On page 161 of his latest socio-technologico-cultural treatise, Nicholas Carr betrays where the heart of the book really lies: “As society becomes evermore computerized,” he writes, “the technologist becomes its unacknowledged legislator.” It seems a succinct line in a book about the effects of technology. But the sentiment is a nod to Shelley’s famous dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” With the allusion, Carr signals that his book is actually a humanistic inquiry.
Up to that point, The Glass Cage proceeds in the Gladwellian manner: a stacking of studies, anecdotes and assertions that are easy to quibble with and often self-contradictory. Carr seems to have a vague notion that automation is bad; he just doesn’t seem to have facts to back that idea up.
His examination of “deskilling,” particularly among airline pilots, is inconclusive. The highly automated systems of today’s commercial aircraft, Carr argues, are allowing the erosion of the pilots’ skills, which can lead to disastrous consequences. He cites the 2009 Air France crash, in which the pilots were unable to ably fly the plane once the autopilot had failed. Then he writes that between 1962 and 1971, the death rate for air travelers was 1,696 per million, while between 2002 and 2011, it was two per million — much of that improvement due to automated flying systems.
His arguments also run amiss when he brings up one of the bugaboos of automation and the increasing push toward artificial intelligence. Generally, the idea of robotic soldiers elicits a shudder of fear for the future of humanity. But after more or less sharing these fears, Carr quotes a report by Christof Heyns, a South African legal scholar and advisor to the U.N. General Assembly. Heyns points out, “They would not act out of revenge, panic, anger, spite, prejudice or fear. Moreover, unless specifically programmed to do so, robots would not cause intentional suffering on civilian populations, for example through torture. Robots also do not rape.” Hard to imagine their track record being more terrifying than that of human soldiers.
As a results-driven study, the book is rickety. But really The Glass Cage is contending with the idea of what constitutes living, gussied up as airport sociology. The Shelley reference that gives away Carr’s true feelings on automation: He is not so concerned with us rendering machines more human, but machines rendering us less so.
With that in mind, he considers the Robert Frost poem, Mowing, about the meditative act of swinging a scythe: “The fact is the sweetest dream that labor knows.” Which is to say, the act itself is the reward, the experience the ends not the means. That is what automation tends to diminish. “The mowing, not the hay,” Carr writes, “is what matters most.”
Brian Thomas Gallagher reviewed this book for The Seattle Times.