Let us all now lament automation

I’m working on a piece about “robot journalism” this week. As I was driving along California highways, listening to the country station, yesterday, I heard Miranda Lambert’s nostalgia gem, “Automatic” on the radio. So, a quick triptych on the subject:

1. Miranda Lambert, “Automatic”

My favorite part is its bizarre use of the Polaroid as a standard of a bygone era of delayed gratification. It’s on roughly about as solid ground as the next two items.

2. Nicholas Carr, “The Great Forgetting,” which ran in The Atlantic in Novemeber 2013, and foreshadowed his book, “The Glass Cage: Automation and Us.” Both are full of excellent, scary visions of how automation rots our cognitive capabilities.

Whether it’s a pilot on a flight deck, a doctor in an examination room, or an Inuit hunter on an ice floe, knowing demands doing. One of the most remarkable things about us is also one of the easiest to overlook: each time we collide with the real, we deepen our understanding of the world and become more fully a part of it. While we’re wrestling with a difficult task, we may be motivated by an anticipation of the ends of our labor, but it’s the work itself—the means—that makes us who we are. Computer automation severs the ends from the means. It makes getting what we want easier, but it distances us from the work of knowing.

3. Evgeny Morozov’s review of that book, for the Baffler, pokes holes in some of the hand-wringing conclusions of that text. I find it both delightful and infuriatingly blind to its own flaws — despite what seems to be a serious attempt to point them out — in equal measure.

Even if Nicholas Carr’s project succeeds—i.e., even if he does convince users that all that growing alienation is the result of their false beliefs in automation and even if users, in turn, convince technology companies to produce new types of products—it’s not obvious why this should be counted as a success. It’s certainly not going to be a victory for progressive politics (Carr is extremely murky on his own). Information technology has indeed become the primary means for generating the kind of free time that, in the not so distant past, was at the heart of many political battles and was eventually enshrined in laws (think of limits on daily work hours, guaranteed time off, the free weekend). Such political battles are long gone.


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