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. 

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