Nicholas Carr’s Glass Cage

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Back in 2008, journalist and blogger Nicholas Carr published an article titled “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” arguing that the way we read on the Internet—quickly, shallowly—has been reshaping the way we think, and not especially for the better. I assigned the article to my intro college-level writing class this fall, and we circled back to it throughout the semester, both for the quality of its writing and the ambition of its ideas. To question our use of technology is to question what it is we value most, and Carr is a writer who continues to broaden the discussion.

This past September saw the release of Carr’s new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us. Curious to hear what my students would make of it, I assigned them a short chapter and asked, among other things, what questions they had for Carr. The most common response was: What could have happened to Carr to make him so wary of technology?

It’s a good question, one that goes to the heart of Carr’s motives for writing. One answer surfaces in an early chapter, when Carr reveals that as a teenager in the 70’s, he learned to drive on an old stick shift sedan. It was difficult and embarrassing, and he couldn’t wait to make the switch to an automatic. Two years later he did, only to discover that the new car didn’t give him what he wanted after all. “The pleasures of having less to do were real, but they faded,” he writes. “A new emotion set in: boredom. I didn’t admit it to anyone, hardly to myself even, but I began to miss the gear stick and the clutch pedal. I missed the sense of control and involvement they had given me.”

Carr isn’t just waxing nostalgic. He’s trying to puncture the misconception that new technology is always better for us, particularly when it simplifies our work. That way of thinking dominated in previous decades, when machinery first entered factories and homes to take over tedious and physically demanding labor. But as Carr points out, “In automated systems today, the computer often takes on intellectual work—observing and sensing, analyzing and judging, even making decisions—that until recently was considered the preserve of humans.” Now automation is being designed “to shift the burden of thought from people to computers,” from Google’s autocomplete search function to their self-driving cars. Meanwhile, “the person operating the computer is left to play the role of a high-tech clerk, entering data, monitoring outputs, and watching for failures”—work that turns out to be far less fulfilling. As Carr summarizes in one of his many tidy aphorisms, “Tools that demand little of us… cognitively speaking, give little to us.”

To my class of mostly eighteen-year-olds who’ve grown up in a culture saturated with Google, Facebook, and Apple products, I think Carr would say that we’ve all had experiences that should make us wary of how technology is changing us—we just aren’t very good at recognizing them. Human beings, Carr claims, tend not to think rationally about the place of technology in their lives. He cites numerous examples of how, over time, workers who come to rely on automation tend to slip into complacency, disengaging themselves from their work with disastrous consequences. In other cases, people become so biased in favor of their machines that they continue to follow them even when they’re issuing wrong or misleading information. In short, we have a tendency to assume technology is infallible when it’s not.

Most troublingly, and often without our conscious consent, we cede control not to technology per se, but to the entities who own it, profit from it, and make the decisions about its ultimate objectives. Carr notes that Google’s maps push us to think about space in ways that serve the corporation’s commercial interests, while social networks encourage us to package our identity and online behavior into neat data profiles for advertisers. Yet Carr doesn’t advocate quitting technology anytime soon, even as he cautions, “We shouldn’t confuse those companies’ interests with our own.”

After all, technology has certainly served to advance our own interests. What’s more, Carr sees the creation of technology as a fundamentally human pursuit. “Technology isn’t what makes us ‘post-human’ or ‘transhuman’ as some writers and scholars have recently suggested. It’s what makes us human,” he writes. “Technology is in our nature.” It follows, then, that we should seek to design and implement technology that extends and cultivates our capabilities, instead of attempting to override them. Carr praises innovation that helps us to interact more deeply with our environment, rather than tune it out. Microscopes and particle accelerators, for example, greatly aid scientists to discover more about the natural world. Carr also points to the recent case of Boeing introducing steering controls that provide artificial haptic feedback to pilots to increase their sense of control over their planes, making them better flyers.

For Carr, we ought to embrace technology that makes our work more rewarding, rather than technology that tries to do our work for us. Oscar Wilde, among others at the turn of the twentieth century, envisioned a technological utopia where machines would bear the burden of work, “while Humanity will be amusing itself, or enjoying cultivated leisure—which, and not labour, is the aim of man.” Carr takes the opposite stance. Early on, he cites a study by two University of Chicago professors showing that people are the most fulfilled and engaged when they’re at work—even though they claim to prefer leisure. Work provides goals, challenges, and rewards. It structures time that we might otherwise fritter away. “We become so immersed in the flow of our work,” Carr explains, “that we tune out distractions and transcend the anxieties and worries that plague our everyday lives.”

Though he attempts to define work in this context as “all manner of effort, from laying tile to singing in a choir to racing a dirt bike,” it’s striking that his main examples really are about work, most of it solitary and all of it centered on personal achievement. Though at first they seem to cover a wide range of experiences—from Robert Frost mowing hay to his own experience playing as an outlaw in a video game—collectively, they imply that apart from work, there aren’t too many other meaningful pursuits out there.

“When it comes to assessing the value of labor and leisure, the mind’s eye can’t see straight,” Carr writes at the beginning of his book It’s true that people have been at work since the beginning. In the Christian understanding, work is one way that people reflect the image of their Creator: Adam and Eve had work to do even in Eden, tending the garden and naming the animals. Work has always been part of being human, but precisely that—a part—not to be idolized above others, such as time spent in worship (love of God), fellowship (love of others), or rest.

Author’s Note

You can read a chapter from The Glass Cage, Your Inner Drone—The Politics of the Automated Future” on Longreads.

I started The Glass Cage after finishing William Gibson’s The Peripheral, a terrific novel that imagines not one but two imminent futures dominated by technology and gigantic corporations. They’re a lot of fun to read together!

Inez Tan

Inez Tan is currently pursuing an MFA in fiction at the University of Michigan Helen Zell Writers' Program. She also works with the Augustine Collective (http://www.augustinecollective.org), a student-led movement of Christian journals on college campuses.