book is how automation erodes what makes us human in the best way – even if we might object: Carr quotes surprising findings by Csikszentmihalyi (of The Flow fame). When people were polled about their current mood at various time they …

… were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours. In their free time, they tended to feel bored and anxious. And yet they didn’t like to be at work.

Psychologists call this unfortunate desire for what you ‘actually’ don’t want miswanting. One explanation is that people might pretend to prefer leisure over work as this is the socially acceptable behavior. An ethnographer confirmed Csikszentmihalyi’s theory by giving an account of an ancient tribe:

The Shushwaps did not have to wander to survive. They built villages and developed “elaborate technologies for very effectively using the resources in the environment.” They viewed their lives as good and rich. But the tribe’s elders saw that in such comfortable circumstances lay danger. “The world became too predictable and the challenge began to go out of life. Without challenge, life had no meaning.” And so, every thirty years or so, the Shushwaps, led by their elders, would uproot themselves.

If I had to pick the main virtue venerated in this book – it would be accountability. The soldier dropping a bomb via clicking a mouse feels less responsible.

The congeniality of hand tools encourages us to take responsibility for their use.

The outlook on future wars is gloomy: Automated weapons may save lives, but may at the same time increase the likelihood of wars – just because of that. Machines effectively make moral decisions in everyday life already: Robotic lawn mowers already do it when not sparing small animals a human operator might have spotted.

Who determines what the “optimal” or “rational” choice is in a morally ambiguous situation? Who gets to program the robot’s conscience? Is it the robot’s manufacturer? The robot’s owner? The software coders? Politicians? Government regulators? Philosophers? An insurance underwriter?

I believe that ‘futurists’ might not be convinced though. What Nicholas Carr considers specifically human and worth being protected might strike tech enthusiasts as a shortcoming to be fixed by extending and transforming our bodies and minds. Critics might say Carr resorts to poetry in the last chapter in order to circumvent these questions elegantly. The physicist turned stone-age pathfinder said that …

… “primal empiricism,” struck him as being “akin to what people describe as spiritual awakenings.”

Which is something you can either relate to immediately and intuitively, or dissect it analytically. It strikes a chord with me, but trying to explain it any further leads to Wittgenstein-y struggling with reality:

Only through work that brings us into the world do we approach a true understanding of existence, of “the fact.” It’s not an understanding that can be put into words.

Google’s self-driving cars challenge the distinction between explicit knowledge – that can be cast into code (or words) – and tacit intuitive knowledge of processes. It seems that that this artificial boundary is pushed more and more into the realm of the so-called genuinely human. Carr uses a sonnet by Robert Frost called ‘Mowing’ to demonstrate that

a poet’s scrutiny of the world can be more subtle and discerning than a scientist’s.

As a scythe enthusiast I am biased but he really couldn’t have chosen a better example:

It was no dream of the gift of idle hours,
Or easy gold at the hand of fay or elf:
Anything more than the truth would have seemed too weak
To the earnest love that laid the swale in rows

Again, I think these lines will perhaps not speak to modern life hackers. Domestic automation would turn our homes more into workplaces – programmed, and dominated by metrics. We apply the

the bureaucratic ideals of speed, productivity, and standardization to our relations with others.

Algorithms collect data that lend themselves to quantitative analysis. Our formerly ‘continuous’ selves are turned into a collection of disjointed junks presented on social medias timelines which deprives us of options for changing our minds and thus for personal growth. Again I remember the proverbial clock from The Shallows, discretizing time. Making technology invisible and unobtrusive is not a solution but just the final stage of a gradual development:

It obscures the way we’ve refashioned ourselves to accommodate the technology.

I have adopted technology as a professional, but sometimes also to respond to changes in the way we socialize today with everyone expecting to manage their lives through screens. Technology, especially networked one, fundamentally changes society. Already the power grid had a subtle impact on engineering culture, business culture, production, and finally living. You cannot fool yourself, and remain independent and self-sufficient in your spare time and just use technology if you have to. Carr states that self-reliance was once considered the mainstay of character. He advocates getting lost sometimes in contrast to Google Maps’ visions:

“No human ever has to feel lost again.” That certainly sounds appealing, as if some basic problem in our existence had been solved forever. And it fits the Silicon Valley obsession with using software to rid people’s lives of “friction.” But the more you think about it, the more you realize that 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. It is also to live in a state of dependency, a ward of your phone and its apps.

I read Walden at about the same time as Carr’s book – and I am reminded of this quote by Thoreau:

It is a surprising and memorable, as well as valuable experience, to be lost in the woods any time. … In our most trivial walks, we are constantly, though unconsciously, steering like pilots by certain well-known beacons and headlands, and if we go beyond our usual course we still carry in our minds the bearing of some neighboring cape; and not till we are completely lost, or turned round—for a man needs only to be turned round once with his eyes shut in this world to be lost—do we appreciate the vastness and strangeness of nature. … Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.

I can relate, your mileage may vary.

17 Comments Add yours

  1. Been drifting, but I’m still around. After four years at art college and then a degree in philosophy, I was a person with no commercial potential, as Frank Zappa would say, and I got a job on the railway and eventually became a locomotive engineer. Point being, back in the day, the brake valve was very physical – you felt the slide, you heard the blow, and you felt the brakes set up on your train. The ten thousand feet of train was like your spine, it might have been draped over a hill or coming out of a dip, and you took out the appropriate amount of air for a brake that worked. New engines were simulations of the physical experience, but I think new locomotive engineers will figure it out and take whatever clues they can find. But still I wonder, what if I couldn’t hear that my vacuum cleaner has grabbed a piece of string? McLuhan said our tools are an extension of ourselves. I hope we remain sufficiently adaptable.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Steve! I think your example would be much to Carr’s liking. And if I recall correctly he also quoted McLuhan.

      I am actually a bit wary about cars driven by electrical energy for such reasons!

  2. I finished the book last night and, with the exception of the last chapter, which was all a bit of a stretch, mostly saw the sense in what he was saying. For me there were two main take-aways. First, the essential message about automation and how it’s generally deskilling us is valid. More importantly, though, the whole concept casts doubt on what things we should do since many of our things have been automated. Golf? Lie in the sun and read? For me that sort of vision is one that just does not work. The whole notion that an automated world leaves us free to pursue higher interests holds no water at all. As was mentioned in the book, and as you have asserted yourself several times (you mentioned a scythe a few posts back too) there’s comfort to be had from certain tasks that could be automated. I like to cook, I don’t own a dishwasher and do all the dishes in my house, don’t mind doing the laundry—and do a lot of it and frequently clean up around the house—all tasks that can be automated. I choose to do them manually, just because I want to.
    I should also mention that before reading this I had some hope that self-driving cars might solve the issues associated with distracted driving. Now I see things differently.
    The second main take away occurred to me while reading the stuff about Google and Facebook’s concept about packaging us for their use. My first reaction was rage. Those arrogant, self-centered but in the end small-minded silicon valley billionaires only see us all as something t be exploited and their views about our wants and our privacy are, in the end, nothing more than self-serving excuses for what they do. Privacy is inconvenient to them so they assert it is a non-issue and hope we go along with it. Perhaps people will but I, for one, will be quite glad when their crap falls from favour and people start to reassert control over their own lives instead of just handling it all over to those immature, greedy single-minded zealots.
    Finally I could not help but chuckle at the thought of just how stupid what they are doing really is. Two and a half years ago I was in the market for a new phone and in the end selected a galaxy s3 (it proved to be a good choice). A month or so after I had it, facebook finally figured out from my behaviours and cookies that I was looking for and started hitting me with ads for—yes—a Galaxy S3. Too late 
    It happened again when I bought a new DSLR. About a month after I bought it I started getting ads for a Canon T3i. Same thing when I bought a zoom lens for it.
    And again after I bought a new umbrella on Amazon—every site that used cookies started hitting me up with just the one I bought. How foolish!
    What’s the most silly, though, is that those so-called geniuses think I am a single-minded, internally-consistent being. They assume that my past is a good indication of my present and future. How foolish! On Sunday I may be interested in Football. On Monday it will be the farthest thing from my mind. On Tuesday I may dislike the Conservative party and on Wednesday my anger may be directed at the Liberals. I, along with everyone else on this planet, am a complex often chaotic being and, as such, cannot ever be properly pigeonholed. Amazon, Facebook and Google—your ad strategy will always be a waste of time when used on me.
    I enjoyed Carr’s book very much, though, despite it’s little problems. So much so that I’m already halfway through “The Shallows” and am unable to put it down. I’m only here writing this because my Tablet just ran out of juice :-)

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice for the comment that should be a post in its own right :-)

      I have noticed Facebook’s / amazon’s / whatever shop’s data sharing, too. Whenever I have just booked a flight or a hotel or bought something I see the ads for just that – although right now chances are lowest that I will need to purchase the same thing again. So much for intelligent algorithms :-)

      I have rewritten the section about work versus leisure etc. often – and deleted much of that as I tried to do a real book review this time and not go off on tangents. I think what kills the benefits of work (in terms of “flow”) is if results are meticulously forecasted, measured, and reviewed (and low-performers / high-performers treated accordingly) as it is very often the case in today’s corporations.
      The self-sufficient farmer with the scythe is such a good example as he really works for himself, and there is a very simply feedback loop a- a simple connection between real necessity, work, and reward. Working in order to meet a weird set of – often mathematically inconsistent – metrics totally can remove “the flow” from the work no matter how interesting it would be on principle and how skillful you can do the task. Csikszentmihalyi was quite a pioneer and those developments are rather recent ones (concluding from my anecdotal evidence re organizations with whom I have been affiliated with and whose history I know) – so I am not sure if his research would really reflect this.

  3. True, Technology is a blade that cuts both ways. Better learn how to use it, to make it cut the way you want it to.

    1. elkement says:

      Absolutely – that’s what I have always done, but I think it requires consistent scrutiny and vigilance.

  4. I agree with Dan that there’s lot to ‘unpack’ here. I especially liked your reference to neurobiology and what a lack of complex stimulation might do to the development of neural networks in our future. Will we get dumber? I do not think so. Knowledge isn’t something that is coded for in our DNA … and as such, isn’t the stuff of natural selection. Now, the capacity to form networks, and learn, is genetic, and subject to selection. So, if we don’t push ourselves to learn then, perhaps, we will lose something of that capacity. Similar to loosing muscle mass if you don’t exercise. Again … knowledge cannot be genetically coded, it is not part of the genotype … it is phenotypic but not genetically coded. It is that innate capacity to learn that may be lost. If we don’t use it, we’ll lose it. But only if it acts as genetic baggage. Knowledge is something which is socially and culturally coded (passed along, nongenetically). So, all of this points to the involvement of the social and cultural networks that foster knowledge and improvements in it. This is all so complicated – my head hurts. I hope my observation has been an appropriate response to your post. I find that sometimes I can see a particular word or a particular sentence and then become myopically focused on its significance rather than on the broader implications of the remainder of the post. Sorry if I got off track. D

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dave – I usually jump onto something specific when I read a post ;-)

      “all of this points to the involvement of the social and cultural networks that foster knowledge and improvements in it” – I agree, and I think many of the skills that Carr considers valuable are about to be lost as they are not any more fostered by culture. Tech optimists might say we don’t have to (scythe, repair things, whatever) – because you can google a video for anything. What is often forgotten is that such instructions are made by people who have grown up with the old tradition.

  5. danielmullin81 says:

    Excellent review, Elke. There’s a lot to unpack there. You already mentioned philosophers Whitehead and Wittgenstein, but the post also brought to mind the Marxist idea of alienation from labor, which Marx associated with the partial automation of the Industrial Revolution. We’ve gone well beyond that now. Although certainly not a Marxist myself, he was on to something here.

    With respect to work and leisure, maybe jobs will simply become more technical such that labor jobs disappear, but machine-support jobs will increase. With respect to freedom from work, however, I’m not sure I agree with Carr entirely that a massive system of governmental redistribution of wealth is the only way to bring about a life of leisure for the masses. Why couldn’t technology like 3D printing privatize manufacturing and make intellectual property obsolete by sharing information online. Once material objects can be digitized, I think we’re on our way to something like the futurist vision of extending the leisure class to everyone. Whether that would make people happy or not is, of course, a very different question.

    Also, the idea of machine ethics is quite interesting, especially as machines acquire more autonomy. It’s also not a straightforward task to program ethics into machines. Even an allegedly straightforward consequentialist ethical system may have unforeseen consequences as those working on AI can attest.

    Again, great review!

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Dan! Yes, I have read Marx (as I believed as a Subversive Element I had to :-)), and I can remember reading about alienation in Erich Fromm’s books. Even though our ‘knowledge work’ should be much more fulfilling than working in Taylorists’ factories I sometimes felt that people are still more alienated than psychologists expect. I know I am bringing up that cliché again and again – but too many IT / white collar / ‘management’ guys confessed their dreams to me, about working with something more tangible and simple again.

      Carr does not develop a complete economical theory about how future tech unemployment might be solved but focuses more on if we would be happy. Others, like Lanier, are more radical here, in denying the positive aspects of the interconnected economy that makes only the Facebooks and amazons rich – and perhaps the operators of platforms for sharing 3D printing designs. I think it will lead to more pronounced ‘Mediocristan versus Extremistan’ effects – as a few guys get famous and rich with their Youtube videos or iPhone apps there might be some super heroes of 3D printing.

      I can only argue based on anecdotal evidence – I often stumble upon innovative / ‘crazy’ ideas in renewable energy. Some turn into superstars, amplified by social media hype and black-swan-type coincidences, and some are just pursued as a hobby or as NGOs… and share freely what the others keep a trade secret that gives them competitive advantage. Perhaps this is just a transitory state, and a true sustainable sharing economy will emerge – perhaps after some more major crises of the economical system.

  6. I broke down and read your piece. I know I said I would not but my poor undisciplined mind could not resist. I do like the way you have responded to the book and certainly look forward to the parts I have left to read. I’ll be back for a real comment once that’s done :-) Oh, and I’m glad I came as I enjoyed your post.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks, Maurice – I hope I haven’t added too much spoilers :-)

  7. Joseph Nebus says:

    This may seem a touch afield but I wonder if there’s a link to the recent resurgence that pinball has had. The link to a game in which it isn’t merely pictures on screens moving around but rather a real object moving with all the strangeness of real things seems to be particularly captivating these days. I do have to wonder if that’s linked to a certain restlessness that so much is a picture anymore.

    1. elkement says:

      An interesting comment, Joseph!! Carr mentions video games as one positive aspect in software invading our lives as those help us developing new skills… as they are designed to challenge us but not to make our lives more convenient. So I think “virtual” pinball might be similar to real pinball.

      I agree with you – mechanical contraptions have become trendy again! More people than I had expected pick an old-fashioned phone ringer as their cell phone’s ring-tone, and I have seen many viral articles of intriguing mechanical things – very similar to the hackneyed mad professor’s one… a marble traversing an odd path and triggering various other devices…

  8. M. Hatzel says:

    This is an excellent post, Elke. I love the blending you’ve done of poets and Carr’s ideas. I read Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning (1959) recently and I marked his discussion on the ‘existential vacuum’… had a feeling you might land within this discussion again. Here’s what he wrote about the state of modern life as it meets ‘progressive automation’:

    No instinct tells him [man] what to do, and no tradition tells him what he ought to do; sometimes he does not even know what he wishes to do. Instead, he either wishes to do what other people do (conformism) or he does what other people wish him to do (totalitarianism).

    Ultimately, Frankl believed that the work of finding meaning within our lives would help us escape this vacuum. (An idea that Carl Jung also shared… both Jung and Frankl argued that following our individual purpose in life was the only responsible (accountable) way to live; both were speaking in response to WWII in the aftermath of fascism.)

    For me personally, I find myself questioning the role of the intellect and academic learning in narrative-creation. To live as Frankl, Jung, and maybe Carr suggest, the most accountable means is to live the stories we tell. Perhaps modern writers–the kind who pursue the MA and PhD programs then live by teaching writing as they write their books–too easily collect philosophies and conform to them, reiterating something they don’t necessarily feel, nor can prove through personal experimentation. I say this without contempt, as I would have chose this way, too, once. But I find, now, that I love the poets like Frost and Thoreau above all, as they in particular stand out as writers who lived by their hands and lived the work of their stories.

    1. elkement says:

      Thanks a lot, Michelle, for the the thoughtful comment … and for the feedback. It is quite humbling (for me) to write a posting about a book by such a skillful writer, and I have re-written it several times.

      This is so spot on – as I actually had a paragraph in an earlier version of this post in which I had referred to Frankl. I had been a die-hard Frankl fan in high school – he was one of my intellectual heroes, also because he was a medical doctor *and* a philosopher, and he had a down-to-earth sense of humor, too. The latter is maybe not obvious from some of his writings (I have only read his books in German), but I had seen some interviews and read books by one of his students who anecdotes about him.

      I can relate to the question you bring up in the last paragraph as I felt sometimes torn between being a commentator or a reviewer and a hands-on ‘doer’. It would be interesting to know how Carr himself would reply to this as I guess (and I think I can read this between the lines, as in The Shallows) he also struggled with that question. I guess every writer concerned with such topics does?

      One possible way to reconcile this was (for me) to recognize that in this day and age consolidation of existing knowledge might have become more important than creating original work, inventing something etc. – so the ‘writer’ is not just a commentator, but also an ‘active curator’ … a role not be underestimated given the growing body of ‘Information’.

      1. M. Hatzel says:

        Oops… I accidently undid my reply. I will try to recreate it: I have Frankl in translation, by Ilse Lasch, and the text does reflect a wonderful sense of humour. I am not sure how it would compare to the German original, but I felt the writing contains a lovely, rich voice. I very much enjoyed the book.

        I like what you have said about the role of curator and consolidator. I agree this is significant work… and the original comes with the critique, I guess. What gives me pause, and did in the past, is the growing trend in publishing that most literary writers are from the academic world. Literary people now seem to have spent their lives getting Ph.D.s, and then stay teaching within the academy. As a writer who reads these works, I feel perplexed by how this has come about. Is this what is wanted by publishers? Or, is this the only kind of writing available to publishers because this is what people with literary interests do these days? I was thinking about writing a post on this at some point, but I don’t think I’ll state in it that this trend is making literature not only stale and elitist, but highly inbred.

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