Book Review: The Glass Cage

The Glass Cage is a sequel of sorts to Nicholas Carr’s brilliant book from 2010, The Shallows. Whereas his earlier book dealt with broad topics pertaining to the internet and its effect on our thought processes, The Glass Cage zeros in on the dangers of our excessive reliance on software automation.

After a brief survey of automation in history, the author examines the grim reality of its use in the commercial airlines. This is an industry that has embraced automation to the limit, relegating the role of pilots to more of a computer operator than someone in charge of the plane. As such, caution is expressed that the drive to automation may have simply gone too far. As pilots become dependent on the autopilot capabilities of the planes they sit in, they lose their ability to effectively take over in the event of a true emergency. Invoking the central metaphor of the book, “the glass cockpit can also be a glass cage.”

The book ambles along at a pleasant pace until a mid-book chapter on “World and Screen,” at which time Mr. Carr seems to find his voice and get to the heart of what he’s trying to say. Emphasizing our sense of physical place in the world, he discusses our overreliance on GPS systems and corresponding inability to judge our relative location by looking at a two-dimensional map. Not only can we no longer read maps, but our brain begins to lose its spatial memories. This, in turn, may increase the risk of becoming afflicted with dementia and Alzheimer’s later in life, as those associated parts of the brain that deal with memory, both spatial and otherwise, begin to deteriorate.

The author then turns to another chilling aspect of automation, namely the possibility that it will be called upon to make moral choices as applications become more complex. Using the example of a self-driving automobile, the author wonders what kind of decision its software would make if a dog darts out in front of the car. Does it risk injuring its passengers by swirving to avoid the animal, or does it run over the dog as collateral damage? What if it were a child rather than a dog? As technology advances, we will need to confront questions about what software should and should not decide for us. In fact, much of today’s software automation already imposes hidden decisions. Google favors popularity over quality of expression when it returns websites in its search engine. Facebook narrows its users conception of themselves when it packages a person’s life experiences as an easily consumed single identity.

Even if the intricacies of software are largely concealed, it’s important to not simply cede control of these decisions to powerful software companies. There are choices to be made. Returning to the airline industry, it’s noted that whereas Airbus has chosen to automate as much as possible, Boeing has gone down a more moderate route, wherein it considers the need for pilots to be fully engaged, and utilizes a more human-centric approach as to what should be automated.

The Shallows was a riveting read because the author had a clear nemesis: the internet. Everyone understands what the internet is and has an emotional bond with its usage. The nemesis in The Glass Cage, automation, is not quite as threatening nor as obviously harmful. Nevertheless, this book provides a thoughtful extension of the author’s prior work and adds nuance to his analysis.

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us
by Nicholas Carr
W. W. Norton & Company, September 2014
276 pages, $26.95

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