The Glass Cage, Carr

I’m a sucker for the larger historical contexts of technology and culture. This book didn’t disappoint. I’m finding these types of books, where the author takes a contemporary idea and does a bunch of research and then writes a book to be less interesting than books with original ideas that are then supported with research. In this light I think Matthew Crawford’s book (The World Beyond your Head) is bit more on point.

The ideas around autonomous vehicles in transportation were interesting – cars and airplanes. This is the hot topic in technology culture right now. I thought the book was weak in the exploration of automation of cognitive work – the medical records and legal professions. This is most likely due to there being a dearth of writing about loss of white collar jobs to automation… from memory I think the trader (human) in the example of electronic trading algorithms was the most interesting. Same concept in a different context (speed) was the example of warfighting. It made me think of an example where there could be a war/conflict between two nation states’ autonomous systems that could occur overnight and the result would be that the losing sides economy collapses the next day and no one would know what happened.

He never mentioned Metropolis for some reason.

I liked focus on ‘generative thinking”. I thought about the distinction between something like a VR environment, immersive and complete (according to the creator) and something like a command line game or even a board game where the environment and immersive aspect need to be filled in by the consumer/player – this is more of a co-creative exercise. This idea can be taken out to really any physical / virtual interaction. It’s the core idea that Carr returns to at the end of the book with a line from Robert Frost’s poem, Mowing:

The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.

We rarely look to poetry for instruction anymore, but here we see how a poet’s scrutiny of the world can be more subtle and discerning than a scientist’s. Frost understood the meaning of what we now call “flow” and the essence of what we now call “embodied cognition” long before psychologists and neurobiologists delivered the empirical evidence. His mower is not an airbrushed peasant, a romantic caricature. He’s a farmer, a man doing a hard job on a still, hot summer day. He’s not dreaming of “idle hours” or “easy gold.” His mind is on his work— the bodily rhythm of the cutting, the weight of the tool in his hands, the stalks piling up around him. He’s not seeking some greater truth beyond the work. The work is the truth.

It’s the cognitive work that humans do to fill in the blanks of reality. I think there’s some philisophical underpinning here but I don’t know what it is – maybe William James? or maybe Rihanna. Work work work.

The mental act of generation improves people’s ability to carry out activities that, as education researcher Britte Haugan Cheng has written, “require conceptual reasoning and requisite deeper cognitive processing.”

I think one of his main premises is that embodied cognition is what makes us human and when we relegate tasks to an autonomous system, we become “less human”. I’ve been falling into the cognitive bias lately of gravitating toward every automation news article lately and I’m beginning to see them as overhyped in general. There are definitely concrete economic indicators that automation is replacing many jobs, but I think in general the current frenzy is tapping into the deeply held fear of some kind of Skynet fiction.

Both complacency and bias seem to stem from limitations in our ability to pay attention. Our tendency toward complacency reveals how easily our concentration and awareness can fade when we’re not routinely called on to interact with our surroundings. Our propensity to be biased in evaluating and weighing information shows that our mind’s focus is selective and can easily be skewed by misplaced trust or even the appearance of seemingly helpful prompts. Both complacency and bias tend to become more severe as the quality and reliability of an automated system improve.

There has been quite a bit of discussion about Guaranteed Basic Income as a future possibility of automation. Carr doesn’t seem to think that’s a realistic possibility. I’m less critical. In this aspect, it think there could be market forces to fill the need to idle hours of people with massive amounts of free time. In fact I think there could be a new renaissance in arts and culture – this could be the new work that replaces the hours at a desk or in a factory.

There’s a callousness to such grandiose futurism. As history reminds us, high-flown rhetoric about using technology to liberate workers often masks a contempt for labor. It strains credulity to imagine today’s technology moguls, with their libertarian leanings and impatience with government, agreeing to the kind of vast wealth-redistribution scheme that would be necessary to fund the self-actualizing leisure-time pursuits of the jobless multitudes.

The “choose your own adventure” autonomous future that I found comforting was the idea of adaptive automation:

One of the most intriguing applications of the human-centered approach is adaptive automation. In adaptive systems, the computer is programmed to pay close attention to the person operating it. The division of labor between the software and the human operator is adjusted continually, depending on what’s happening at any given moment. When the computer senses that the operator has to perform a tricky maneuver, for example, it might take over all the other tasks. Freed from distractions, the operator can concentrate her full attention on the critical challenge. Under routine conditions, the computer might shift more tasks over to the operator, increasing her workload to ensure that she maintains her situational awareness and practices her skills. Putting the analytical capabilities of the computer to humanistic use, adaptive automation aims to keep the operator at the peak of the Yerkes-Dodson performance curve, preventing both cognitive overload and cognitive underload. DARPA, the Department of Defense laboratory that spearheaded the creation of the internet, is even working on developing “neuroergonomic” systems that, using various brain and body sensors, can “detect an individual’s cognitive state and then manipulate task parameters to overcome perceptual, attentional, and working memory bottlenecks.”23 Adaptive automation also holds promise for injecting a dose of humanity into the working relationships between people and computers. Some early users of the systems report that they feel as though they’re collaborating with a colleague rather than operating a machine.

I like that he named the last chapter Automation for the People, which I assume is a throwback to Automatic for the People. Probably the best R.E.M. album… and the best song from that album.