Maria Bustillos’s review of Nick Carr’s new book The Glass Cage is really, really badly done. Let me illustrate with just one example (it’s a corker):
In the case of aviation, the answer is crystal clear, yet Carr somehow manages to draw the opposite conclusion from the one supported by facts. In a panicky chapter describing fatal plane crashes, Carr suggests that pilots have come to rely so much on computers that they are forgetting how to fly. However, he also notes the “sharp and steady decline in accidents and deaths over the decades. In the U.S. and other Western countries, fatal airline crashes have become exceedingly rare.” So yay, right? Somehow, no: Carr claims that “this sunny story carries a dark footnote,” because pilots with rusty flying skills who take over from autopilot “often make mistakes.” But if airline passengers are far safer now than they were 30 years ago — and it’s certain they are — what on Earth can be “dark” about that?
Note that Bustillos is trying so frantically to refute Carr that she can’t even see what he’s actually saying. (Which might not surprise anyone who notes that in the review’s first sentence she refers to Carr as a “scaredy-cat” — yeah, she actually says that — and in its third refers to his “paranoia.”) She wants us to believe that Carr’s point is that automating the piloting of aircraft is just bad: “the opposite conclusion from the one supported by facts.” But if Carr himself is the one who notes that “fatal airline crashes have become exceedingly rare,” and if Carr himself calls the decline in air fatalities a “sunny story,” then he just might not be saying that the automating of flight is simply a wrong decision. Bustillos quotes the relevant passages, but can’t see the plain meaning that’s right in front of her face.
Carr cites several examples of planes that in recent years have crashed when pilots unaccustomed to taking direct control of planes were faced with the failure of their automated systems. Does Bustillos think these events just didn’t happen? If they did happen, then we have an answer to her incredulous question, “If airline passengers are far safer now than they were 30 years ago … what on Earth can be “dark” about that?” That answer is: If you’re one of the thousands of people whose loved ones have died because pilots couldn’t deal with having to fly planes themselves, then what you’ve had to go through is pretty damned dark.
Again, Bustillos quotes Carr accurately: The automation of piloting is a sunny story with a dark footnote. If Carr says anywhere in his book that we would be better off if we ditched our automated systems and went back to manual flying, I haven’t seen it. I’d like for Bustillos to show it to me. But I don’t think she can.
The point Carr is making in that chapter of The Glass Cage is that flight automation shows us that even wonderful technologies that make us safer and healthier come with a cost of some kind — a “dark footnote” at least. Even photographers who rejoice in the fabulous powers of digital photography knows that there were things Cartier-Bresson could do with his Leica and film and darkroom that they struggle to replicate. Very, very few of those photographers will go back to the earlier tools; but thinking about the differences, counting those costs, is a vital intellectual exercise that helps to keep us users of our tools instead of their thoughtless servants. If we don’t take care to think in this way, we’ll have no way of knowing whether the adoption of a new technology gives us a sunny story with no more than a footnote’s worth of darkness — or something far worse.
All Carr is saying, really, is: count the costs. This is counsel Bustillos actively repudiates: “Computers are tools, no different from hammers, blowtorches or bulldozers; history clearly suggests that we will get better at making and using them. With the gifts of intelligence, foresight and sensible leadership, we’ve managed to develop safer factories, more productive agricultural systems and more fuel-efficient cars.” Now I just need her to explain to me how those “gifts of intelligence, foresight and sensible leadership” have also yielded massively armored local police departments and the vast apparatus of a national surveillance state, among other developments.
I suppose “history clearly suggests” that those are either not problems at all or problems that will magically vanish — because if not, then Carr might be correct when he writes, near the end of his book, that “The belief in technology as a benevolent, self-healing, autonomous force is seductive.”
But that’s just what a paranoid scaredy-cat would say, isn’t it?
UPDATE: Evan Selinger has some very useful thoughts — I didn’t see them until after I wrote this post.