The Glass Cage: Automation and Us MP3 CD – Audiobook, MP3 Audio, Unabridged
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"Nicholas Carr is among the most lucid, thoughtful and necessary thinkers alive. The Glass Cage should be required reading for everyone with a phone" -- Jonathan Safran Foer "Written with restrained objectivity, The Glass Cage is nevertheless as scary as any sci-fi thriller could be" -- Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience "Nicholas Carr is the rare thinker who understands that technological progress is both essential and worrying. The Glass Cage is a call for technology that complements our human capabilities, rather than replacing them" -- Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody "A very necessary book, that we ignore at our peril. I read it without putting it down" -- Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and His Emissary "An important book ... deep and valuable" The Times --This text refers to the Paperback edition.
About the Author
Nicholas Carr is the author of The Shallows, a Pulitzer Prize finalist, as well as The Big Switch and Does IT Matter? His articles and essays have appeared in The Atlantic, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and the New Republic, and he writes the widely read blog Rough Type. He has been writer-in-residence at the University of California, Berkeley, and an executive editor of the Harvard Business Review.
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If you've not read The Shallows I recommend that you consider reading it first because many of the thoughts and ideas from it are continued, developed and extended in The Glass Cage. It's not a necessary prerequisite but it would enhance your appreciation of Carr's arguments.
Carr's central thesis can be summed up in a quote often attributed to Marshall McLuhan, "we shape our tools, and thereafter our tools shape us."
Carr's point, which he develops with many intriguing examples ranging from airline pilots, through doctors, photographers, architects, and even to farmers, is that this Faustian pact with technology comes at a cost. The cost, in Carr's view, is a loss of direct, experiential, formative contact with our work. The consequences of this slow loss of familiarity and connection with our work are subtle, insidious and will only increase while we follow this technocentric approach to automation.
Carr is excellent at making his case. Most of his examples are familiar and those that less so, such as the automation of legal and medical opinions are interesting in that they affect us all.
I felt that where Carr was less strong was in proposing solutions to the problems he raises. He works hard at explaining an alternative vision calling on the poetry of Robert Frost's as a springboard to a more humanistic approach to developing tools, but it is hard work selling an alternative to the easy, convenient future that so many of us seem to crave.
Ultimately it may be that Carr's biggest contribution will not be to single-handedly derail the future that Google, Apple, and Amazon wish to sell us, an exceedingly unlikely outcome, but to at least make us aware that there is a choice that we are making when we choose the frictionless path to the future, and that we should carefully consider that choice before we make it.
But what about that vast array of knowledge, accessible to all at the touch of a finger? While many still believe that it allows anyone to learn about anything instantly, in fact it seems to narrow the focus of the human being. You don't have to see or hear anything you don't already agree with; you increasingly self-segregate among like-minded people, existing inside a mirrored bubble that reflects only you. Add to that the usual uses of the digital device -- pop culture trivia, cute viral videos, endless porn, etc. -- and it turns out that very few people are actually expanding their knowledge & experience. They haven't grasped the difference between a constant stream of information bits & a wider, more coherent whole that those bits can create. They focus on the incredibly rich, detailed, shiny surface & never look below it ... and all too often, there's nothing beneath that surface for them, either, certainly nothing of real substance.
What Carr is finally exploring is just how much of our innate human potential we willingly & happily give up for the promise of ease & efficiency -- and it turns out that we get neither, not in the sense of becoming a more wholly developed human beings. Instead, more & more people settle for an simulation of human life, one that's fast, laden with sensation & instant gratification, but lacking in any depth. I'm reminded of an old science-fiction story by John Campbell entitled "Twilight" (circa 1934) -- in the far future, technological supremacy has made human life perfect, with every need & desire attended to with a mere thought ... but curiosity, active intelligence, and genuine quality of inner life have long since vanished. It's precisely this sort of future that Carr is warning us against, by reminding us that our bargain with technology may well be a Faustian one in which we gladly surrender what makes us truly human, all for the sake of shiny distractions. We already let devices do much of our remembering & even thinking for us -- how long before we let them do our feeling for us as well? Most highly recommended!
Carr gives many specific examples showing how automation is deskilling work, lulling us into inattention (sometimes at the cost of lives) and generally producing sub-optimal outcomes. Aviation accidents where pilots have relied too heavily on cockpit automation at the cost of both attentiveness and skill provide the most dramatic examples. However, Carr also points to the Inuit, a Canadian native tripe, that is now using GPS to hunt and as a result losing an ancient ability to navigate. Medicine provides other examples, including he failure of electronic medical records and the downsides of AI in medicine. He also looks at the problems that will arise when military robots and self-driving cars have to make moral decisions, including possibly who to kill.
Carr focuses almost entirely on the humanistic aspects of automation and gives only very limited attention to the question that probably is on most readers minds: What about jobs??? For more on that, I would suggest reading The Lights in the Tunnel: Automation, Accelerating Technology and the Economy of the Future, which offers a comprehensive look at the impact of robots, AI and other automation technology on jobs and the economy.
Carr offers a compelling argument against too much automation, and the book is very thought provoking. However, it gets a bit slow at times. The book grew out of an article that Carr wrote for the Atlantic, and like many books that are expanded versions of magazine articles it sometimes feels a bit stretched. In this case, the author even quotes quite a bit of poetry (something that most readers may or may not find appealing).
There is also the question of whether some of Carr's arguments are really backed by evidence. For example, he argues strongly against what he calls "technology-centered" automation, meaning automation that completely eliminates human input, and instead says we should design systems that keep people "in the loop." However, there is also evidence going the other way. For example in Super Crunchers: Why Thinking-By-Numbers is the New Way To Be Smart, Ian Ayres makes exactly the reverse argument, and shows evidence that algorithms alone outperform both human experts and human experts working in combination with computer algorithms. So it is less that clear what the data really shows here.
Any criticisms aside, this is an important book on a topic that will only become more relevant as computers and robots continue to become more advanced.
The issue I tend to have with much of the book is that its not really telling us anything we didn't know - If you don't practice a skill you won't maintain or develop that skill - while at the same time deflecting the extremely substantial value of moving the process of data management into standardized electronic formats. There isn't much discussion however about all those skills that most people don't have today that have now been relegated to machines that have actually benefited mankind greatly. For instance cloth making. Most people can now afford to have a variety of fitting clothes for a variety of settings without having to learn how to produce & sew cloth and then spend a huge amount of time crafting this into clothes or spending a large amount of money in purchasing clothes. This list could go on for pages.
On pg 55 its mentioned that a recent report suggested over half of recent air accidents were the result of degradation of situational awareness due to automation.
Did the writer already forget just a page earlier stating that between 1961-72 there was a death rate of 133 per million flyers but due to several factors including improved computerization and automation between 2002-11 with six times the number of flyers the rate had been reduced to only 2 per million? Yet he spends an inordinate amount of time coming back to these pilots who under rare conditions have actually been the ones responsible for crashes instead of the systems themselves.
This certainly isn't a very good argument for less computer control in planes.
On pg 93 Carr begins citing a RAND study that persuaded the government to subsidize electronic medical record keeping / billing. He goes on to cite that once implemented these systems ultimately were far less effective than the study anticipated and also far more expensive. Ok so automation is a big failure right? It would seem like that by how often he comes back to the digitization of medical records and support systems and how they supposedly undermine the process of diagnosing and billing patients.
However, just after mentioning the underwhelming results he at least dutifully notes that the original study was funded by the very same corporate interests that ended up benefiting from its implementation. Big surprise a private entity lobbies for government intervention and then profits from said intervention even if work provided is poor. Of course this is less reflective of the potential of a well designed system then it is of its designers. Here is a study on the actual billions of dollars the Pentagon has wasted just attempting many times to implement a materials management system http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/11/18/us-usa-pentagon-waste-specialreport-idUSBRE9AH0LQ20131118 This is literally something every other business on the planet uses on a daily basis. Just because one entity fails at it does not mean the concept is a failure.
Fortunately to some credit Carr at least acknowledge this but then attempts to take a detour next blaming the same systems for undermining Doctors ability to diagnose illnesses and providing quotes with strange criticisms of the system like :"how the format of electronic records can make it harder for doctors .....to find notes 'of interest' With paper records, doctors could use the "characteristic penmanship" of different specialist to quickly home in on critical information. Electronic records, with their homogenized format, erase such subtle distinctions"
"Characteristic Penmanship" ? Is this the same penmanship that has lead to so many incorrect prescriptions because no one can read it? This section becomes even more bizarre considering in the same portion of the book Carr at least brings up IBM's Watson computer which was able to beat the current Jeopardy world champions in real time with only spoken language input and has been pegged to eventually play a serious role in disease / illness diagnosis. Yet he continues on talking about the "art of medicine" - personally I would like medicine to be the subject of science not art. He also brings up how doctors sometimes need to make decisions in a matter of minutes without thinking - just automatically.
Of course this is a conflation between someone that works in a general practice and someone working in an ER type setting. It also fails to account for the millions of misdiagnosed patients each year of which tens of thousands die as a result http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/275565.php Again personally I look forward to a future where a computer can give me the same examination as a doctor but with consistently greater precision and can then cross reference that with my genetic profile and past medical history and an ever growing database of well reviewed medical knowledge to provide me with the best possible likely diagnoses available.
Unfortunately the majority of the book is like this, providing quotes that tend to portray any attempt at digital processing / management in a either a negative light or if it is a positive quote following it with an undermining editorial.
Near the end of the book there is a quote about an aboriginal tribe that would seem to sum up Carr's opinion on technology. The tribe had gotten to a point where they had plenty of food, water, shelter but the elders felt like if life was so easy there was no point and so they would have the tribe move every 30 years to stay happy overcoming the same challenges again. I feel like this perfectly sums up the repeating theme in this book that if your job is too easy there is no point in you using your mind ever. Of course this tribe completely ignored the enormous and diverse number of challenges they could have directed themselves towards like having a technical understanding and effective cures for all diseases, advanced medical treatments for injuries, understanding what those bright twinkly things are in the sky. The key to this tribes happiness was essentially destroying all the progress they had made just so they could overcome the same small challenges they had already overcame again and again instead of seeking out new ones to conquer.
Carr instead of seeing opportunities for people to seek out new greater challenges, maybe not in work but in their personal life as the great majority of us must, seems to characterize every advancement as some loss of a rather small obstacle that could bring someone joy in overcoming. In all his examples Carr only picks some of the most intellectually / disciplined jobs as examples and bemoans some sort of artificial lost of creativity in these fields. Doctors, architects, pilots, traders. The reality for most humans on the planet as it has been for a very long time is they have awful, soul crushing, frequently physically debilitating jobs where the thinking required has almost always been at a minimum. Automation is not responsible for making their jobs feel empty and soulless. The competition to make more & do more and send ever multiplying profits to a small minority of individuals is responsible.
A very real conversation about the impact of Big Data and Automation needs to be taking place right now at all levels of society from the laborer to the politician. The conversation Does Not need to be about "oh well this doesn't work very well right now so lets focus on other things" because for every automation problem right now there is many companies and individuals working towards solving it. One very worthwhile topic that needs to be seriously addressed is how are the economics of a world where only a fraction of the current workforce is required going to operate? We're approaching a future where the vast majority of jobs will be able to be done more efficiently and more accurately by computer controlled systems then any human will be able to. In the last few decades productivity has more than doubled in some areas of manufacturing yet wages have stayed the same if not actually went down - though the compensation for those at the top has increased by 10 - 40x http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/13/sunday-review/americas-productivity-climbs-but-wages-stagnate.html?_r=0 This has benefited the average consumer by making electronic goods more affordable, but has made a small number of individuals insanely wealthy. What will happen in a world though where a fraction of people are actually needed to do these jobs. Without the masses of employed consumers who will exist to take advantage of masses of cheaply manufactured goods?
Another worthy discussion is a realistic consideration of what life will be like in a future where every thing a person says and does in public, if not private also, can be recorded and stored for the lifetime of that person. What a world will be like where an expectation of privacy is nonexistent due to ubiquitous cheap, high quality audio/video recording devices in the hands of governments, individuals, and companies.
I want to see a real discussion of book length of these issues in a way that is strongly grounded in reality, without pandering or fear mongering, and with a strong understanding of the technical background of how these systems may be employed.
Carr could have went in a number of directions on the topic of automation but seemed to get stuck on the very near now reality that is essentially the infancy of pervasive computer automation with all its early flaws & quirks and never quite went any further.