Breaking "The Glass Cage"

Looking for and not finding balance in Carr's latest book.

November 6, 2014

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.  By Nicholas Carr.

Published in September of 2014.

The problem with the The Glass Cage is not that Nicholas Carr is a technology skeptic.  We need more skepticism when it comes to the use of digital tools.   

The problem is that Carr seems to want to tell only one side of the story.  Carr has 3 indictments of technology:

1.  We are blind to the negative consequence of technology.
2.  Technology can separate us from direct experience and action.
3.  The actual effects of technology are often very different from the intended effects.

Carr uses a few carefully chosen case studies to demonstrate his thesis.  Self-driving cars, modern autopilot and fly-by-wire airplanes, and GPS navigation systems all play prominent roles in The Glass Cage.  We could probably substitute digital learning platforms for Airbus jets and get much the same story that Carr is telling.

Self-driving cars will bring convenience but take away control.   A computer driven car may be able to navigate a highway, but it will not be able to weigh the tradeoffs of swerving to avoid the child on the bridge if swerving means plunging into the river (or driving into the school bus).

Modern jets remove the pilot from the tactile sensations of flight, causing an erosion of skills that may result in catastrophe should the pilot need to take over.

GPS systems decrease our understanding of space and direction, causing us to lose the ability to make sense of maps and landmarks.

Carr’s critique of the downsides of the technologies that he discusses are all reasonable.  Every technology has its downsides.  What Carr fails to do is to enumerate the benefits of the technologies that he critiques.  

Last year 35,000 people died in US traffic accidents.  Self-driving technologies will play out first in safety enhancing technologies.  In 20 years we will look back on the carnage on our roads as we regard child labor today.

Last year there were a total of 265 airline fatalities over about 31 million flights, the safest year since the dawn of modern aviation.  Safer air travel is mostly due to flight automation and navigation systems that keep airplanes out of bad weather and away from other airplanes.  

In 2012 I drove from NH to Harrison NY almost completely on secondary roads, having set the GPS to avoid highways.  A GPS can free us from the road most taken as much as it distances us from traditional skills of navigation.

The Glass Cage would have been a better book if it were a more balanced book.   Carr would be more persuasive if he recognized that those of us that work with technology are often the most skeptical about technology.  

Just why Carr decided not to present the pros and cons of the technologies he profiles is somewhat of a mystery.  Carr is knowledgable and fair-minded.  He seems to use and enjoy the technologies that he laments.  Certainly Carr is aware of the enormous gains in health and well-being made possible by technology-enabled productivity advances.  (You don’t get the sense that he’d want large parts of Asia to return to a subsistence farming economy, or that Carr wants to give up his laptop, smart phone, and broadband connection).

Many of us are in the middle of conversations about the pros and cons of technology in education.  Let’s hope that we can strike a better balance in our discussions than Carr strikes in his.

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