Monday, December 22, 2014

The Time Of Our Lives

An old friend passed away recently. He was 59. I didn't know that he'd been ill, but that's not surprising since we had been out of touch for 20 years.

Rob and I (along with our brothers) spent six or seven years hanging out together in our teens. We rode motorbikes, water-skied and attended rock concerts. I remember racing our skidoos over frozen ponds and rivers and thinking the good times would never end. Given the reckless and crazy things we did, it's a wonder we survived.

If you had told me in my teens that I would go almost my entire adult life without having any contact with Rob, I would never had believed it. When you have friends in your youth, you just assume that you will remain friends forever.

When I was 25, I moved to England and when I returned home to Toronto a year later, Rob had moved to Alberta.  Over the next decade, Rob and I exchanged a few letters and phone calls. I last saw Rob at an Eagles concert in Toronto in 1994. As the months and years passed, careers and families exerted their pull and we drifted apart.

This got me thinking about what keeps friendships together.  It's caring and effort, of course. It's making time when deadlines and responsibilities loom. I wanted to visit Rob on several occasions but I never did. We only lived an hour apart and yet neither of us made the effort. What a shame. 

Rob was a smart guy with a razor-sharp wit. Many of his one-liners still echo inside my head, more than 30 years after he uttered them. He was someone whose opinions and worldview I found fascinating, intriguing, sometimes infuriating, but he remained true to himself. I always respected that about him.

Rob had a loving wife and five beautiful children. He was much admired at work and respected in his community. I'd like to think that his adult years as a husband and a father were happy and fulfilled, and I have no reason to think otherwise.

Over the years, I've often become nostalgic about our coming-of-age years, and I'm thankful for the time that Rob and I spent together. Those carefree years were precious and they're worth holding onto. Memories sustain us as we get older and provide a place of comfort and solace; but memories are fickle, too. I am often reminded of incidents in my past that I'd totally forgotten about, and I tell stories that others have forgotten. It's interesting how we embellish our personal narratives like a painter, dabbing details here and there, and erasing parts that don't belong.

Back in the 1970s, long before mobile phones and the Internet, long before careers and families, Rob and I (and our brothers) spent some unforgettable years roaming the trails and waterways at our cottages, discovering who we were. We didn't know then how those experiences would shape us and how they would ripen with age. Strange how (with the benefit of hindsight) those so-called misspent years wound up becoming among the best years of our lives.

In the film Stand By Me, there's a line typed by the narrator (played by Richard Dreyfuss) looking back at his younger self. He types, "I never had any friends later on like the ones I had when I was twelve. Jesus, does anyone?"

I'd like to think that Rob occasionally looked back on those glorious afternoons that we spent cruising along the lake with the wind in our faces; the autumn evenings spent reciting passages from Monty Python and the Holy Grail; and the endless hours spent riding dirt bikes through the forests. Ah, what times we had, what joy: I'd like to think that some of those memories left a mark and provided reasons for Rob to smile.

They continue to give me reasons to smile and I'll never forget them. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Are we ready for a fully automated future?

The Glass Cage, Automation and Us
By Nicholas Carr
Published by W.W. Norton & Company, 2014

Many writers and thinkers today (i.e., Clive Thompson) extol the wonders of our increasingly computerized and automated world. Others recognize the benefits of automation but sound a more cautious note about what all this technology is doing to us.

Nicholas Carr falls into the latter camp. In his latest book, The Glass Cage, Automation and Us, Carr presents a convincing argument about the effects of too much reliance on technology - in particular computers - in our lives. He concludes that notwithstanding the efficient, time-saving and dazzling features of these new technologies, most of us remain ambivalent about them.

The central thesis in The Glass Cage is how our reliance on automation has diminished our cognitive abilities to solve problems and think creatively. He makes the case that mastering a skill (flying a plane, designing a building, diagnosing an injury), requires years of practice and that learned skills can easily erode over time if not used regularly. As Carr explains:
"While we carry out a task or a job on our own, we seem to use different mental processes than when we rely on the aid of a computer. When software reduces our engagement with our work, and in particular when it pushes us into a more passive role as observer or monitor, we circumvent the deep cognitive processing...and we hamper our ability to gain the kind of rich, real-world knowledge that leads to know-how."
This over-reliance on computers and automation had led to serious diminishment of skills at work and at play. Carr examines airline pilots, cruise ship captains, architects, Inuit hunters, Wall Street traders, healthcare workers and lawyers, whose professions have been seriously impacted by technology in recent decades, and not always for the better.

Some professionals have recognized this cognitive deficiency and have taken steps to address it. For example, architects utilize CAD design software for creating models and renderings of buildings, and experts feel that an over-dependency on that software hinders the creative process. In an effort to achieve greater creativity and explore new thought processes, some architects now use free-hand drawings to sketch out ideas before inputting their work into a computer. They feel that they are more engaged with their work when they create by freehand as opposed to using a computer.

The Glass Cage also provides a historical timeline about the rise of automation in the workplace, starting with the mechanization of textile mills and factories in the England in the early 19th century to the automated assembly lines at the Ford Motor Company in the mid-1940s, to the computer-aided airplanes, automobiles and electronic record keeping at hospitals today. The march of technology in these areas has not been without criticism, including fear of job losses and loss of control over one's life.

But the looming question Carr asks is what are we losing in the process of automating our lives. Is speed, efficiency and convenience a defensible trade-off for a reduced capacity to think creatively and critically? Are we ready for pilot-less airplanes and autonomous cars? Do quicker computer programs and more idleness lead to fuller or emptier lives?

These are huge questions that artists, educators, professionals, business leaders, politicians and citizens will grapple with in the years and decades ahead. The Glass Cage is not an anti-technology diatribe - it merely outlines a set of poignant facts and case studies of how increased computing power and automation are impacting our lives.

For those concerned about mastering a skill and the ability to think clearly, and those wondering where all this technology is taking us, this is a book for you.