Nicholas Carr has a bee in his bonnet, and given his susceptibilities this might well be a cybernetic insect, cunningly constructed by a giant tech company with the express purpose of irritating him — a likely culprit might be the Tyrell Corporation in Ridley Scott’s future-dystopic film Blade Runner.
In 2012 Carr — whose name has homophonic overtones of Cassandra — published a minatory work on the internet and the web called The Shallows. The title does indeed say it all: Carr’s view was that our increasing use of these technologies is having an impact on our cognitive and other physical faculties, and that by and large it’s a negative one.
Now Carrsandra is back to tell us that lurking behind the glassy screens we love to pet, prod and goggle at, there lies a glass cage of automated systems, ones that increasingly manage the extraction of raw materials, their processing, the manufacture of goods, the provision of services and the intellectual labour of their overall control. Two telling phrases sum up Carrsandra’s attitude to the emergent technologies of the 21st century: ‘Software programmers are our unacknowledged legislators’; and, ‘Ergonomists are our metaphysicians.’
These two functions are the polarities of automation for Carr. On the one hand, computer coding is a form of arcane knowledge that renders the increasingly invisible technology inscrutable and unmanageable, while on the other hand is, well, the hand: for inasmuch as Carr is a technophobic nay-sayer, he is also a yea-sayer when it comes to human manipulation of the natural world. To achieve stability between two such powerful attractors is a tricky business, and although Carr undertakes a Sisyphean struggle, I don’t think he pulls it off.
Beginning with the glass cage of the title, which refers to the virtualised environments of contemporary jet airliners, Carr proceeds to prise us psychically apart from the steely embrace of automation. He convincingly demonstrates that, far from being mere labour-saving devices, computer-coordinated automatic systems can in fact present a vital risk; the worst-case scenario being the panicked reaction of commercial pilots when forced by an emergency to take over actually flying the aircraft. Heads-up displays linked to servo-mechanised controls have severed the tactile and muscular connection that pilots hitherto had with their aircraft, while computers have taken over all the grunt-work of navigation. In line with this, the flight-deck crew on passenger jets has been dramatically downsized from five to two, and many even argue that any human pilots are an unnecessary luxury.
It might be objected that by using air travel as his primary example Carr is emotionally manipulating his readers; after all, post-9/11 the ever-latent anxiety about air disasters has become a collective daymare. However, Carr convincingly transfers this problematic from sky-side and applies it to such pervasive forms of automation as financial trading algorithms, factory assembly lines, distribution systems and his old adversary, the networked computer. He also brings it to bear on emergent automated systems such as Google’s driverless car, and the freaky robot ‘warriors’ that are being designed by secret Pentagon research departments.
Carr’s prose suffers from that strange combination of folksiness and asperity that besets many American journalists, but you can still appreciate the fine grain of his argument. Discussing our increasing reliance on GPS navigation (and sketching a disturbing near future in which our smartphones direct us around the interiors of buildings as effectively as they guide us between them), Carr convincingly shows that we are becoming insensible of our environment, while it remains the case — to paraphrase Joni Mitchell — that we don’t know what capabilities we’ve got till they’re gone.
This, Carr suggests, is because the ways in which automation impoverishes our experience of the world mimic our own innate capacity for what cognitive scientists term ‘automaticity’ — namely, those forms of ‘unconscious’ knowledge that are implicit in human skills as diverse as scything meadow grass and playing Sibelius’s violin concerto. This is where Carr moves, via ergonomics, into the metaphysical realm — hardly what you expect in a Zeitgeist tome that will doubtless be prominently displayed at airport bookstalls (thereby giving quite a few business travellers an uneasy flight).
Drawing on the thinking of phenomenologists such as Martin Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Carr describes the human subject as necessarily embodied, and therefore dependent for its full realisation on a rich plethora of adaptive physical responses to an ever-changing world. It’s a seductive picture, and one that has animated almost all critiques of technology since Wordsworth went in search of some daffodils to commune with. But while it may have emotive power, alerting us to the atrophy of our inherent biophilia (the love our species has for all others), I’m not sure it can prevent the rise of the computers, any more than the Romantics stopped the clocks of industrialisation.
The problem, I suspect, lies with Carr’s privileging of human sentience over all other forms of intelligence (he observes caustically that no matter how many near-instantaneous calculations the biggest mainframes can perform, they still haven’t a scintilla of self-awareness). It’s an attitude that itself rests on an uncritical acceptance of that bundle of prejudices and wishful thinking we term ‘humanism’. While ostensibly a foe of the Cartesian dualism he sees lurking behind our openness to these technologies (after all, how can immaterial ‘mind stuff’ really be affected by gross materiality?), towards the end of his book Carr swishes into the transcendentalism of Emerson and Robert Frost and begins referring — quite casually — to our ‘soul’.
But such numinous speculations count for little against the facts on the ground and in the sky: automation is part of a viciously virtuous cycle of profit, and that — in the context of late capitalism — renders it altogether ineluctable. Carr is too smart to fall for the old utopian fantasies — whether Marxian or corporatist — of technology releasing us from toil into the sunny uplands of a leisured heaven on earth, but he’s also too mired in the current pieties of humanism to grasp that by appealing to the human ‘soul’ he is in fact calling upon a deus ex machina to save us from our handheld devices.