Review: ‘The Glass Cage: Automation and Us’ by Nicholas Carr


Am I the master of the machine, or its servant? Am I an actor in the world, or an observer? –Nicholas Carr

These thoughts were expressed by airplane pilots who command modern aircrafts with autopilots. Large proportion of aircraft accidents has recently been caused by human error. Most notable was the Air France Airbus A330 crash in the Atlantic May 31, 2009, with 228 passengers and a crew onboard.

This degeneration effect of human craft due to automation is a major theme in ‘The Glass Cage: Automation and Us’ by Nicholas Carr. This thought-provoking book was chilling to read when I was flying over Europe on a brand new Airbus A321.

What Effects Automation Have On Us

The book approaches automation and artificial intelligence from several viewpoints:

  • History of automation since the first factories in 19th century.
  • How automation has influenced various professions like airline pilots, physicians and architects.
  • What is the future of automation in the fields having more robots and advanced tools like IBM’s Watson with its cognitive computing.

Carr focuses on the human point of view and how workmanship has changed due to automated processes. The book is filled with references to history, research studies and has some amusing anecdotes.

The Lost Art of Navigation

GPS and navigators are presented as examples of how automated tools reduce our spatial awareness. When reading an ordinary map, we create a cognitive map of the area.

Since GPS is an accurate way to navigate to the destination, we lose the autonomy to orient by relying on navigational tools. Carr sites a research by neuroscientists who link navigational skills to formation of memories, especially events and experiences.

“The harder people work at building cognitive maps of space, the stronger their underlying circuits seem to become” Carr states in the book.

The Future of Automation

Automation is frequently technology-centered. Human-centered and adaptive automation approaches are emerging to take human better into account in the automated processes.

The book raises valuable questions about setting rules and governance for automation. Self-driving cars, Internet of Things and home automation start surrounding us. Governance for automation, legislation and ethics will have to get more emphasis.


Few books make us to alter our behavior. Two books have had such a profound effect on me.

The first is ‘The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains’, also by Nicholas Carr. This book prompted me four years ago to reduce my Internet use. Since reading the book I’ve kept an annual week without Internet or TV, and have relied on books during that week.

The other book is ‘The Glass Cage’, which has now made me to consider what effect smartphone navigator has on my spatial awareness. I’ve decided to start using maps along with GPS tools. I will become the master again, at least what comes to navigation.


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