The Glass Cockpit

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Is the Internet making us smarter or stupider? It’s a question Q the Podcast recently tackled in a lively and in-depth debate between lots of smart and interesting people. There is enough evidence to support both sides of the debate. But what I concluded after listening to the show was that for all of the doomsday talk about the technologies and processes that have become embedded in our digitized culture within the last decade or so, how we use the Internet is ultimately not up to the Internet.

No matter how incentivizing are the apps and social networks we frequent; nor addicting the silly games we enjoy; nor efficient the tools we use, there is still a human being making decisions in front of a screen. So while I certainly sympathize with those who profess addiction (willing or otherwise) to Tweeting or checking Facebook, I remind everyone using technology of any kind of Uncle Ben’s famous maxim: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We as autonomous, advanced-brain human beings have the power to do or not to do things. It’s a great power to have, but it also requires perseverance. The allure of instant gratification the usual Internet suspects provide won’t be defeated easily. It takes a willpower heretofore unknown to modern peoples. It takes resolve to fight temptation that is equal or greater than the temptation itself.

Do you have what it takes? Do I? Eh, it’s day to day.

But flipping this entire argument on its head is Nicholas Carr’s recent article in The Atlantic called “All Can Be Lost: The Risk of Putting Our Knowledge in the Hands of Machines,” which delves into the burgeoning world of automation. He writes about how we’ve become increasingly reliant on computers to perform more elaborate and complicated tasks that had previously been done by humans. The benefit of this is that we’re able to get tasks done quicker and more efficiently. The downside is that some human services are no longer required, which means the skills needed to perform those services are eroding.

Carr uses the example of airplane pilots, who have been increasingly relegated to monitoring digital screens (the “glass cockpit”) as the computers do the heavy lifting and only sometimes take the plane’s reigns. While the usefulness of autopilot is obvious, when computers take away control of the primary functions of flying they are also taking away the neurological and physiological skills pilots have honed over years of flying.

This is a problem, says Carr, because “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, he says, disconnects the ends from the means and thereby makes getting what we want easier without having to do the work of knowing. This just about nails social media, doesn’t it? It’s so easy to get what we want these days that the work we used to have to do no longer is required of us. To research a paper in college, one had to go to the physical library and pull out a physical book and transcribe quotes by hand; now a quick Google search and copy-paste will get that done in a jiff (or is it GIF?).

This isn’t a bad thing. I’m thankful that many tasks take eons less time than they used to. (I mean, typewriters are cool, but they’re not very amenable to formatting or mistakes.) My point is it’s important to understand how and why we use technology the way we do, and to acknowledge that we have agency over that use. To disregard that agency is to refuse to accept responsibility for our own power. And we know what happens then.

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