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Book review: The Glass Cage - time for a 'made by humans' movement?

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 24 January, 2015, 10:32pm
UPDATED : Monday, 26 January, 2015, 11:29am

The Glass Cage
by Nicholas Carr 
W.W. Norton & Company

Our skills become rusty and eventually disappear when they go unused. As a result, humans are becoming less capable as we rely increasingly on technology. This is the thesis of The Glass Cage, by US technology writer Nicholas Carr, whose previous work includes the popular essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid? He argues that our jobs and lives are being impoverished by our dependence on computers and automation.

Carr cites examples of just how dangerous the result can be. In 2009, an Air France flight plunged into the Atlantic, killing all 228 passengers. The reason, investigators found, was the autopilot had disengaged. The pilots, faced with having to fly the plane manually, suffered a "total loss of cognitive control".

So much of the cognitive and manual work pilots now undertake has become automated that they can be considered to sit not in glass cockpits but in glass cages, according to Carr.

Our dependence does more than just lead to dangerous consequences: it also leaves us bored and unsatisfied, both in and out of the workplace. Mastering and using skills is one of life's greatest pleasures, yet it is the very thing that automation works against by distancing us from being actively involved in the world.

As doctors follow automated diagnostic templates and architects use computer programs to generate their building plans, their jobs become duller. "At some point you turn people into computer operators - and that's not a very interesting job," Carr says.

However, he sees flickers of hope. In 2013, US regulators notified airlines that they should get pilots to spend more time flying manually rather than on autopilot so they remained able to take over in emergencies. And last year, looking to boost craftsmanship in its cars and innovation in its production lines, Toyota began replacing some of the robots in its Japanese factory with human workers.

Could it be time for a "made by humans" movement?

Guardian News & Media