November 11, 2014
Interviews: A Q&A with Nicholas Carr
"There is a choice in how we automate, and right now I fear we’re going down the wrong path."
About Nicholas CarrNicholas Carr writes about technology and culture. He is the author of the acclaimed new book The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, which examines the personal and social consequences of our ever growing dependency on computers. His previous work, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, was a 2011 Pulitzer Prize finalist and a New York Times bestseller.
Nick is also the author of two other influential books, The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google (2008) and Does IT Matter? (2004). His books have been translated into more than twenty-five languages.
Nick has been a columnist for the Guardian in London and has written for the Atlantic, The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, the New Republic, MIT Technology Review, Nature, and other periodicals. His essays, including “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” and “The Great Forgetting,” have been collected in several anthologies, including The Best American Science and Nature Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, and The Best Technology Writing.
Nick is a former member of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s editorial board of advisors, was on the steering board of the World Economic Forum’s cloud computing project, and was a writer-in-residence at the University of California at Berkeley’s journalism school. He writes the popular blog Rough Type. Earlier in his career, he was executive editor of the Harvard Business Review. He holds a B.A. from Dartmouth College and an M.A., in English and American Literature and Language, from Harvard University.
In the early 1980s, Nick was a founding member of the universally unnoticed Connecticut punk band The Adrenaline Boys.
"Automation has raised productivity and boosted corporate profits, but instead of expanding the middle class, the resulting rewards have concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few. We haven’t seen the emergence of vast new categories of good jobs, the way we did during industrialization."
Our Q&A with Nicholas CarrFirst things first: What exactly is automation? How does it differ from other tools and technologies?
In the book, I use a broad definition of automation, encompassing any use of a computer or computerized system to do work we used to do ourselves or to perform tasks on our behalf. That extends to the activities we do in our personal lives as well as the work we do for pay. But I also trace the word to its origins in the 1950s, when manufacturers began installing electronically controlled equipment in their factories. Unlike purely mechanical machines, automated machines were able to regulate their own operation to one degree or another. So they incorporated sensors, feedback loops, and programming. I think those characteristics are what continues to distinguish automation today, whether it takes the form of a factory robot or a self-driving car or a decision-support software application in a business.
The debate around automation has historically been whether it increases productivity and spurs economic growth that creates more jobs, or if machines cannibalize jobs and will eventually lead to a jobless future. How has that debate changed over time, and what is the current outlook?
I think there have actually been two debates. One is about the destruction and creation of jobs. Historically, labor-saving technologies have always had a positive net effect on the number of jobs in the economy. Machines steal some jobs, but the resulting gains in productivity serve to expand the economy, leading to the creation of lots more jobs, often at higher wages. With computer automation, though, we have yet to see that old dynamic play out. Automation has raised productivity and boosted corporate profits, but instead of expanding the middle class, the resulting rewards have concentrated in the hands of the wealthy few. We haven’t seen the emergence of vast new categories of good jobs, the way we did during industrialization. The current worry is that, with computer automation, we have reached the point where so many skills, including white-collar skills, can be replicated by technology that we’re not going to see the kind of job and wage growth that always accompanied economic expansion in the past.
The other debate is not about the quantity of jobs but the quality of jobs. In particular, does labor-saving technology lift workers to more interesting, more skilled jobs, or does it lower them to more routine, less-skilled jobs. This issue is a complicated one—not at all black and white—and it’s a key focus of The Glass Cage. I review a lot of evidence indicating that software tends to have more of a “deskilling” effect than an “upskilling” one. As professions come to rely on software, the professionals are not challenged to exercise and extend their skills. More often than not, they end up in more passive roles.
Why do we need jobs anyway? What is wrong with having machines do our work for us, so long as we reap the economic reward? What is the relation between our labor and our happiness?
We tend to think we’d be happiest if we were freed from work, but studies show that we’re actually happiest when we’re immersed in a tough job. The psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this “the paradox of work.” So if machines and computers and robots actually did take over all work, we’d probably be miserable—it would be anything but utopia. Beyond the problematic psychology, there’s also the practical challenge of figuring out a way to distribute economic largesse to the jobless multitudes. I don’t think society would handle that transition well, so you’d probably see lots of social strife and upheaval. As always: be careful what you wish for.
How can we, as individuals, businesses, and a society as a whole, use automation more wisely?
As individuals, I think we need to appreciate that tools are not just means of production and consumption—they’re also means of experience. They shape the way we live and the fulfillment we get from life. So instead of blindly following technological trends, we should think critically about each new tool that comes along: is this going to enrich my life, or is it actually going to impoverish my life? As for society and business, I think we need to move away from what’s known as “technology-centered automation”—automation that puts the interests of technology above the interests of people—and toward what’s known as human-centered design, which creates systems aimed at expanding human engagement and talent. There is a choice in how we automate, and right now I fear we’re going down the wrong path.
"As individuals, I think we need to appreciate that tools are not just means of production and consumption—they’re also means of experience."