Carr, Nicholas. The Glass Cage, W.W. Norton Co., New York, 2014 (261pp.$26.95)
On May 31, 2009 an Air France Airbus A330 departed Rio de Janeiro, headed for Paris. Helmed by two experienced French pilots, there were 228 crew and passengers on board. Running into a storm three hours later, the air speed indicators on the fuselage iced up and the air speed readings became faulty, causing the autopilot to disengage. Bewildered, the copilot in charge at the moment panicked and yanked back on the joystick. The big jet bucked up, lost speed, and stalled. Losing velocity, the plane continued its stall. Then, the airspeed indicators began to function again, clearly indicating to both pilot and co-pilot that the plane was going too slow. Nevertheless, Bonin, the co-pilot, continued to pull back on the stick and the plane plummeted. If Bonin had simply let go the controls, the Airbus might well have righted itself. Had he nosed the jet down, all would have been well. French investigators concluded that the pilots suffered a “total loss of cognitive control of the situation.”
Automation—or, the “concealed electronic complexity” at the heart of computerized control systems (systems that are almost ubiquitous now), is the subject of Nicholas Carr’s brilliantly written, incisively argued, masterfully researched, and morally moving investigation into our current love affair with technological progress, a systematic mega-trend toward frictionless electronic (digital) control of formerly human domains—areas of expertise that include not only air flight, but such widely diverse technical fields as power transmission, architecture, medicine, war, office processes, manufacturing and navigation. Author of “The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains”, Carr is not only a versatile science writer and student of technology, but also a keenly intelligent cultural anthropologist and philosopher; his knowledge of poetry, art and music seep into his books, making them teem with compelling arguments drawn from sociology, psychology, literature and neurobiology.
The French pilots (and the pilots of a Continental commuter jet bound for Buffalo, New York, just a few months before—which crashed needlessly) were in the thrall of both automation complacency and automation bias, the first of which lulled them into a false sense of security during which their attention drifted, the second of which led them, and indeed most pilots using automated flight systems, to place undue reliance on computer flight. Putting it more simply, they crashed the plane because they had forgotten how to fly it.
“To really know shoelaces,” the political scientist and motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford has observed, “you have to tie shoes.” Since the 1970s, Carr explains, cognitive psychologists have been documenting a phenomenon called the generation effect. In studies of vocabulary building, experiments confirm that people remember words much better when they actively call them to mind, rather than, for example, being shown a flash card. If they generate a word (for example, by completing its spelling on their own), they remember it. If it is simply given to them, they forget. Flying the Airbus had been given to the French pilots. Their skills degenerated, and they no longer had a feel for their craft.
Carr’s wonderful book is a waltz through such diverse fields as modern CAD design used by architects (whose imaginations are taken over by the program), GPS navigation (where navigators themselves lose track of their surroundings), and electronic medical recording programs (wherein doctors and patients are divorced, left to the prognostications of the software). Psychology and neurobiology experiments make the point that people “who routinely find deep enjoyment in an activity illustrate how an organized set of challenges and a corresponding set of skills result in optimal experience.” For two hundred thousand years, human tools have opened horizons towards optimal experience, both individually and socially. Now, however, the human experience may finally be contracting towards boredom and inefficiency, thanks to the fact that technology does it all, rendering us helpless.
“With the further development of industrial capitalism, “Marx wrote, “Americans celebrated the advance of science and technology with increasing fervor, but they began to detach the idea from the goal of social and political liberation.” Progress, instead of being defined in human terms, has come to be defined in strictly technical terms. New technology, once valued as a means to a greater good, has come to be revered as a good in itself. The Pentagon’s use of drones over the Tribal Areas of Pakistan is a case in point. What are we to think of robotic killing?
Carr’s ultimate chapter is titled ‘The Love that Lays the Swale in Rows’, after Robert Frost’s poem about scything a field of hay in summer. The use of tools, we find, is never just a practical thing, but always entails moral choices and has moral consequences. And while many of us no longer have much cultural stake in the deployment of our tools, we still have a personal stake. We are, after all, creatures of the earth, not abstract dots on the blue face of a cathode ray screen. For most of our evolutionary history, we have been required to way-find, giving us a sense of autonomy and accomplishment. Automation threatens all that.
Carr relates the story of an aboriginal tribe of coastal Canadian Indians called “Shushwaps”, who lived rich, full lives in the Thompson River Valley. They had everything in place, fruits, nuts, berries, and salmon to eat, and settled, comfortable habitations in which to live. Nevertheless, every thirty years or so, the tribe, directed by elders, pulled up stakes and left their homes, moving to new territory. They forced themselves, despite their comfort, to find new streams, new areas where balsam root was plentiful, and where there were strange new game trails. Life would then regain its meaning and be worth living. Everyone would feel rejuvenated and happy.
We should be so wise.