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Reign of the robots: how to live in the machine age

By using ever more machines we lose not only physical skills, but cognitive faculties.

The Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us
Nicholas Carr
Bodley Head, 299pp, £20

The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress and Prospetiry in a Time of Brilliant Technologies.
Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
WW Norton, 320pp, £17.99

There is a Mitchell and Webb sketch in which two cavemen sit at a work table making tools. Big Feet (Webb) chips the flint, Red Beard (Mitchell) ties it to sticks. Red Beard reminds Big Feet that they won’t be getting much done today, because today is Bronze Orientation Day. “I’m so sick of hearing about bronze,” says Big Feet. “What’s wrong with stone? Does stone not work all of a sudden?” Red Beard is more open-minded: “They say it will revolutionise the way we hunter-gather.”

The leader of Bronze Orientation Day is Hairy Back, who is breathlessly enthusias­tic and talks in slogans. “My message to you is this: Don’t Be Afraid of Bronze. Bronze Is Brilliant.” Foremost among its virtues, he says, is that it doesn’t need to be chipped. Big Feet is understandably concerned to hear this, but Hairy Back confirms the bad news with ruthless cheer: “Old-fashioned chipping is a thing of the past. Have you thought about retraining as a smelter?”

The sketch is eloquent about our relationship with technological change. New technologies don’t just disrupt old ways of working, they split us into tribes: those who resist disruption to old ways, and those who insist that the new must always be embraced. Digital technology has come at us in such a rush in recent years that the polarisation is particularly acute. Most books about its effects on society are polemics, written by a follower of either Hairy Back or Big Feet: the internet will save the world, or destroy everything you love, depending on which. But now that personal computers are approaching middle age, perhaps we can have a more mature debate, one that presumes every new technology comes with a credit and debit sheet attached.

The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr provides a fine example. Carr’s previous book The Shallows argued that the internet is making us stupid, by turning us into a twitchy, distractible species capable of little more than clicking on someone else’s answers. The Shallows was rather one-sided: it underestimated the capacity of the web, used thoughtfully, to extend and deepen our thinking. Carr is an avid internet user and if his thesis was correct he should hardly have been able to write another book. But I am glad he did, because The Glass Cage, a more nuanced account of human cognition in the age of digital automation, is very good.

The Glass Cage warns that we may be creating a technological environment that erodes our skills, anaesthetises our curiosity and dims our critical faculties. From airline cockpits to central heating systems, cars and phones, we are swaddling ourselves in technologies whose workings we don’t understand, and that ask so little of us that we feel no need to enquire further. Carr quotes the technology historian George Dyson: “What if the cost of machines that think is people who don’t?”

In Seattle in 2008 the driver of a 12-foot-high school bus ran it into a nine-foot-high bridge. The top of the bus was sheared off and 16 students were injured. The driver later told police that he hadn’t seen the signs and flashing lights warning him of the bridge ahead because he was following GPS instructions. In 2009 Air France Flight 447 crashed into the Atlantic, killing all 228 of its passengers and crew. A subsequent investigation showed the aircraft had run into a storm that caused the autopilot to disengage, which threw the plane’s human pilots into a panic. In the words of the report, the crew suffered a “total loss of cognitive control of the situation”.

Carr acknowledges that digital automation has benefits, and to argue otherwise would be absurd. Computers remove the need for us to carry out tedious tasks; they make fewer errors than we do, perform miraculous feats of calculation and save lives. High-profile exceptions notwithstanding, you are less likely to be killed in an airline crash now than at any other time in the history of aviation. But none of this is to say we should not interrogate automation’s downsides. If we don’t, we may end up making ourselves redundant.

In The Second Machine Age, one of last year’s most important books, the economists Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee invite us to think about the relationship between human beings and technology as a race in which we are competing with machines for the best jobs. The race has had two stages. The first, which started with the Industrial Revolution, was mechanical. In the workplace and the home, machines took over the heavy lifting, performing physically demanding and repetitive tasks more reliably and efficiently than people. In the short term this created human losers such as the Luddite weavers, but in the long run many more of us were winners.

New technologies made some jobs obsolete but created whole new categories of employment, and the newer jobs have, on the whole, been more productive and better paid. They have also been more interesting: human beings have responded to the challenge of machines by cultivating brain over brawn. The grandchildren of Luddite weavers became factory managers; the children of typists in the 1960s became software engineers. A vast and prosperous middle class was created – if “middle class” means anything it indicates the ability to make a living from your mind rather than your muscle.

Understandably, given how well the past two centuries turned out, it has become almost heretical among economists and policymakers to suggest that technological automation is anything but beneficial, at least in the long run (as Hairy Back might put it, Automation is Awesome). So it is brave of Brynjolfsson and McAfee to contend that this time the machines really have put humanity on notice. The second stage of the race has begun, and we are in danger of losing it.

Human beings won the race with the machines of the Industrial Revolution by cultivating their intelligence. But information technology automates mental, not just manual tasks, and now, due to a huge increase in computing power and the sheer number of interconnected devices, the machines are catching up.

The digital sphere is expanding at a dizzy­ing rate: from music to agriculture to the military, ever more sophisticated cognitive labour is performed by algorithm. As the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen said, “software is eating the world”.

We appear to be next on the menu. It’s no coincidence that middle-class incomes are falling at a time when complex production and logistics processes are running smoothly with minimal human oversight, and hi-tech companies with small staffs are conquering the world at the expense of companies that rely heavily on cumbersome and temperamental meat-based robots . . . excuse me, people.

Brynjolfsson and McAfee sketch a potential future in which corporate profits rise higher than ever and an elite of robot-owners grows phenomenally rich while the rest of us wonder what to do with our time or how to feed our families. You might say that’s a fair description of the present. They would say you ain’t seen nothing yet. They note that there is no iron (nor bronze) law of economics that says most people benefit from technological progress, even if that has been true to date. It is quite possible that, to adapt Keynes, in the long, long run we are all obsolete.

Despite this, Brynjolfsson and McAfee are optimistic. They advise us to make the most of what remain uniquely human capabilities: inventiveness, empathy, an ability to cope with the unpredictable. To ensure that machines remain in the service of human happiness, we need to play to our strengths.

Sensible as that sounds, something tells me the robots have thought this one through. By taking so much out of our hands, and now our brains, they are neutering the very capabilities that might enable us to outrun them. The long-recognised problem of “deskilling” – as factories replace skilled labour with machines, workers become less skilled and therefore more dispensable – now applies to the very skills that ought to give us an edge over our machines. We are easing ourselves into a dependency trap.

Take navigation, a fascinating discussion of which appears in The Glass Cage. Mapping apps are a godsend. I do a lot of walking around London, the city where I live, and I rely much of the time on a blue dot to tell me where to go, which makes it much easier to get around (my sense of direction barely deserves the name). But Carr points to a hidden cost. Cognitive science has established, as a general principle, that the less you exercise a mental skill, the worse you get at it, and that this applies to the skill of mentally mapping space. Maybe that’s OK, as long as my battery doesn’t run out. But then again, maybe not.

The neural networks we employ to find our way through space are the same as those used in forming memories (memory seems to have begun in the need to find one’s way back to the right cave). Véronique Bohbot, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University, has found that the way people exercise their navigational skills affects the functioning of the hippocampus, a part of the brain pivotal to memory; studies have famously found the posterior hippocampus to be larger in the brains of London cabbies.

Bohbot also discovered that the more effort a person makes to build cognitive maps of space, the stronger his memory circuits become. When I follow the dot, I am not engaging my hippocampus. Consequently, I may be allowing age to ravage my memory faster than it would do otherwise. Bohbot worries that over the next 20 years, because society is increasingly geared towards shrinking the hippocampus (Uber drivers, like everyone else, use GPS), dementia will occur earlier and earlier.

Does this mean I’m going to delete Google Maps from my phone? No. But I will use it only when I absolutely have to. In other words, I will use it to augment, rather than replace, my meagre capacity for navigation. My aim is to avoid a relationship with my phone in which I become increasingly lost without it.

Just as it’s hard to say no to a good app, so the greater the degree of automation in society, the more likely we are to regard it as a force of nature, resistance to which is as rational as dancing a rainstorm away. But let’s recall Stevie Wonder’s definition of superstition: to believe in things that you don’t understand. Technophiles are fond of saying that the best technology is indistinguishable from magic. It is useful to remember, however, that magic relies on tricks, and the sleight of hand performed by digital technology is to hide from us what we are losing. Steve Jobs loved to say of a new Apple product, “It just works.” I, too, love technology that just works, but that’s not to say there isn’t a price to pay for tools that efface their very existence.

If the Luddites underestimated the benefits of innovation, they did at least regard the introduction of novel technologies as a choice, and in that sense, Carr points out, they were more rational than those today who insist that we hand over more tasks to machines. It has somehow become accepted that if a machine can do something, it should do it. This is the attitude of a child, cooing at every shiny thing that crosses her path, sticking it in her mouth even at the risk of choking.

Even the Luddites weren’t Luddites. Carr reminds us that the original gang (named after a legendary, possibly mythical Leicestershire machine-breaker, Ned Ludd) didn’t go around demolishing things because they hated machines, but because they were trying to prevent another form of destruction. They were out to protect a way of life that was bound up with the practice of their craft. They took pride in being good at something difficult, and enjoyed the security, respect and independence it brought. They didn’t hate what was new; they just loved what they had.

In 1958, New York’s modern master planner Robert Moses proposed to blast a highway through Greenwich Village, scattering its communities in order to make room for the inevitable technology of its day, the automobile. Moses had already built a highway through the Bronx, which never recovered from it. His plan for the Village was defeated by an alliance of local residents, including the urban philosopher Jane Jacobs, who articulated what would be lost in unforgettable terms: “the sidewalk ballet”, the dense web of glances, handshakes and hellos that constitutes city life at its most creative and fulfilling.

With digital technology today we are roughly at the stage we were with the car in the 1950s – dazzled by its possibilities and unwilling to think seriously about its costs, which is another way of saying we haven’t thought about how to maximise its benefits. Tools, whether they are made of flint or silicon, should be deployed to extend our potential, not erase it. Hunter-gathering has been revolutionised many times over but we still have the job of being human. It’s up to us to define the scope of work.

Ian Leslie is the author of “Curious: the Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends on It” (Quercus)

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Jihadis Among Us

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Cake or Death: why The Great British Bake Off is the best thing on television

Those who are complaining that the show has “caved in to political correctness” have missed the point.

The Cake is a Lie. That’s what viewers of the Great British Bake Off, now in its fifth season, are complaining about in the run-up to this week’s final. Out of thousands of amateur bakers who applied, three have made it through the gruelling rounds of Mary Berry’s disapproving pucker and faced down blue-eyed Cake Fascist Paul Hollywood’s demands without a single underbaked layer or soggy bottom in sight - and two of them aren’t white. The subsequent crypto-racist whining from PC-gone-madattrons in the press - one paper suggested that perhaps poor Flora, who was sent home last week, should have baked a "chocolate mosque" - runs against the whole spirit of Bake Off.

The charge is that the competition is not merit-based, and the entire basis for this complaint seems to be that two out of the finalists are of Asian origin - which makes total sense, because everyone knows that white people are better than everyone else at everything, including baking, so obviously it’s political correctness gone mad. The fact that last week Nadiya Hussain, a homemaker from Luton who happens to wear a hijab, baked an entire fucking peacock out of chocolate biscuits had nothing to do with it.

For those of you who mysteriously have better things to do with your time than watch 12 British people prat about in a tent, let me tell you why all of this matters. The best way to explain what's so great about The Great British Bake Off is to compare it to how they do these things across the pond. In America, they have a show called Cupcake Wars, which I gamely tuned into last year whilst living abroad and missing my fix of Sue Perkins getting overexcited about Tart Week. 

Big mistake. Cupcake Wars is nothing at all like Bake Off. Cupcake Wars is a post-Fordian nightmare of overproduction and backstabbing filmed under pounding lights to a sugary version of the Jaws soundtrack. Contestants mutter and scheme over giant vats of violent orange frosting about how they're going to destroy the competition, and they all need the prize money because without it their small cupcake businesses might fold and their children will probably be fed to Donald Trump. Every week a different celebrity guest picks one winner to produce a thousand cupcakes - a thousand cupcakes! - for some fancy party or other, and it’s all just excessive and cutthroat and cruel. Cupcake Wars is Cake Or Death.

Bake Off is quite different. Bake Off is not about the money, or even really about the winning. Bake Off is a magical world of bunting and scones and dapper lesbian comedians making ridiculous puns about buns and gentle, worried people getting in a flap about pastry. There are very few hysterics. Legend has it that if anybody has a real breakdown in the middle of a signature bake, presenters Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins stand next to them repeating brand names and swear-words so the cameramen can’t use the footage, and don’t you dare disabuse me of that fact, because I want it to be true. The prize money, in a desperately British way, is almost never mentioned, nobody tries to sabotage anyone else’s puff pastry, and at the end whoever has to leave gives a brave little interview about how it’s a shame but they tried their best and they were just happy to be there and they’re definitely going to do some more baking almost as soon as they get home. 

Bake Off is the theatre of the humdrum, where fussy, nervous people get to be heroes, making macarons as the seas rise and the planet boils and the leaders of the world don't care that they've left the oven on. I’m always a little bit frightened by people who can bake, because I can’t even make a muffin out of a packet, although one danger of watching too much Bake Off is that you become convinced you ought to give it another try, and I apologise to my housemates for making them eat my savoury vegan chilli-chocolate cookies (don’t ask). They say that if you can bake a cake, you can make a bomb, and by that logic I should definitely be kept away from the explosives when the zombie revolution comes- but the Bake Off contestants are probably the sort of people who will be Britain’s last line of defence, quietly constructing landmines and apologising that the stitching on the flag of insurrection isn’t quite perfect. People with this specific and terrifying personality type are that are precisely the reason Britain once had an empire, as well as the reason we’re now rather embarrassed about it. 

For now, though, Bake Off is a gentle human drama about all the best bits of Britishness- and diversity is part of that. In fact, this isn’t even the first time that two out of three finalists have not been white - that was two years ago. But something seems to have changed in British society at large, such that the same scenario is now more enraging to the kind of people who get their jollies from spoiling everything lovely and gentle in this world with casual bigotry - they know who they are, and may their Victoria sponges never rise and all their flatbreads turn out disappointingly chewy.

Britain is getting harder and meaner, and even Bake Off is not immune. In the first season, it was more than enough to bake a half decent brioche. This season an affable fireman got sent home because the grass on his miniature edible Victorian tennis court was not the right shade of green, and I’m not even joking. In one of the challenges the bakers had to produce an arcane french dessert that looked like the turds of a robot angel, and most of them actually managed it. The music is getting more dramatic, the close-up shots of flaky chocolate pastry and oozing pie-lids more reminiscent of 1970s pornography. It’s all a bit much.

The human drama, though, is as perfectly baked as ever. Lovely Flora, the baby of the bunch who missed out on a spot in the final because her chocolate carousel centrepiece was slightly wonky, was actually one of my favourites because she's so deliciously millennial, with her pussy-bow collars and obsessive, Type-A attention to detail. Paul the Prison Officer was a delight, mainly because he looked so much like Paul Hollywood- cue six weeks of two enormous men called Paul having bro-offs over bread, nodding and trading gruff, dudely handshakes over the specific crunchiness of biscotti. One week, Prison Officer Paul produced a giant dough sculpture of a lion's head and Judge Paul gave him a special prize and then they probably went off into a gingerbread sweat lodge together and it was the manliest moment ever in Bake Off history.

This is what Bake Off is about, and that’s why the people who are complaining that something other than merit might have been involved in selecting the finalists have missed the point entirely. The point of Bake Off is not to determine the best amateur baker in the land. That's just the excuse for Bake Off. Even the gentlest TV show needs a vague narrative structure, and otherwise there'd be no tension when someone's blancmange collapses in a heap of eggy foam and broken dreams. But in the end, when all's said and done, it's just cake. If your ornamental biscuit windmill has a soggy bottom, well, nobody died, and you can probably still eat the pieces on your way home to have a cup of tea and a little cry. 

That's the point of Bake Off. None of it really matters, and yet it consistently made me smile during a long, weary summer of geopolitical doomwrangling when absolutely everything else on television was unremitting misery. I hope Nadiya wins, because she’s an adorable dork and I love her and she gets so worried about everything and I want nothing remotely distressing to happen to her, ever; I expect Tamal Ray, the gay doctor whose meat pie had me drooling, is the best baker overall, but I can’t be objective there, because I keep getting distracted by his lovely smile. Ian Cumming, the last white person in the tent (apart from both of the presenters and both of the judges) is a little bit dull, which is a problem, because of all the delicious treats produced on the show, Ian's are the ones I would probably eat the most. I want his tarragon cheesecake in my face immediately. I would just rather have a conversation with Nadiya while I'm doing it.

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter! And that’s the utter, unremitting joy of Bake Off. It’s possibly the last show on earth where in the end, it doesn’t matter who wins, as long as everyone gave it their best shot and had a laugh over a disastrous scrambled-egg chocolate tart or two, because ultimately, it’s just cake. And that’s marvellous. Now let’s all have a nice fat slice of perspective and calm down.


Now listen to a discussion of the Bake Off on the NS pop culture podcast:

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.