Not Going With The Flow

Reviewing Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Alan Jacobs underscores the way often otherwise helpful technologies can rob us of “flow,” the experience of “total absorption in the task at hand, in which body, mind, and environment seem to cohere into a single gestalt.” Examples include Inuits navigating the snow and ice in traditional ways, and pilots who flew without GPS. Jacobs concludes that Carr raises important points that shouldn’t be dismissed as nostalgia:

Carr wants us to ask what value we place on the loss of opportunities to experience flow—the loss even of opportunities to develop and exercise skills that challenge and reward us. Carr readily admits that these are extraordinarily difficult questions. “How do you measure the expense of an erosion of effort and engagement, or a waning of agency and autonomy, or a subtle deterioration of skill? You can’t. Those are the kinds of shadowy, intangible things that we rarely appreciate until after they’re gone, and even then we may have trouble expressing the losses in concrete terms. But the costs are real.” They are real for the Inuit, they are real for pilots, and they are real for us.

Nicholas Carr is asking us to count those costs, as a prelude to figuring out whether we can minimize them. Scanning through the early reviews of The Glass Cage, I can’t help noticing how deeply reluctant people are even to begin addressing the questions he raises. I have seen Carr called a Luddite (of course), a paranoiac, and even a “scaredy-cat.” And among the leading apostles of automation, Carr has discerned an Orwellian tendency to portray costs as benefits. He notes that “Peter Thiel, a successful entrepreneur and investor who has become one of Silicon Valley’s most prominent thinkers, grants that ‘a robotics revolution would basically have the effect of people losing their jobs.’ But, he hastens to add, ‘it would have the benefit of freeing people up to do many other things.'” Ah, that’s better. As Carr wryly notes, “Being freed up sounds a lot more pleasant than being fired.”