"Can technology solve all of our problems? Curtis White, author of, most recently, the acclaimed The Science Delusion: Asking the Big Questions in a Culture of Easy Answers, and of the international bestseller The Middle Mind: Why Americans Don’t Think for Themselves, urges us to remember that we've been deluded by technology -- and seductive stories -- before."
|We, Robots: Staying Human in the Age of Big Data|
The Criticism of No Criticism
In this culture, we are asked to live through stories that make no sense but that we are not allowed to criticize—unless the criticism itself confirms the stories.
Take Nicholas Carr’s recent book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, a detailed critique of our over-dependence on Cowen’s intelligent machines. A good part of Carr’s critique is pragmatic: the computers we depend on are not as safe or productive as we have been led to think they are—in large part because the human attendants to the computer’s work (Cowen’s freestylers) are “deskilled” and have become complacent. Carr provides multiple examples of the dangers of our growing dependence on computers in the airline industry (where some pilots have forgotten how to fly, especially in crisis situations), in medicine (where doctors who have lost the ability to diagnose), and in architecture (where architects no longer know how to draw). (Carr doesn’t mention the most ominous use of AI: autonomous weapons like Britain’s “fire and forget” Brimstone missiles. Will these military innovations breed a generation of soldiers who can’t shoot straight?)
While Carr is rightly concerned with the consequences of our digital dependencies, he does not come close to calling for the abandonment of an economy based on computers. Rather, he is asking for a correction. He doesn’t condemn computers, or automation, or freestyling; he simply reminds us that we should use digital power as a tool and not be displaced by it. It is a position that Cowen would very likely agree with. Carr simply calls for “wisdom” and, to use an engineer’s term, recalibration. A Luddite he’s not.
Which isn’t to say that Carr lacks sympathy for the Luddites, for there is more substance to his critique than concern with safety. For Carr, the deskilling of labor through computer automation is not only inefficient and unsafe, it is also dehumanizing. Carr makes frequent appeal to familiar ethical concepts like “freedom”—“all too often, automation frees us from that which makes us feel free”—and “humanity”— “automation confronts us with the most important question of all: what does human being mean?” At one point, Carr seems to answer this question by saying, “We are, after all, creatures of the earth.” This means that we are not just the dematerialized phantoms that AI seeks; we are embodied in a particular world:
Getting to know a place takes effort, but it ends in fulfillment and in knowledge. It provides a sense of personal accomplishment and autonomy, and it also provides a sense of belonging, a feeling of being at home in a place rather than passing through it.Invoking Karl Marx, Carr complains that “in case after case, we’ve seen that as machines become more sophisticated, the work left to people becomes less so.” He worries that “when automation distances us from our work, when it gets between us and the world, it erases the artistry from our lives.”