We live in an exciting time. The digital revolution brings new marvels almost daily. Unfortunately, progress often includes down sides. As thinking believers, we need to understand both the possibilities and the problems associated with new technologies. The Inevitable: 12 Technological Forces that will Shape Our Future (Viking, 2016) by Kevin Kelly and The Glass Cage: How Our Computers are Changing Us (Norton, 2014) by Nicholas Carr offer two perspectives to help us evaluate these changes, and to do so with both hope and caution. Because these two books are often in opposition (The Inevitable is wholly positive; while The Glass Cage offers more cautionary support.), looking at both volumes provides a helpful balance.
Kevin Kelly's title and subtitle capture the message of his book. First of all, Kelly sees the changes technology is bringing as inevitable. This inevitability does not frighten him, because he assesses these changes as positive and productive. To describe the 12 technological forces he isolates, Kelly chooses present participles (which our grammar classes remind us are adjectives ending in "ing" and made from verbs), a choice that reflects the activity and movement Kelly sees as inherent in these technological trends. Kelly is not unaware of technological issues, but he dismisses them saying while the speed of change necessarily beats the speed of civilizing these changes, civility eventually arises. Since, as Kelly says, we are always becoming (that is, endlessly upgrading technology), it seems reasonable to assume we will always be civilizing as well. The next 10 trends Kelly isolates are "cognifying" (his word for the use of technological, rather than mechanical solutions), flowing ("the 'superdistribution,'of knowledge"), screening, accessing, sharing, filtering, remixing, interacting, tracking, questioning. The book concludes under the heading "beginning," where Kelly proposes the best is yet to come.
Much of The Inevitable is true and powerful, but its almost unhindered optimism borders on Utopianism, even though Kelly denies that charge. He generally ignores the history of people's using technology to achieve power and satisfy greed. The problem with Kelly's book is that it has no underlying anthropology. Technology is not amoral, because people use it.Also, no perfect world exists without a perfect Savior. The Inevitable minimizes technological problems and the changes that screens make in our thinking and acting. For an antidote to The Inevitable's optimism, we do well to consider Nicolas Carr's The Glass Cage.
In The Glass Cage, Carr describes several of unintended consequences that have accompanied recent technological advances. He begins his book recounting the horrible results of pilots who relied so much on automation that they were unable to handle a crisis when it occurred. In considering the fact that "automation often gives us what we don't need at the cost of what we do," Carr then rehearses the history of twentieth century technological advances and the problems associated with these advances. Carr's book differs from Kelly's in that it places technology within its historical and philosophical context.
As part of his diagnostic approach, Carr pinpoints two cognitive ailments (automation complacency and automation bias), which lull us into a false sense of security. We tend to trust our machines and their monitors far more than we should.We forget that the "replication of the outputs of thinking is not thinking." We ignore that fact that overuse of screens leads us to lose important abilities. For example, as we rely on our GPS's, we fail to develop the navigational section of our brain (hippocampus), even though strength in that section of the brain seems to provide protection from deterioration of memory. As the aforementioned pilot issue, similar losses have occurred in the areas of law, medicine, and architecture. This is double issue, for automation not only causes job loss, but the new jobs created are very limited—focusing on programming and on fixing machines. We are moving away from joyful discovery: truth, goodness, and beauty.
The short review (which is the medium I am working with now) does not allow either book the full attention it deserves. Both are worth a read. Ultimately they present two different views about technology and its ability to solve our problems, to be a Messiah as it were. Kelly affirms technology, viewing its incivilities as minor irritations. While Carr appreciates technology's ability to forward both the virtuous and vicious cycles, he reminds us "the smartest, most creative ideas come when people are afforded room to think." He adds that we, as citizens, must refuse to mindlessly accept technological change, but instead "grapple with" its "ethical implications." Carr also argues that we need to view technology as a tool rather than as a slave. To illustrate his views, Carr uses Robert Frost's poem A Boy's Will (in particular the sonnet about "The Mower") to explain this tool metaphor. For those who wonder where Carr's thinking is going, they should notes his most recent books bears the title Utopia is Creepy (Norton, 2016).
Technology is here to stay. We need to think ethically about it. Knowing different positions on technology is a foundation for careful thinking. These two books offer a starting point for this analysis.