Automation Kills Creativity

Nicholas Carr was the first high profile writer to capture all of the research behind the effects of human’s move from paper to pixels, first in Wired, and then in his book The Shallows. In short, the experiments showed not only was paper better in every measurable way for comprehension, memory and connection to the material, pixels were making us shallow thinkers. As expected perhaps, the world took note, then promptly forgot.

It’s a few years later and Carr has published his follow-up book, The Glass Cage. This time he ties together the research behind the effects of automation on society and on our brains. Spoiler: it’s not good.

Just as I’ve speculated here many times, the research shows when you give up parts of your process and brain to automation, those parts of your process and brain atrophy. They physically, measurably shrink. In addition, automation tends to create more work than before it was implemented.

Some of my favorite quotes from the book:

“A labor-saving device doesn’t just provide a substitute for some isolated component of a job. It alters the character of the entire task, including the roles, attitudes and skills of the people who take part in it.“

“The irony behind automation arises from a growing body of research demonstrating that automated systems often increased workload and create unsafe working conditions.”

“When automation distances us from our work, when it gets between us and the world, it erases the artistry from our lives.“

“Drawing might be best thought of as manual thinking.”

“With the general purpose computer, we’ve managed, perversely enough, to devise a tool that steals from us the bodily joy of working with tools. Our belief, intuitive but erroneous, that our intellect operates in isolation from our body, leads us to discount the importance of involving ourselves with the world of things.“

He writes about an architecture firm that had to unlearn how to use CAD:

“When they took a hard look at their work, they realized the software was a hinderance to creativity.”

They returned to sketchbooks and cardboard models, bringing in computers much later in the process.

He also talks about encountering a photographer using a large format film camera. He asked why he was still using film:

“Film demanded more of him. And so he went back to the older technology.”

“Both [architect and photographer] just wanted the best tool for the job, the tool that would enable and encourage them to do their finest, most fulfilling work.“

And to wrap it all up:

“Decisions about technology are also decisions about ways of working and ways of living.”

Exactly!

“We assume that anyone who rejects a new tool in favor of an older one is guilty of nostalgia, of making choices sentimentally, rather than rationally. But the real sentimental fallacy is the assumption that the new thing is always better suited to our purposes and intentions than the old thing. That’s the view of a child, naïve and pliable.