Man vs Machine or Man and Machine?

Halfway through my vacation in the South of France, I stopped using my GPS and turned to maps and road signs instead. The reason: putting `The Glass Cage’ by Nicholas Carr on my literature list for the summer. Carr had made me fear that I was damaging my memory by using the GPS too often.

Carr is great at unsettling people. He threw the entire CIO community into an existential crisis when he published `Does IT matter?’ in 2004 and 2010’s `The Shallows’ convinced its readers that the rapid, distracted sampling of information on the internet has rendered our minds incapable of concentration, contemplation and reflection. `The Glass Cage’ continues in the same vein, this time arguing that automation is changing our ability to read maps, drive cars and solve problems, forge memories and acquire skills.

Although Carr, of course, refers to the Luddite movement of 19th century textile workers who trashed stocking frames, spinning frames and power looms to protect their jobs, Carr does not want to be bracketed as a Luddite himself. Rather, he asks the reader to think whether (s)he always needs to rely on automation and information technology instead of doing something themselves.

The book is packed with examples of how our reliance on IT and automation is `unlearning’ us of how to do things and how sometimes IT takes the opposite effect of what was hoped for.

Some examples:

  • Airline pilots tend to overuse the autopilots. According to a memo by the American Federal Aviation Administration, overuse of flight automation could ‘lead to the degradation of the pilot’s ability to quickly recover the aircraft from an undesired state’. And Carr goes on to cite a number of examples of airline disasters that might have been prevented had the pilots been more acquainted with manual flight operations.
  • Architects rely so heavily on specialized Computer Aided Design software, that they become less creative. According to the sources Carr cites, creative drawing with a pencil leads to far nicer buildings than when architects immediately start using software to design the building. What’s more: they neglect quality checks as they assume the software will make less mistakes than they would have done.
  • According to neuroscientists, navigation plays an elemental role in the workings of our minds and memories. Apparently, our hippocampus (the part of the brain that plays a key role in the formation of our memory) contains neurons that are used specifically to store geographic information. By using the GPS, we neglect to train these cells, which may lead to a degradation of our memory as a whole, inducing senility earlier than normal. GPS has also killed many an Inuit in the Canadian North: over the centuries, Inuits had developed a seventh sense to find their way in inhospitable circumstances. By giving them GPS, apparently they neglected some of the signals for dangerous spots, driving their snowmobiles straight into thin ice!
  • Carr devotes special attention to medical software, which was supposed to lower the cost of healthcare, but is doing quite the opposite. While the use of software that automates patient registration and follow-up leads to a degeneration of knowledge with doctors and nurses, it also urges doctors to prescribe more medication and more extra examinations then necessary. That’s why the healthcare bill the government has to pay, is increasing rather than decreasing.

Interesting, yet scary reading. Should we resist automation completely? No, of course not. But Carr reminds us that a lot of the joy we get in life, we get from doing things, from thinking about things, from solving problems. Carr even cites the poet Robert Frost to drive his point home, saying that it is work that makes us who we are. We need to see the tools that we are using not as a means to an end, but as instruments of experience, that deepen our knowledge and make our lives richer. What we need is a balanced division of labor between man and machine, and automation systems that are human-centered are to be preferred over systems that are technology-centered.

So halfway through my vacation, we switched off our GPS and returned to maps and road signs. And lo and behold, we saw much more of the surroundings than had we simply relied on the GPS. So that did improve our driving experience. Has it also improved my memory? The jury is out on that.

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