The Glass Cage: Automation and Us by Nicholas Carr
THE GLASS CAGE by Nicholas Carr. 288 pp. Norton. $26.95
In his 2010 best seller The Shallows, Nicholas Carr illustrated the negative side effects associated with our new dependency on the Internet. His new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, takes a similarly contrarian tack towards the darker side of the many-splendored promises of automation, defined here as the processes by which we attempt to transfer to machines and computers the “lower” functions of our existence to free us up for more productive and leisurely lives (or so the theory goes). Using documented phenomena and case studies that focus on subjects such as self-driving cars, increasingly advanced airline autopilots, and decision-assist software used by the financial and medical communities, Carr shows that we are more than merely programming ourselves out of the equation (a strain of ontological fear present since the earliest steam-powered mechanization) but that in fact the unintended consequences may outweigh the perceived advancement. He marshals an impressive array of data to make the case that automation is sapping our ability to master or even understand certain pivotal human exercises, such as landing a plane in bad weather on one engine. “In relieving us of repetitive mental exercise,” he writes, “[automation] also relieves us of deep learning. Both complacency and bias are symptoms of a mind that is not being challenged.” But the more cutting note of alarm is directed towards the loss of the human pleasures of control; for instance, simply put, man is forgetting how to fly. Detractors will of course cry Luddism. But Carr reminds us that the Luddites, who destroyed instruments of mechanization in industrializing England, didn’t do so out of some kind of in-born suspicion of technology or an inability to appreciate innovation; they did so to try and save their way of life. It didn’t work.
How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World by Steven Johnson
HOW WE GOT TO NOW by Steven Johnson. 304pp Riverhead. $30
Given the title of best-selling author Steven Johnson’s new book, How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World, one might expect him to focus on a handful of those objects that we have been taught represent the loci of human achievement: the printing press, the cotton gin, perhaps the vacuum tube, etc. Instead, the titles of the six sections of the book are as follows: Glass, Cold, Sound, Clean, Time, and Light. In this engaging “Big Explainer” of a book, Johnson adopts the widest possible lens, preferring less to focus on the particulars of a specific invention and more on the zoomed-out system of human thought that had to obtain before that invention could even be imagined (as part of the “adjacent possible”). Johnson does excellent work tracing the ripples of ingenuity outward, and draws compelling arguments for the causal relation between, say, the migration of a group of glassblowers to the Venetian island of Murano and the invention of the mega-powerful telescopes, or the telephone and the modern skyscraper, or how waste management systems in Victorian sewers influenced the creation of microchips. What makes this book such a mind-expanding read is Johnson’s ability to appreciate human advancement as a vast network of influence, rather than a simple chain of one invention leading to another, and result is nothing less than a celebration of the human mind. As he writes: “Telling the story from that long-zoom perspective doesn’t subtract from the traditional account focused on [an inventor’s] genius. It only adds.”
The High Divide by Lin Enger
THE HIGH DIVIDE by Lin Enger. 352 pp. Algonquin. $24.95
The narrative shape of Lin Enger’s new novel The High Divide begins with a familiar, if not the most familiar, inciting incident in literature: Ulysses leaves home. Only in this book, the year is 1886, and Ulysses departs not from the island of Ithaca but rather his humble homestead on the prairie of Minnesota. His departure is also less noble than his Homeric namesake, an absconding rather than an embarkation, and he leaves his family—wife Gretta and sons Eli and Danny—in dire straits, with little money for food or to pay what’s owed to their villainous landlord. Soon Eli is jumping a train towards his father’s last known whereabouts, with his sickly brother close behind, while their mother embarks on an odyssey of her own that will bring her into contact with woman whose ties to her husband may be romantic. The basic plot structure here may not break much new ground, but it’s masterfully told, with relatively short episodes interlaced over a tableau of American history including echoes of Custer’s Last Stand and the great bison hunts, in a manner that reminds a reader both of Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain and some of the most interesting sections of an AP U.S. history textbook. This is the kind of novel often weighed down by the over-reach of prose, but Enger’s writing is stark and coldly beautiful, befitting his subject matter and allowing the story itself to take pride of place. Enger has captured something uniquely American here, in the loneliness and simultaneous grandeur of the scenery, the restlessness in the hearts of his characters, and the need for redemption that is the key to Ulysses’s mysterious quest.