In his previous book, The Shallows, Nicholas Carr argued that the Internet diminishes our power to concentrate and contemplate. Now he turns his eye to automation: “If you want to understand the human consequences of automation”, he writes, “the first place to look is up”. Air travel has been at the vanguard of automation, and it has become safer on the whole. By the same token, pilots have become perniciously dependent on software. When faced with the scenario of having to fly their own plane owing to a technical fault, fewer pilots are able to do so. “We’re forgetting how to fly”, says one senior pilot, quoted by Carr.
But do we automatically go under when automation takes over? Some might say that new technologies have always been met with panic. But Carr is no Luddite; he does not promote the smashing of digital machines. He persuasively tackles the influence of automation on healthcare, financial services, architecture, transport and warfare. Hospitals and doctors have digitalized their medical data over the past decade. The US government invested billions of dollars to purchase electronic medical record systems. The idea was to increase efficiency, ease the sharing of patients’ information, and provide better standards of care. But the outcome has been disappointing: electronic records cannot be transferred across various systems. While doctors used to chronicle patients’ visits in detail. Now, patients are cast in the same mould, as doctors copy and paste boilerplate text into their reports. An astonishing number of doctors note that electronic record-keeping impairs communication with patients. It is harder to empathize with a patient when you take your cues from a cop- muter screen.
Google’s self-driving Prius cars have clocked up close to a million miles on the roads and motorways of California and Nevada. So far, they have only caused one accident, involving a five-car pileup, no less. Google was quick to add that the accident happened while a person was driving the car manually. But where will the blame lie should an automatic car cause an accident that kills or injures someone? With the car’s owner, manufacturer, or the software programmers? About a quarter of car accidents on American roads involve the use of a phone. But manufacturers have made no effort to stop people from calling or using apps while driving, writes Carr, “surely a modest undertaking compared with building a car that can drive itself”. Google has even sent lobbyists to block laws that would ban drivers from wearing Google Glass. Silicon Valley’s profit concerns do not translate into our safety concerns.
Following the instructions of a GPS device is easier than reading a map. Carr cites the psychiatrist Véronique Bohbot, who warns that handing over the task of navigation can cause our hippocampus to atrophy, and even increase the risk of dementia among future generations. GPS devices tunnel our vision and we perceive fewer landmarks and landscapes. “In this miniature parody of the pre- Copernican universe”, writes Carr, “we can get around without needing to know where we are, where we’ve been, or which direction we’re heading.” The idea that advances in transport technology make us apprehend less of the world around us echoes a scene from Ray Bradbury’s dystopia Fahrenheit 451: “I sometimes think drivers don’t know what grass is, or flowers because they never see them slowly”, says Clarisse: “If you showed a driver a green blur, ‘Oh yes!’ he’d say, ‘that’s grass’”.
“Just as trees grow while the country gentle- man is asleep”, wrote Oscar Wilde, “so while Humanity will be amusing itself . . . machinery will be doing all the necessary and unpleasant work.” It is tempting to imagine that technology will one day eliminate drudgery and give people time for higher pursuits. Automation and its precursor, mechanization, have largely improved our lives. But it would be a fallacy, Carr argues, to assume that “automation is benign, that it raises us to higher callings but doesn’t otherwise alter the way we behave or think”.
If an actor performs on automatic pilot, it’s not a great play. We say we run on autopilot when we’re tired. Automation is the opposite of an alert state of mind. We are most fulfilled when fully absorbed in a challenging task. Automation assumes that human beings are insufficient – and this can easily turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
This article was originally published in the Times Literary Supplement on July 3 2015