Sunday, 18 January 2015

The Glass Cage - Nicholas Carr

Title: The Glass Cage                                                   
Author: Nicholas Carr   
ISBN: 978-0-393-24076-4
Publisher: Norton
Pages: 276
Photographs/Maps: 0 

There are two well known axioms that are often used to describe the human condition: "Knowledge is power" and "That which does not kill you, makes you stronger". Both seem, on the surface, to be both logical and unassailable; however, Carr's work, The Glass Cage, challenges the notion that the advancement of technology and its assumption of greater importance and a more central role in every facet of our lives, is making us stronger or more powerful as a society. 

Carr's central theme suggests that the advancement of automation in the world has not only made our lives easier in the sense that many of the mundane tasks that used to occupy our time are now accomplished by computers, but that it has also progressed to the point where the level of automation is no longer an enhancement of but a replacement for mankind. Human kind has now become a monitor/spectator to many of our daily activities.  

He draws upon a number of studies from a variety of disciplines that point to a gradual but marked decline in the capacity of humans to fend and think for themselves. Writing programs have autocorrect functions, shopping has targeted advertising, aircraft are automated such that pilots need only monitor, medicine has automated diagnostic systems, factories create systems that require little to no interface with human operators and gaming systems/communication technologies remove us further from actual face to face interaction. Carr acknowledges that, in and of themselves, these are not all negative advances and that there are practical benefits to be gained from applying technology. However, he suggests, given the gradual, insidious nature of the reliance that society has come to have on technology, that it has repercussions not only from an employment/societal perspective but also from a physical and psychological evaluation of who we are as humans. 

Carr presents that as we diminish our requirement to learn and, just as importantly, practise what we learn, our brains are undergoing physical change and, in some respects, atrophying; the same may be said for our ability to communicate and interact. These skills, like any, need to be used or they are lost. Carr backs up his assertions with practical examples and reference to numerous studies from the fields of medicine, ergonomics and psychology. 

He also, contends that the advent of technology as a replacement for the human in an equation is having the more subtle effect of raising the question of what is our role in the world. Are pilots still pilots if they are not physically flying the airplane and, as some may argue, they are no longer required in the cockpit at all? What is the role of a machinist if they are merely monitoring the equipment producing the good and what training and expertise do they really require?  

The West has become imbued with the idea that technology is a good thing and that there is little that it cannot do given time and development. While this may be true Carr advises that the computer works in the world of absolutes and has difficulty when faced with issues requiring subjective evaluation. He uses as an example the case where a driverless car must decide whether to hit a child who has run into the street or swerve into oncoming traffic thereby causing an accident that potentially kills its passengers. Additionally, the computer is only as good as the information and programming that goes into it. There are examples of technologies that are able to 'learn' and this will inevitably improve in the future but for now there are still some significant limitations on this ability. 

Why is all of this relevant to the leader of the future? I would contend that the further we remove ourselves from interaction with people and the practical world around us, the less capable we will be at dealing with situations and circumstances requiring decision making and those where the technological resources are not available. How well do we function today without smart phones and the internet? Technological development is not a bad thing but like anything it must be understood in the broader context of its impact. As a society we are driving forward without fully appreciating all of the ramifications of the tools that we have developed. Carr's book is a good read and presents a compelling argument for really asking ourselves what it is that we expect from technology and how do we, as humans, fit into that paradigm.

No comments:

Post a Comment