18.4. Automating on Principle

One way to express an ideal of ubiquitous computing is to say, "Anything we do that can be automated should be automated." It's a principle that appeals to the common sense of many people today, and complements the notion that machines can unburden us of the more tedious and mechanized work, leaving us free to occupy ourselves with "higher" and more "human" tasks.

Appealing as this may be, I'm convinced that it readily promotes an unhealthy relation to technology. Here's why:

First, it obscures the truth that nothing we do can be automated, not even when we are merely adding two plus two. Yes, I know that computers supposedly achieve this feat all the time, but what the computer does is not what we do. It does not bring consciousness to the act. It is not exercising and therefore strengthening certain skills and cognitive capacities. It requires no focusing of attention, no motivation, no supportive metabolism, no memory, no imagination, and no sympathetic muscle movements. Nor is it engaged in any larger purpose when it carries out the computation or any purpose at all. It is not deriving satisfaction from the exercise of a skill. It brings neither an aesthetic sensibility to the task nor a mobilized will. It does not reckon with the possibility of error.

It is amazing to see how readily we forget these things today and equate a computer's action with human performance. Actually, the more relevant fact is that the machine displaces and eliminates from the situation much that we do, leaving us to consider how we might compensate for the disuse of our own capacities, and how the entire context and significance of the work has been altered by its reduction to a few formal, computational features.

It's all too easy for the facile calculations of the spreadsheet software to begin narrowing the entrepreneur's conception of his own work, even though the business may have begun with a richly meaningful and idealistic set of intentions. Intention doesn't enter into the software's calculations, and as that software plays an ever greater role in the business, the question is, "Where will the guiding intentions come from or will we simply allow them to disappear as we yield to the machine's empty guidance?"

"Anything we do that can be automated should be automated." If the first problem with this rule is that nothing we do can be automated, the second problem is that everything can be automated. That is, once you equate mechanical activity with human activity in the superficial manner just indicated, there's no line separating things that can be automated from those that cannot. So our rule provides no guidance whatever. In the reduced sense that applies, everything can be automated. If a calculator "does what we do," then a computer can in one sense or another do what a judge or composer or physicist does. If we do not pay attention to the difference between the computational abstraction and the human reality in the simple cases, nothing will require our attention to those differences in the "higher" cases.

Further, the more you automate, the more you tend to reduce the affected contexts to the terms of your automation, so that the next "higher" activity looks more and more like an automatic one that should be handed over to a machine. When, finally, the supervisor is supervising only machines, there's no reason for the supervisor himself not to become a machine.

So the idea that automation relieves us from grunt work in order to concentrate on higher things looks rather like the opposite of the truth. Automation tends continually to drain significance out of the higher work, reducing it to mechanical and computational terms. At least, it does this when we lose sight of the full reality of the work, reconceiving it as if its entire significance lay in the few decontextualized structural features we can analogize in a machine. But if, on the other hand, we do not lose sight of the full reality of the work, then the lower-level stuff may look just as much worth doing ourselves as the higher in which case we have to ask, "What, really, is the rationale for automating it?"

This is not to say that, for example, endless hours spent manually adding columns of numbers would prove rewarding to most people. But where we typically run into such tasks is precisely where reductive technologies (such as those involved in the machinery of bookkeeping and accounting) have already shaped the work to be done. In general, the grunt work we want to get rid of is the result of automation, and while additional automation may relieve us of that particular work, it also recasts a yet wider sphere of work in terms seemingly fit only for automation. After all, the ever more sophisticated accounting software requires ever more extensive inputs, so more and more people in the organization find themselves caught up in paper shuffling (or electronic file shuffling).

It's where automation has not already destroyed the meaningfulness of the low-level work that we discover how high-level it can really be. The organic farmer may choose not to abandon his occasional manual hoeing not because he is a hopeless romantic, but because there is satisfaction in the simple rhythms, good health in the exercise, and essential knowledge of soil and crop conditions in the observations made along the way. What will provide these benefits when he resides in a sealed, air-conditioned cab fifteen feet off the ground?

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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