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'The Glass Cage' asks: Will automation rob us of our skills?

Nicholas Carr wonders how human beings will learn to enjoy technology – without losing the edge that comes from striving.

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    The Glass Cage: Automation and Us,
    by Nicholas Carr,
    W.W. Norton & Co.,
    288 pp.
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Will smart phones, tablets, and applications imprison us in a “frictionless world”? Do devices and programs dull our senses? Are we – as tech critics sometimes suggest – outsourcing our brains?

These questions are posed by Nicholas Carr in The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a thoughtful extension of some of the questions raised in his 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist, “The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains.” “The Glass Cage” is smart, insightful, and at times funny, as it takes readers through a series of anecdotes, academic research, and current and historical events to paint a portrait of a world readily handing itself over to intelligent devices.

Opening with his struggle to master a stick-shift car as a teenager, Carr describes how, at first, he was befuddled by the manual transmission, causing his car to buck, lurch, and stall. But when he finally gets a long-coveted automatic car, Carr’s pleasure is fleeting. He misses the work. With an automatic car, he feels “a little less like a driver and a little more like a passenger.”

The story serves as a touchstone for Carr’s thesis: When tasks are automatized, we lose the beneficial struggle inherent in the honing of expertise.
In a chapter titled “On Autopilot,” Carr describes the earliest days of airplane automation, beginning 100 years ago when an American pilot flew a Curtiss C-2 biplane near the banks of the Seine in Paris with no hands on the controls, relying instead on a “gyroscopic stabilizer apparatus.” Not only was it a celebrated event, but it also set the stage for a rapid intertwining of flight and automation.

Fast-forward to the 21st century and the setting looks a little different. Carr tells how pilots have in many ways become glorified machine operators. While airplanes may now be safer, Carr shows how we have also seen the rise of “automation-induced errors,” or problems that follow when flight crews lean too heavily on software.

Zooming out to examine all aspects of modern existence affected by automation, the landscape looks bleak. Yet Carr is no Luddite. What he seeks is a different path to our interaction with automation, one that allows for speed and efficiency without the loss of skills and expertise.

But here Carr’s argument is weakest. Though he cites numerous ways both software and hardware developers are trying to build programs that work with and enhance people’s abilities rather than replace them, the possible solutions pale in comparison to the problems he pinpoints.

Carr is at his best when emphasizing that technology, when used well, can enhance people’s skills, not hinder them. Carr admits, however, that the natural response is to crave devices that replace tasks entirely. Why study any kind of map or compass when Google Maps knows the route? The problem, Carr points out, is that we may never truly know where we are.

Learning to lead automated lives that still allow the development and growth of creative cognitive output is the most intriguing dilemma Carr poses to readers. Is an easy life – but one in which a person is trapped within a glass cage, able to see the world outside without ever truly engaging in it – actually a fulfilling life?

Carr’s book succeeds not because it gives answers, but because it furthers a necessary conversation. The necessity of slow learning and hard work will never leave us, even in an automated world.

Jacob Axelrad is a Monitor staff writer.

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