By Chet Yarbrough
The Glass Cage-Automation and Us
By: Nicholas Carr
Narrated by: Jeff Cummings
The Glass Cage, written by Harvard alumnus Nicholas Carr, ironically places him in the shoes of an uneducated English textile artisan of the 19th century, known as a Luddite.
Luddites protested against the industrial revolution because machines were replacing jobs formerly done by laborers. Just as the Luddites fomented arguments against mechanization, Carr argues automation creates unemployment and diminishes craftsmanship.
Carr carries the Luddite argument a step further by inferring a mind’s full potential may only be achieved through a conjunction of mental and physical labor. Carr posits the loss of physical ability to make and do things diminishes civilization by making humans too dependent on automation.
Unquestionably, the advent of automation is traumatic but elimination of repetitive industrial labor by automation is as much a benefit to civilization as the industrial revolution was to low wage workers spinning textile frames. There is no question that employment was lost in the industrial revolution; just as it is in the automation age, but jobs have been and will continue to be created as the world adjusts to this new stage of productivity.
Employment adjustment is traumatic. The trauma of this age is that work with one’s hands is being replaced by work with one’s brain. The education of the world needs to catch up with socio-economic change; just as labor did in the 20th century. To suggest humans do not learn when they cannot fly a plane, build a house, or construct an automobile with their own hands is a specious argument. Houses and cars have not been built by one person since humans lived in caves and iron horses replaced carriage horses. Houses and cars were built by teams of people who worked with their hands but only on specific tasks. Those teams of people were managed by knowledge workers.
Automation of tasks reduces the mind numbing, low pay work of laborers. Automation turns manual labor into the development and education of people who design hardware and software to execute tasks that result in more safely flown planes, new houses, new cars, new refrigerators, so on and so on. Education and service to society are the keys to the transition from industrialization to automation.
Carr suggests that airplane pilots should be given more control over automated planes they fly despite the facts he quotes that clearly show plane crashes kill fewer people today than ever in history. Carr’s argument is that pilots have forgotten how to fly planes because automation replaced their skill set. To state the obvious, planes are not what they were 20 years ago. They are bigger, faster, and more complicated to fly. The argument that pilots need to learn how to fly a jumbo jet when automation fails is like telling a farmer to pull out his scythe to harvest the wheat because the thresher quit working.
Carr raises the morality argument of saving life as an automated machine rather than human being. If a driverless car is programmed to save its occupant when a parachutist drops in front of his/her car and there are cliffs on both sides, the machine will drive over the parachutist without conscience. The parachutist is dead but the driver is alive. If the car is driven by a person, both the parachutist and the driver may be dead. Carr’s argument is that humans need to make their own intuitive decisions. As pointed out by Daniel Kahneman in “Thinking Fast and Slow”, the primary “think fast” mode in humans is intuition, which is often wrong.
No doubt, many automation errors have been and will be made in the future, but to suggest automation is not good for society is as false as the Luddites arguments about industrialization.
This period of the world’s adjustment is horrendously disruptive. It is personal to every parent or person that cannot feed, clothe, and house their family or themselves because they have no job.
Decrying the advance of automation is not the answer. Making the right political decisions about how to help people make job transitions is what will advance civilization.