In a world where there’s a lot of technology cheerleaders, Carr is one of our most valuable skeptics. He takes apart the myths that advancement is a necessary good by showing the neurological effects of automation. When a human uses a hammer, the brain sees the hammer as an extension of its human body. This neurological map is similarly applied when a human uses a smart phone. Because of that, we have a dumb animal trust of our information, and not always for the better.
Automation can range from the computer’s creep into health care and hospitals to the evolution of plane machinery to the self-driving car, all of which are topics here. What Carr does with a subject as mundane as maps creates a whole new view on how we find what we’re looking for in the world. He starts with the story of an Inuit tribe in far north Canada with an extraordinary history of wayfinding. They knew where they were going by being “masters of perception,” understanding “winds, snowdrift patterns, animal behavior, stars, tides, and currents.” But when the GPS came to their remote area, things changed: there was a higher instance of accidents and injuries from hunting, stemming from an over reliance on the GPS. Their extraordinary wayfinding ability, their ability to read the land, was blunted by the arrival of the GPS.
Carr shows how maps and our concept of them, have changed with the GPS. Where once we had to read an area, to see where we were in relation to the world, to figure it out with our heads, GPS satellite technology has made the world shrink to our perceptions of it. These technologically adept maps start with where we are and tell us, simply, how to get to the next place. It reduces our cognitive abilities with its ease. “The more you think about it, the more you realize that to never confront the possibility of getting lost is to live in a state of perpetual dislocation,” he writes. Carr pulls off this incredible synthesis, over and over, starting with something like maps and what technology’s done with them, bringing history, literature, culture, economics, and science, all together to reveal a window into who we are and what we’re becoming.
What’s important about the work that Carr is doing is that he shows the upcoming moral and ethical dilemmas that we are going to have to deal with when it comes to the failures of robotics, beyond the fact that they aren’t necessarily an infallible good. There’s a knotty relationship between humans and the technology that we’re developing, faster by the minute. The Glass Cage urges us to take a moment, to take stock, and to realize the price that we’re paying — if not right this second, then certainly at some point in the future — in order to live a life that’s made easier by technology.