There’s a small indie film that came out a couple of years ago, Robot and Frank, which features Frank Langella as “Frank,” an aging, elderly retiree with a case of dementia whose worried kids hire a live-in nurse for his day-to-day life. But in this case, the live-in nurse is a robot. It’s a smart, well made small film, ostensibly cute on the surface (“Robot” and Frank, a former cat burglar, rob a house together!), but it has a lot to say about aging, friendship, and how we’re going to deal with technology in the future.
One aspect of the film that gave me chills was the idea that it was set in the near future, which very much may be my future, and there were hints that Frank was a character who was about my age. Watching the film through that lens — when I get old, I may very well have a robot friend to assist me as a nurse — gave it heft. It will probably not be as whimsical as the South Park song “My Robot Friend.” (Which, if you think “Awesome-O” is a great South Park episode, is impossible to get out of your head regarding this book.)
Like the brains behind Robot and Frank, Nicholas Carr, the technology and culture writer who’s best known for The Big Switch: Rewiring the World From Edison to Google, and the Pulitzer Prize-finalist The Shallows: What The Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, has also thought about what role robots, robotics, and automatons are likely to play in our future. In his new book, The Glass Cage: Automation and Us, Carr provides an elegantly written history of what role robotics have played in our past, and the possible role that they may play in our future.
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.