Are Smart Phones Making Humans Stupid?

REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files
REUTERS/Kacper Pempel/Files

When you’re sitting on a plane, you’d like to be able to assume that the pilot knows how to fly. After all, there’s a reason (s)he is right up front, with a nice window, while you’re stuck back in coach in a middle seat that won’t recline.

But, at least in some cases, you’d be wrong.

In his recent book, The Glass Cage, Nicholas Carr goes into frightening detail about recent examples of pilots crashing planes because they simply didn’t know how to fly them when a difficult situation came up. Or even a not-so-difficult situation.

Writing about the 2009 crash of a Continental Connection turboprop, Carr explains that when a problem developed, the pilot did the wrong thing, pulling back on the yoke when he should have pushed it forward. When that didn’t work, he tried again. Then the plane crashed, killing 50 people.

“An executive from the company that operated the flight for Continental, the regional carrier Colgan Air, admitted that the pilots seemed to lack ‘situational awareness’ as the emergency unfolded,” Carr writes. “Had the crew acted appropriately, the plane would likely have landed safely.

It’s not just prop planes. Something very similar caused the crash of an Air France A330 off Brazil. The pilot flying the plane pulled back on the stick when he should have pushed it forward. Even the final words exchanged by the pilots in that cockpit are chilling: “This can’t be happening,” the co-pilot said. The man actually “flying” the plane was even more confused. “But what is happening?” he asked, three seconds before the plane hit the ocean.

Carr blames an overreliance on autopilot.

Pilots used to see their airplanes as extensions of themselves. They learned how to fly in small planes that were responsive to every movement. That’s less true today. Most flight training is in simulators instead of airplanes. The bulk of each flight is handled by autopilot. The captain spends the flight monitoring computer screens instead of feeling out the plane.

That all means pilots no longer get enough practice actually flying the plane. That’s made them less responsive. When disaster is unfolding, they don’t react automatically. In fact, they often do exactly the wrong thing and end up making things even worse.

“An extensive 2013 government report on cockpit automation, compiled by an expert panel and drawing on the same FAA data, implicated automation-related problems, such as degraded situational awareness and weakened hand-flying skills, in more than half of recent accidents,” Carr writes.

And it’s not simply a problem in the sky.

Carr notes that automation is everywhere. It’s in the autocorrect on your phone and computer. Now you no longer need to look up words; you just need to get close enough for the program to fix them for you.

It’s in the directions delivered by your GPS. Now you no longer need to be able to get anywhere; even in your hometown, you can simply follow the turn-by-turn directions, even when they’re providing bad advice. During a snowstorm a few years ago, people kept turning off a plowed road and getting stuck in a snow bank on my street, which goes uphill and hadn’t been cleared. Would a driver, pre-GPS, have turned off a clear road on to a snowed-in one?

We think it’s making life easier, Carr writes, but it may actually be robbing humans of the ability to think things through. “The trouble with automation is that it often gives us what we don’t need at the cost of what we do,” he notes early in the book.

Automation was supposed to simplify work, for example. But, as with pilots, it doesn’t always work that way.

“In automation’s early days, it was thought that software, by handling routine chores, would reduce people’s workload and enhance their performance,” he writes. “The reality has turned out to be more complicated.” Take too much of the burden of thinking away from a worker, and she’ll become less productive and less able to make decisions. If she even retains her job.

Carr points out that in many cases, robots are faster and more efficient and have replaced human employees. Where economists once hoped to relieve people of the burden of working, Carr notes, people like to work and even need to do so. Jobs give us a purpose. But there aren’t as many as there needs to be.

Even though productivity in the U.S. is rising, even though corporate profits are at incredible levels, and even though business investment is climbing, unemployment seems stuck at around ten percent. Fewer Americans are working than any time since the 1970s, and there are tens of millions more of us these days.

We can make things cheaply, and thus buy them cheaply–if we have a job that hasn’t been outsourced to a machine. And even the fat cats are seeing their ranks thinning.

“Wall Street is now largely under the control of correlation-sniffing computers and the quants who program them,” Carr writes. “The number of people employed as securities dealers and traders in New York City plummeted by a third, from 150,000 to 100,000, between 2000 and 2013, despite the fact that Wall Street firms were often posting record profits.”

Automation may make us sicker, as well.

One of Obamacare’s prescriptions was electronic medical record keeping. It was supposed to make medicine easier and more responsive, as well as cost effective. But Carr writes that things aren’t going as planned. Doctors are often too distracted looking at their laptops to really focus on their patients. Electronic records are stored in various, often incompatible, formats, so they’re usually just as tied to a particular doctor’s office as paper records would have been.

Meanwhile, automated records aren’t saving money for patients; they’re simply making money for their creators. Cerner Corporation, Carr notes, has seen revenues triple–from $1 billion to $3 billion–between 2005 and 2013. At least there’s one healthy return.

So how could humans protect ourselves? Carr advises a touch of healthy skepticism.

“We should welcome the important contributions computer companies can make to society’s well-being, but we shouldn’t confuse those companies’ interests with our own,” he writes. For example, Google purports to be hard at work on a self-driving car. “Yet Google and other top tech firms have made little or no effort to prevent people from calling, texting, or using apps while driving–surely a modest undertaking compared with building a car that can drive itself.” In fact, these days, high tech apps such as Facebook connectivity are built right into the dashboard. So you can update your Twitter feed as it goes into a tree. Buick is advertising it has Wi-Fi in its newest vehicles. How about building a car that blocks all cell signals, forcing drivers to focus on the road. Stop us before we crash again!

Carr is no Luddite, advising us to smash the machines before it’s too late. He is, however, a level-headed observer. Even in this age of drones, Americans haven’t given nearly enough thought to robotized warfare, for example, which Carr warns is coming. Once the first robot takes the first shot, it will be too late, though.

Twenty-first century humans are living in glass cages, cages we’re building around ourselves. Imagine stopping at a red light without checking your phone. Or eating a meal with a friend–without checking your phone. No matter where we go, we carry a computer, and we’re never really there because we think we can be everywhere.

We need to think about all that–before computers make it too easy to stop thinking altogether.