Love of Labor

25. August 2014

 Typical Nick Carr! (hfk)

Date: 25-08-2014
Source: Technology Review

Automation makes things easier, whether it’s on the factory floor or online. Is it also eroding too many of the valuable skills that define us as people?

WHY IT MATTERS: Automation is creeping into more of our work and our leisure.

Messages move at light speed. maps speak directions. Groceries arrive at the door. Floors mop themselves. Automation provides irresistible conveniences.

Carr Glass CageAnd yet automation can also be cast as a villain. When machines take over work that once required sweat and skill, humans atrophy into mere button-pushing operators. Laments about automation are as familiar as John Henry, the railroad steel-driver of lore who could not outlast a steam-powered version of himself. The latest is The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, who worries about the implications as machines and software advance far past the railroad and the assembly line to the cockpit, the courtroom, and even the battle­field. Machines and computers now do much more than rote mechanical work. They monitor complex systems, synthesize data, learn from experience, and make fine-grained, split-second judgments.

What will be left for us to do? While economists and policy makers are debating what automation will mean for employment and inequality (see “How Technology Is Destroying Jobs,” July/August 2013), Carr’s book does not sort out those implications. It is about what he fears will be diminished—our autonomy, our feelings of accomplishment, our engagement with the world—if we no longer have to carry out as many difficult tasks, whether at home or at work.

The centerpiece of his argument is the Yerkes-Dodson curve, which plots the relationship between human performance and the stimulation our tasks provide. Too much stimulation makes us feel panicked and overloaded, but when we have too little stimulation—when our work is too easy—we become lethargic and withdrawn. Activities that provide moderate stimulation yield the highest level of performance and, as Carr argues, turn us into better people in the process.

Things reviewed

The Glass Cage: Automation and Us
BY NICHOLAS CARR
NORTON, 2014 Read the rest of this entry »