The Glass Cage

I am reading the most excellent ‘The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us’ by Nicholas Carr and what he says in the book lines up with my own feelings and opinion about the world that we are creating for ourselves. And it’s not good my friends. In fact it’s far from good.

In the early ‘90s I once told two Intel colleagues that we (literally, we at Intel) were ‘creating a future that none of us will want to live in’.

Over the years I have given a great deal of thought to technology and its human implications and I am even more convinced what I said then about the future still holds true. Part of which is how technology driven automation is not just killing jobs but just as importantly is also destroying the work identity component that is essential to our humanity.

I have read dozens of articles and books – some good, most bad – on the subject many of which were written by self-styled futurist geniuses and philosophers of technology like Kevin Kelly who in his ‘What Technology Wants’ goes way back to the very beginning of human time in an attempt to knit together an astonishing array of  truly annoying ideas.

Another one that comes to mind is Tyler Cowen’s sub-flyweight ‘Average is Over: Powering America Beyond the Age of the Great Stagnation’. I’d personally like to choke that bastard with one hand while picking his pocket with the other to recover the big bucks I dropped on a hardcover copy of his book.

Yes, it was that bad.

So bad in fact I wrote several posts to a previous blog shaming his shoddy intellectualism. One example here – – was where I was highly critical to the point of flaming his glib, completely under-analyzed assessment of the future.

I mean the guy actually says, “On one hand, many smart people will learn how to think like smart machines, or at least enough to understand their operation, in order to become wealthy, high status earners.”

I flamed that here – partly because I find all of his premise highly unlikely; a person thinking like a machine is just plain absurd or that operating a machine (no matter how smart or how skilled the operator) is going to make a person a high status earner.

Mr. Carr on the other hand takes the more credible opposite view which can more or less be summarized where he says, “The person operating the computer is left to play the role of the high-tech clerk, entering data, monitoring outputs, and watching for failures. Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action to its human collaborators, software narrows our focus. We trade subtle, specialized talents for more routine, less distinctive ones. Most of us assume, as Whitehead did, that automation is benign, that it raises us to higher callings but doesn’t otherwise alter the way we behave or think. That’s a fallacy.”

In other words, he concurs with the one great lie that arose with the advent of the PC when other ill-advised but well-meaning pundits opined that the PC was a blessing to all mankind. That as a result, humans would be gifted with more leisure time, for to some to pursue higher ideals.

History shows that PC resident productivity tools pushed a lot of jobs into obsolescence and in specific cases like Microsoft Word which actually ate into free time by bestowing more work on the employed as a plethora of jobs like administrative assistant then became redundant.

This all neatly coalesces with the rather prescient statement Octavio Paz made in 1961 in his wonderful collection of essays, The Labyrinth of Solitude’ where he pointed out that in an industrialized (or post-industrialized) society that the modern worker becomes reduced to ‘an element in the work process.’

A computer – however smart or specialized – is just another tool. And the person operating it (that is, if it needs to be operated at all) is just another marginally skilled operator who has been trained to perform a limited set of functions on one specific machine.

I’ve been ranting on this subject for years now but I wanted to plug Carr’s book ‘The Glass Cage’, not just because it aligns with what I believe but more so because it is another articulate data point that suggests that if you – as a newcomer to the job market – aren’t scrupulously and meticulously managing your career on a real time basis then you are going to be part of the bottom 80% of the labor pool fighting for work hours with the rest of the temp-employed populace.

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