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Glass Cage hits Blighty

The UK edition of The Glass Cage comes out tomorrow, sporting a different cover and subtitle:

uk glass cage cover

I’ve been gratified by the early reviews in the British press. Here are some choice bits:

Bill Thompson in BBC Focus magazine: “My copy of this excellent book is so thoroughly scribbled on that I’d simply never be able to get rid of it. I’ve circled lots of stuff I agree — or disagree — with, and added exclamation marks to insights that I want to explore more deeply. … The Glass Cage is infused with a humanist perspective that puts people and their needs at the centre of the argument around automation and the alienation created by many modern systems. … So put down your phone, take off your Google Glass and read this.”

Ian Critchley in The Sunday Times: “[Carr] recognizes that machines have freed us from the burden of many mundane tasks. His argument, though, is that the balance has tipped too far. Automation has taken over some of the activities that challenged us and strengthened our connection to the environment. … His book is a valuable corrective to the belief that technology will cure all ills, and a passionate plea to keep machines the servants of humans, not the other way around.”

Richard Waters in The Financial Times: “Nicholas Carr is not a technophobe. But in The Glass Cage he brings a much-needed humanistic perspective to the wider issues of automation. In an age of technological marvels, it is easy to forget the human. … How to achieve a more balanced view of progress when all of today’s incentives are geared towards an ever-faster cycle of invention and deployment of new technologies? There is no room for an answer in this wide-ranging book. As ever, though, Carr’s skill is in setting the debate running, not finding answers.”

John Preston in The Telegraph: “What exactly has automation done for us? Has it freed people from drudgery and made them happier? Or has it, as Nicholas Carr wonders in this elegantly persuasive book, had the opposite effect, transforming us into passive zombies, helplessly reliant on machines to tell us what to do? … [Carr is] no Luddite who thinks that we would all be better off living in holes in the ground and making our own woad. Instead, in his thoughtful, non-strident way, he’s simply pointing out that the cost of automation may be far higher than we have realised.”

Giles Whittell in The Times: “An important book that a lot of people won’t want to take seriously, but should. … [Carr] has a deep and valuable fear of techno-emasculation. It’s a fear based on evidence but also intuition.”

Carole Cadwalladr in The Observer: “Provocative … Who is it serving, this new technology, asks Carr. Us? Or the companies that make billions from it? Billions that have shown no evidence of trickling down. The question shouldn’t be ‘who cares?’ he says at one point. It should be: how far from the world do we want to retreat?”

Jasmine Gardner in the Evening Standard: “Carr argues, very convincingly, that automation is eroding our memory while simultaneously creating a complacency within us that will diminish our ability to gain new skills.”

The Bookseller: “An eye-opening exposé of how automation is altering our ability to solve problems, forge memories and acquire skills.”


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The needle and the damage done


“Who cares about science? This is music. We’re talking about how you feel.” So said Neil Young in introducing his high-resolution Pono player. Good luck, Neil, but I fear you’re a little downstream. In the end it’s more about the recording than the playback. This is from Tom Whitwell’s article “Why Do All Records Sound the Same?”:

What makes working with Pro Tools really different from tape is that editing is absurdly easy. Most bands record to a click track, so the tempo is locked. If a guitarist plays a riff fifty times, it’s a trivial job to pick the best one and loop it for the duration of the verse.

“Musicians are inherently lazy,” says John [Leckie]. “If there’s an easier way of doing something than actually playing, they’ll do that.” A band might jam together for a bit, then spend hours or days choosing the best bits and pasting a track together. All music is adopting the methods of dance music, of arranging repetitive loops on a grid. With the structure of the song mapped out in coloured boxes on screen, there’s a huge temptation to fill in the gaps, add bits and generally clutter up the sound.

This is also why you no longer hear mistakes on records. Al Kooper’s shambolic Hammond organ playing on “Like A Rolling Stone” could never happen today because a diligent producer would discreetly shunt his chords back into step. Then there’s tuning. Until electronic guitar tuners appeared around 1980, the band would tune by ear to the studio piano. Everyone was slightly off, but everyone was listening to the pitch of their instrument, so they were musically off.

(Meanwhile, back at the ranch.)

Image: John Vincent.


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Vehicular homicide

I am obsessed by the ugliness of the self-driving concept car that Mercedes showed off at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas last week:


Its design seems to have been inspired by the head of the monster from the movie Alien. The car’s official name is the F015 Luxury in Motion. But I have nicknamed it The Silver Turd.

The ugliness is more than skin deep. The tiny, mirrored windows reflect the carmaker’s vision of the car as a sybaritic isolation chamber, a stately pleasure-dome that shields its occupants from the outside world. “The single most important luxury goods of the 21st century are private space and time,” said Mercedes CEO Dieter Zetsche in unveiling The Silver Turd. “Autonomously driving cars by Mercedes-Benz shall offer exactly that — with the F015 Luxury in Motion, this revolutionary concept of mobility becomes tangible for the first time.” In its post-revolutionary form, mobility becomes indistinguishable from stasis.

The womblike interior borrows the “glass cockpit” design of the modern commercial airliner. The cabin is wrapped in computer monitors, and it’s these screens, not the windows, that provide the primary “interface” for the occupants.


“A central idea of ​​the concept,” explains a reporter from Motor Authority, “is a continuous exchange of information between vehicles, passengers and the outside world. For interaction within the vehicle, the passengers rely on six display screens located around the cabin. They also interact with the vehicle through gestures, eye-tracking or by touching the high-resolution screens. Outside, the F015 uses laser projection, radio signals and LED displays to communicate with its surroundings.” Responsibility for perceiving and acting in the world is transferred to the computers, freeing the passengers to enjoy a fully simulated experience.

I’m reminded of the Thom Gunn poem “On the Move,” these two lines in particular:

Much that is natural, to the will must yield.
Men manufacture both machine and soul.
“When the car reaches its destination,” the reporter tells us, “the seats then rotate towards the door for an easy exit for passengers.”


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Screening the future


In “HAL, Mother, and Father,” an essay in the Paris Review, Jason Resnikoff remembers how his father, a computer scientist, reacted to the visions of the future presented in science fiction movies of the Sixties and Seventies. First came 2001:

My father was so buried in computers that when he saw 2001 he very much liked HAL, the spaceship Discovery’s villainous central computer. To this day, he enjoys quoting the part of the movie where HAL tries to explain away his own mistake — the supposed fault in the AE35 unit — by saying, “This kind of thing has cropped up before, and it has always been due to human error,” an excuse that more or less sums up my father’s considerably erudite understanding of computers. According to my father’s interpretation of the film, HAL wanted to become something more than he was. Becoming, always and ever becoming, is in my father’s eyes a worthy, nay, a noble way to go through life, always trying finally to be yourself, that most elusive of goals. The mission to Jupiter was a mission to take the next step in evolution, and HAL wanted to be the one to evolve. My father made this sound like a very reasonable desire, one that makes HAL the hero of the movie.

Put on the film now and you see the physical metaphor of evolution as Kubrick and Clarke imagined it: a perfectly symmetrical monolith, its facets immaculately smooth, the most ordered object imaginable. And there I see how my father was in the thick of it. He thought his work with computers was in a small way helping to liberate humanity, to allow people to think beyond what had until then been the limits of cognition. When those right angles appeared in the shape of a monolith, my father saw freedom, but I doubt he saw what else they stood for: that they were the same right angles of urban renewal displacing working-class neighborhoods and erecting in their ruins other kinds of monoliths, housing projects like prisons, expressways that gutted street life. Or the monolith of an office building somewhere in Thailand, where as a part of Operation Igloo White all the might of the United States military was mobilized in a truly insane attempt to automate “strategic” bombing in Vietnam via a dense network of computers, but only managed to drop bombs on random people. I very much doubt he realized how his work, the very systems of command and control he was helping to develop, would in the hands of the greedy and inhuman come to destroy the world he thought was on the verge of being born.

Image: Patrick Feller.

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The picture of ourselves

From “Among the Disrupted,” a new essay by Leon Wieseltier:

All revolutions exaggerate, and the digital revolution is no different. We are still in the middle of the great transformation, but it is not too early to begin to expose the exaggerations, and to sort out the continuities from the discontinuities. The burden of proof falls on the revolutionaries, and their success in the marketplace is not sufficient proof. Presumptions of obsolescence, which are often nothing more than the marketing techniques of corporate behemoths, need to be scrupulously examined. By now we are familiar enough with the magnitude of the changes in all the spheres of our existence to move beyond the futuristic rhapsodies that characterize much of the literature on the subject. We can no longer roll over and celebrate and shop. Every phone in every pocket contains a “picture of ourselves,” and we must ascertain what that picture is and whether we should wish to resist it.


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The politics of programming

control board

For the last post of the year, I give you a short excerpt from The Glass Cage.

It’s commonly assumed that any technology that comes to be broadly adopted in a field, and hence gains momentum, must be the best one for the job. Progress, in this view, is a quasi-Darwinian process. Many different technologies are invented, they compete for users and buyers, and after a period of rigorous testing and comparison the marketplace chooses the best of the bunch. Only the fittest tools survive. Society can thus be confident that the technologies it employs are the optimum ones — and that the alternatives discarded along the way were flawed in some fatal way.

It’s a reassuring view of progress, founded on, in the words of the late historian David Noble, “a simple faith in objective science, economic rationality, and the market.” But as Noble went on to explain in his 1984 book Forces of Production, it’s a distorted view: “It portrays technological development as an autonomous and neutral technical process, on the one hand, and a coldly rational and self-regulating process, on the other, neither of which accounts for people, power, institutions, competing values, or different dreams.” In place of the complexities, vagaries, and intrigues of history, the prevailing view of technological progress presents us with a simplistic, retrospective fantasy.

Noble illustrated the tangled way technologies actually gain acceptance and momentum through the story of the automation of the machine tool industry in the years after World War II. Inventors and engineers developed several different techniques for programming lathes, drill presses, and other factory tools, and each of the control methods had advantages and disadvantages. One of the simplest and most ingenious of the systems, called Specialmatic, was invented by a Princeton-trained engineer named Felix P. Caruthers and marketed by a small New York company called Automation Specialties. Using an array of keys and dials to encode and control the workings of a machine, Specialmatic put the power of programming into the hands of skilled machinists on the factory floor. A machine operator, explained Noble, “could set and adjust feeds and speeds, relying upon accumulated experience with the sights, sounds, and smells of metal cutting.”

In addition to bringing the tacit know-how of the experienced craftsman into the automated system, Specialmatic had an economic advantage: a manufacturer did not have to pay a squad of engineers and consultants to program its equipment. Caruthers’s technology earned accolades from American Machinist magazine, which noted that Specialmatic “is designed to permit complete set-up and programming at the machine.” It would allow the machinist to gain the efficiency benefits of automation while retaining “full control of his machine throughout its entire machining cycle.”

But Specialmatic never gained a foothold in the market. While Caruthers was working on his invention, the U.S. Air Force was plowing money into a research program, conducted by an MIT team with longstanding ties to the military, to develop “numerical control,” a digital coding technique that was a forerunner of modern software programming. Not only did numerical control enjoy the benefits of a generous government subsidy and a prestigious academic pedigree; it appealed to business owners and managers who, faced with unremitting labor tensions after the war, yearned to gain more control over the operation of machinery in order to undercut the power of workers and their unions. Numerical control also had the glow of a cutting-edge technology — it was carried along by the burgeoning postwar excitement over digital computers. The MIT system may have been, as the author of a Society of Manufacturing Engineers paper would later write, “a complicated, expensive monstrosity,” but industrial giants like GE and Westinghouse rushed to embrace the technology, never giving alternatives like Specialmatic a chance.

Far from winning a tough evolutionary battle for survival, numerical control was declared the victor before competition even began. Programming took precedence over people, establishing a misanthropic design philosophy that now dominates our thinking about automation. As for the general public, it never knew that a choice had been made.


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The singularity is always near


I’ve been at least vaguely aware of Samuel Butler’s 1865 essay “Darwin Among the Machines” for a long time (mainly through quotations in George Dyson’s excellent book of the same title), but I hadn’t read it in full until I stumbled on a copy online a couple of days ago. It’s a strange and remarkable piece of work, and one that echoes loudly today. In fact, given the dire new predictions about humankind’s coming servitude to artificially intelligent machines, the essay’s resonance may be greater than ever. As a public service, I’m posting the whole thing here. Read it while baking your figgy pudding*:

There are few things of which the present generation is more justly proud than of the wonderful improvements which are daily taking place in all sorts of mechanical appliances. And indeed it is matter for great congratulation on many grounds. It is unnecessary to mention these here, for they are sufficiently obvious; our present business lies with considerations which may somewhat tend to humble our pride and to make us think seriously of the future prospects of the human race. If we revert to the earliest primordial types of mechanical life, to the wedge, the inclined plane, the screw and the pulley, or (for analogy would lead us one step further) to that one primordial type from which all the mechanical kingdom has been developed, we mean to the lever itself, and if we then examine the machinery of the Great Eastern [steamship], we find ourselves almost awestruck at the vast development of the mechanical world, at the gigantic strides with which it has advanced in comparison with the slow progress of the animal and vegetable kingdom. We shall find it impossible to refrain from asking ourselves what the end of this mighty movement is to be. In what direction is it tending? What will be its upshot? To give a few imperfect hints towards a solution of these questions is the object of the present letter.

We have used the words “mechanical life,” “the mechanical kingdom,” “the mechanical world” and so forth, and we have done so advisedly, for as the vegetable kingdom was slowly developed from the mineral, and as in like manner the animal supervened upon the vegetable, so now in these last few ages an entirely new kingdom has sprung up, of which we as yet have only seen what will one day be considered the antediluvian prototypes of the race.

We regret deeply that our knowledge both of natural history and of machinery is too small to enable us to undertake the gigantic task of classifying machines into the genera and sub-genera, species, varieties and sub-varieties, and so forth, of tracing the connecting links between machines of widely different characters, of pointing out how subservience to the use of man has played that part among machines which natural selection has performed in the animal and vegetable kingdoms, of pointing out rudimentary organs which exist in some few machines, feebly developed and perfectly useless, yet serving to mark descent from some ancestral type which has either perished or been modified into some new phase of mechanical existence. We can only point out this field for investigation; it must be followed by others whose education and talents have been of a much higher order than any which we can lay claim to.

Some few hints we have determined to venture upon, though we do so with the profoundest diffidence. Firstly, we would remark that as some of the lowest of the vertebrata attained a far greater size than has descended to their more highly organised living representatives, so a diminution in the size of machines has often attended their development and progress. Take the watch for instance. Examine the beautiful structure of the little animal, watch the intelligent play of the minute members which compose it; yet this little creature is but a development of the cumbrous clocks of the thirteenth century — it is no deterioration from them. The day may come when clocks, which certainly at the present day are not diminishing in bulk, may be entirely superseded by the universal use of watches, in which case clocks will become extinct like the earlier saurians, while the watch (whose tendency has for some years been rather to decrease in size than the contrary) will remain the only existing type of an extinct race.

The views of machinery which we are thus feebly indicating will suggest the solution of one of the greatest and most mysterious questions of the day. We refer to the question: What sort of creature man’s next successor in the supremacy of the earth is likely to be. We have often heard this debated; but it appears to us that we are ourselves creating our own successors; we are daily adding to the beauty and delicacy of their physical organisation; we are daily giving them greater power and supplying by all sorts of ingenious contrivances that self-regulating, self-acting power which will be to them what intellect has been to the human race. In the course of ages we shall find ourselves the inferior race. Inferior in power, inferior in that moral quality of self-control, we shall look up to them as the acme of all that the best and wisest man can ever dare to aim at. No evil passions, no jealousy, no avarice, no impure desires will disturb the serene might of those glorious creatures. Sin, shame, and sorrow will have no place among them. Their minds will be in a state of perpetual calm, the contentment of a spirit that knows no wants, is disturbed by no regrets. Ambition will never torture them. Ingratitude will never cause them the uneasiness of a moment. The guilty conscience, the hope deferred, the pains of exile, the insolence of office, and the spurns that patient merit of the unworthy takes — these will be entirely unknown to them. If they want “feeding” (by the use of which very word we betray our recognition of them as living organism) they will be attended by patient slaves whose business and interest it will be to see that they shall want for nothing. If they are out of order they will be promptly attended to by physicians who are thoroughly acquainted with their constitutions; if they die, for even these glorious animals will not be exempt from that necessary and universal consummation, they will immediately enter into a new phase of existence, for what machine dies entirely in every part at one and the same instant?

We take it that when the state of things shall have arrived which we have been above attempting to describe, man will have become to the machine what the horse and the dog are to man. He will continue to exist, nay even to improve, and will be probably better off in his state of domestication under the beneficent rule of the machines than he is in his present wild state. We treat our horses, dogs, cattle, and sheep, on the whole, with great kindness; we give them whatever experience teaches us to be best for them, and there can be no doubt that our use of meat has added to the happiness of the lower animals far more than it has detracted from it; in like manner it is reasonable to suppose that the machines will treat us kindly, for their existence is as dependent upon ours as ours is upon the lower animals. They cannot kill us and eat us as we do sheep; they will not only require our services in the parturition of their young (which branch of their economy will remain always in our hands), but also in feeding them, in setting them right when they are sick, and burying their dead or working up their corpses into new machines. It is obvious that if all the animals in Great Britain save man alone were to die, and if at the same time all intercourse with foreign countries were by some sudden catastrophe to be rendered perfectly impossible, it is obvious that under such circumstances the loss of human life would be something fearful to contemplate—in like manner were mankind to cease, the machines would be as badly off or even worse. The fact is that our interests are inseparable from theirs, and theirs from ours. Each race is dependent upon the other for innumerable benefits, and, until the reproductive organs of the machines have been developed in a manner which we are hardly yet able to conceive, they are entirely dependent upon man for even the continuance of their species. It is true that these organs may be ultimately developed, inasmuch as man’s interest lies in that direction; there is nothing which our infatuated race would desire more than to see a fertile union between two steam engines; it is true that machinery is even at this present time employed in begetting machinery, in becoming the parent of machines often after its own kind, but the days of flirtation, courtship, and matrimony appear to be very remote, and indeed can hardly be realised by our feeble and imperfect imagination.

Day by day, however, the machines are gaining ground upon us; day by day we are becoming more subservient to them; more men are daily bound down as slaves to tend them, more men are daily devoting the energies of their whole lives to the development of mechanical life. The upshot is simply a question of time, but that the time will come when the machines will hold the real supremacy over the world and its inhabitants is what no person of a truly philosophic mind can for a moment question.

Our opinion is that war to the death should be instantly proclaimed against them. Every machine of every sort should be destroyed by the well-wisher of his species. Let there be no exceptions made, no quarter shown; let us at once go back to the primeval condition of the race. If it be urged that this is impossible under the present condition of human affairs, this at once proves that the mischief is already done, that our servitude has commenced in good earnest, that we have raised a race of beings whom it is beyond our power to destroy, and that we are not only enslaved but are absolutely acquiescent in our bondage.

For the present we shall leave this subject, which we present gratis to the members of the Philosophical Society. Should they consent to avail themselves of the vast field which we have pointed out, we shall endeavour to labour in it ourselves at some future and indefinite period.

I swiped the headline to this post from a piece Kevin Kelly wrote back in 2006. It’s also worth reading.

*Wikipedia is brilliant on figgy pudding: “Figgy pudding is a pudding resembling a paler coloured Christmas pudding containing figs.” Where does one begin in singing the praises of such a sentence?


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