The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr, W.W. Norton & Company, 288 pages, $26.95, Hardcover, September 2014, ISBN 9780393240764
Nicholas Carr writes beautiful, big-picture books on the history and future of technologies that have evolved alongside humanity. In The Glass Cage, his focus is on automation. The fundamental question, on which popular opinion seems to change with the economic winds, is whether the automated machines we design are labor-saving wonders that will lead us to a technical utopia of increasing leisure and prosperity, or whether they’re stealing our jobs and indenturing us in servitude.
The predominant opinion among economists has been that productivity gains generated by machines increase economic activity and create new jobs to replace those lost, ones that are generally not as dirty and physically demanding as the ones the machines took over. And that seems to have been the trend over the long term, with ebbs and flows (tough luck for those trying to find jobs in the ebbs), since the Industrial Revolution began. But the latest economic recovery has often been described as a “jobless” one, and automation may be a big reason why. Carr explains:
As industrial robots become cheaper and more adept, the gap between lost and added jobs will almost certainly widen. Even the news that companies like GE and Apple are bringing some manufacturing work back to the United States is bittersweet. One of the reasons the work is returning is that most of it can be done without human beings. … A company doesn’t have to worry about labor costs if it’s not employing laborers.
As we delegate more and more of our daily tasks at both home and work to machines, it’s no longer true that we give up only the rote and burdensome ones. And it’s not just that we will lose just our jobs and ability to perform basic tasks as a result, but that we lose the enjoyment that study after study reveals we get out of doing them.
Perhaps, as Carr writes when discussing Robert Frost’s formative years on his farm, years in which he produced his earliest and some say his best poetry “The burden of labor ease[s] the burden of life.” Carr’s writing is at its best here, and I won’t spoil it by quoting too much here, but I will suggest that had Frost been in a combine harvester instead of on the ground cutting hay with a scythe, the poetry Carr so eloquently expounds upon would have never happened. To borrow from another section to explain why, and to explain the book’s title:
The experience of pilots … reveals the subtle but often strong connection between the way automated systems are designed and the way the minds and bodies of the people using the systems work. The mounting evidence of an erosion of skills, a dulling of perception, and a slowing of reactions should give us all pause. As we begin to live our lives inside glass cockpits, we seem fated to discover what pilots already know: a glass cockpit can also be a glass cage.
And later on, when discussing how virtual reality applications, digital maps, and other tools we use to control our machines starve our other senses and “greatly restrict the movement of our bodies,” he follows up:
When we enter the glass cage, we’re required to shed much of our body. That doesn’t free us, it emaciates us.
What if the automation we’re creating does more, as Carr believes, to “pull us away from the world” than to invest us more directly in it? What will ease the burden of life if we create a world with no labor? Or, I suppose you could ask, what if idle hands really are the devil’s workshop? This is not to say that all automation is bad, but that we need to be more mindful of how we design, deploy, and employ it so that we’re truly benefitting from it mentally and emotionally, not just materially. As Carr writes:
The value of a well-made tool and well-used tool lies not in what it produces for us but what it produces in us.
Though important, it’s not enough to look at automation just in terms of employment, we have to look at it in terms of a fundamental and deeper human enjoyment and engagement. And we could all use a little more of that.
Dylan Schleicher is 800-CEO-READ’s Marketing and Editorial Director