Considering automation

I’m excerpting from The New Atlantis’s review of Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage:

In Silicon Valley there is a strong commitment to creating “frictionless” environments — a commitment that arguably amounts to an ideology. Friction, in this sense, is synonymous with inefficiencies that waste our time, slow the pace of innovation, and prevent optimal performance — both from machines and us. For incumbent firms and startups alike, friction has become taboo. In these circles, it is widely assumed that the easier it is for consumers to create, locate, and share information, the better off they will be.

But contrary to the prevailing platitudes, minimizing friction doesn’t simply remove speed bumps from our paths. While getting rid of obstacles may seem like a process of subtraction, frictionless design cannot be advanced without first introducing new devices and systems, and then promoting them as superior alternatives to and replacements for older ones. After they are rolled out, these technologies subject us to new kinds of “choice architecture” (a term from the literature on nudging) that can modify our behavior. Over time, as more and more people incorporate frictionless technology into their daily lives, cultural norms shift. Automation may promote technical values at the expense of humanistic ones; it may make it harder to choose deliberative practices that require attentiveness and conscientiousness.

It’s a fair and thoughtful piece, making the point that Carr is really more of a philosopher of technology than a technology reporter. That in that role his job is to consider what technological boosterism does not—namely what we stand to lose. The review provides examples from airlines to cruise ships to writing and relationships, all with the theme of automation’s tendency to disintermediate us from our surroundings and degrade our attentiveness to reality.

I’m most keenly interested in the conversation about automation’s role in “promoting technical values at the expense of humanistic ones.” This lies at the heart of Carr’s inquiry: “Carr thinks that we risk being beguiled by the wondrous vistas that technology provides — too beguiled, that is, to notice that the very glass transmitting the vistas divorces us from their source.”