August 24, 2014

WHEN, INSTEAD, YOU SHOULD LABOR ON WHAT/WHOM YOU LOVE:

Love of Labor : Automation makes things easier, whether it's on the factory floor or online. Is it also eroding too many of the valuable skills that define us as people? (Mattathias Schwartz, August 19, 2014, MIT Technology Review)

The book begins with a warning to airline pilots from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration not to rely too much on autopilot. He narrates two crashes, tracing their cause to pilot inattention caused by the autopilot's lulling effects. This reads like the opening of a utilitarian argument against automation: we ought to let pilots do their jobs because computers lack the judgment necessary to preserve human life during moments of crisis. Later, we learn that the safety records of Airbus planes and the more pilot-oriented planes built by Boeing are more or less identical. Carr's core complaint is mainly about the texture of living in an automated world--how it affects us at a personal level.

At times, this seems to be coming from a position of nostalgia, a longing for a past that is perhaps more desirable in retrospect. Take GPS. To Carr, GPS systems are inferior to paper maps because they make navigation too easy--they weaken our own navigational skills. GPS is "not designed to deepen our involvement with our surroundings," he writes. The problem is, neither are maps. Like GPS, they are tools intended to deliver their user to a desired destination with the least possible hassle. It is true that paper maps require a different set of skills, and anyone who finds this experience of stopping and unfolding and getting lost more enlivening or less emasculating than the new incarnation of way-finding can choose to turn GPS off, or use the two technologies in tandem.

The classic account of life at the top of the Yerkes-Dodson curve is Mihaly ­Csikszentmihalyi's Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, published in 1990. Flow is a concept of almost poetic vagueness, hard to measure and even harder to define. Csikszentmihalyi found it in all kinds of people: athletes, artists, musicians, and craftsmen. What makes "flow" more than a flight of fancy is that almost anyone will recognize the feeling of "losing oneself" in a challenging task or being "in the zone." As a concept, flow erases the boundary that economists draw between "work" and leisure or recreation, and Carr wants automation to be designed to produce it. Ideally it would have a Goldilocks just-right quality, relieving drudgery but stopping short of doing everything.

Carr spends most of The Glass Cage treating automation as though it were a problem of unenlightened personal choices--suggesting that we should often opt out of technologies like GPS in favor of manual alternatives. Yet the decision to adopt many other innovations is not always so voluntary. There is often something seductive and even coercive about them. Consider a technology that Carr himself discusses: Facebook, which seeks to automate the management of human relationships. Once the majority has accepted the site's addictive design and slight utility, it gets harder for any one individual to opt out. (Though Facebook may not look like an example of automation, it is indeed work in disguise. The workers--or "users"--are not paid a wage and the product, personal data, is not sold in a visible or public market, but it does have a residual echo of the machine room. Personal expression and relationships constitute the raw material; the continuously updated feed is the production line.)
Posted by at August 24, 2014 6:31 PM
  
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