The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr (book review).

Computerised driven machines are making us complacent is probably the strongest message from Nicholas Carr’s book ‘The Glass Cage’. It can do all our routine stuff that we can do as programmers translate into computer routines. Computers lack the ability to think for themselves and even reprogram themselves but this distinguishes them from organic people. This doesn’t mean they can’t do many things. Carr gives many examples throughout this book and as he says in the introduction, you aren’t going to get technical details, making this a book for the general reader.


The caption on the top of the cover saying ‘Required reading for everyone with a phone’ seems to be a bit of a misnomer, assuming Jonathan Safran Foer is quoted is referring to a mobile phone as I don’t own one but as many of you do. That being the case, put your hand up if you can’t sustain your current life-style without it. That would be a sharp reminder how much you have become dependent on an object and its software that you don’t know who  invented or what else it does. We are all beholden to this and can only hope that the designers and programmers have got it right. We are living in the computer age after all. Just not one that wasn’t thought of in Science Fiction.

Interestingly, of all the reports I’ve read about automated cars, Carr (sic) is about the only one who referenced ‘Knight Rider’, albeit briefly, related to them. Indeed, I wish in some ways he actually had compared how we use computers today to any models SF has done in the past but then I wouldn’t have had the material for this month’s editorial.

What should be a lesson for all of you out there is how complacency has crept in as people rely on their technology to guide them and it reduces their decision-making process. Look at the times where people have just followed their sat-nav devices into rivers and ask yourself whether you would have done the same thing had they used a map. Then look at yourself in a similar situation. Reading this, I can’t help feel people need to keep their eyes on the real world and I’m supposed to have some expertise in technology. When you see it happen with ships and aeroplanes, where others are dependent on you making the right decision quickly, then it’s very dangerous. Thinking about it, I can’t help feel that the sat-nav system needs a serious upgrade so that on the trip it points out certain landmarks and so forth so should it break down that you could be able to get home without it if it breaks down. Carr makes a very good observation that too much dependency is eroding our natural directional skills. I would go further and wonder what other innate abilities are also being turned off by over use. Given the choice, pick and customise any software that you buy to what you want it to do than the bog standard choices. At least you’d be showing some level of thinking in your own decisions.

With Google, their program developer thinks the more accurate the search becomes, the lazier the question although he doesn’t offer anything that they might be doing to ensure that this is overcome. One thing I wish was addressed is why does Google give so many off-kilter answers in its selections.

Seeing the incentive aspect on some medical check software which turns into money can be made in America is clearly a touch obscene. If anything, I think people programming software ought to include things to ensure the users pay better attention to what they’re doing so nothing becomes routine or at least inform the patient what extra costs he or she might also be incurring. As we should all know, routine is when we aren’t paying attention.

Carr does address one vital item from SF and that is Asimov’s Three Laws Of Robotics and the act of preserving life and the quandary of turning that into sub-routine, especially when there are conflicts of choice. I mean, if someone is stepping out onto the road, the car would swerve to avoid but what if that swerve meant you would collide with a tree or another car before it could break? Interesting dilemma, huh? If anything, the computer routine would probably save its passengers as a priority but I doubt if it would go into meltdown over it but would probably alert an ambulance.

With only a brief examination of robots on a battlefield, I wish Carr had explored the dilemmas further other than saying that they would be of limited use. From my perspective, I suspect both sides would be focusing on jamming the opposition or worse, subverting them to attack their own. Don’t forget, these aren’t even Artificial Intelligence but similar programs that run your computer and other technology software and look at how easy it is for some people to hack into.

Going back to civilian life, something that I wasn’t really aware of was how Google maps adjusts its mapping only to what you might be of interest in rather than give the complete picture of where you are in an urban area. I can see this developing into pocket universes and limited choice that could turn many people into, for the want of a better choice of words, social idiots. If our cities are shaped by such things, what will they be like in the future? Even worse, the likes of Google and other such firms are creating strong lobbies at government level now to ensure they get their way. If you compare this to how the gun lobby in the USA gets its own way, then you people out there reading this aren’t going to have much say in what is going on.

As much as I use computer technology, I think I am entitled to have some option in what and how I use the software I buy rather than being told this is the only way. If you read this book, I’m sure you will be equally angry about this. I was looking over the future of Microsoft’s Office software this month and the version that is coming up with Windows 10 is an annual lease. Granted you will have all the updates as they happen but from a different perspective, MS is going to rake in a lot of extra money by doing so. I have a feeling that those of us on a limited budget are just going to rely on older software, assuming that it isn’t inhibit it from working which is also hinted at.

As you can tell, there is a lot to be learnt from this book. I also used it to track some of the things myself and got a scary reaction for my trouble. Now none of us here are totally technophobes or we wouldn’t be using the technology here and in other parts of our lives. However, not all of us here are that well versed in aspects of programming or its implications. We don’t have to fear the likes of Skynet but rather our own dependence and that means on the corporations supplying the technology and software that we use and their own hidden agendas. If they get it wrong, we are in serious problems and to make it worse, we’re becoming far too compliant and not using our own brains to make our own decisions. If you can get this from reading this book then author Nicholas Carr has made a very valid point that you need to lobby yourself and making this book the most important one that you need to read this year.

GF Willmetts

February 2015

(pub: The Bodley Head/Random House. 276 page hardback. Price: £20.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-847-92308-0)

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