I am working with Sunil Prashara, the CEO of PMI on a book about Citizen Development. Automation, low code and no-code. A movement for good. Enabling changemakers. You can find out about it here:
It does raise a few questions. I am a huge fan of Nicholas Carr. “The shallows” is a classic that will make you sit up and think. The future of our mind is at stake. This paragraph is from “The Shallows”, The Net’s cacophony of stimuli short-circuits both conscious and unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back out again”.
The Class Cage
Hence “Glass Cage: Where Automation is Taking Us”. A continuation of that warning. This time about what automation is doing to us. A version of “Technology versus humanity“. There is no question about it. Darwin and evolution cannot compete with Moore’s law. If a robot or computer can work faster, cheaper, or better than its human counterpart, the robot will get the job. A company doesn’t have to worry about labour costs if it’s not employing labourers.
The more technology, the better
If computers are advancing so rapidly, and if people, by comparison, seem slow, clumsy, and error-prone, why not build immaculately self-contained systems that perform flawlessly without any human oversight or intervention? Why not take the human factor out of the equation altogether? To boost productivity, reduce labour costs, and avoid human error—to further progress—you simply allocate control over as many activities as possible to software, and as software’s capabilities advance, you extend the scope of its authority even further. The more technology, the better.
There is a cost
There is a cost to automation that we have not considered. The trouble with automation is that it often gives us what we don’t need at the expense of what we do. Automation remakes both work and worker. Automation to turn us from actors into observers.
Automation frees us from that which makes us feel free. Automation takes away absorption in a difficult task. Automation will kill flow. Automation will kill mastery. Automation erodes expertise, dulls your reflexes, and diminishes attentiveness, leading to deskilling. Automation kills intuition.
We become dull
People who relied on the help of software prompts displayed less strategic thinking, made more superfluous moves, and ended up with a weaker conceptual understanding of the assignment. By diminishing the intensity of our thinking, the software retards the ability to encode information in memory, which makes them less likely to develop the rich tacit knowledge essential to true expertise. Rather than opening new frontiers of thought and action to its human collaborators, software narrows our focus. We trade subtle, specialised talents for more routine, less distinctive ones. We become dull. We become complacent (spelling checkers as an example). We become less thoughtful, We have less ownership of the (creative) process.
A weakening of the bond
Automation weakens the bond between tool and user not because computer-controlled systems are complex but because they ask so little of us. They discourage the development of skillfulness in their use. Automatisation and proceduralisation kill serendipity and creativity and makes it more and more difficult to express your talents. A computer form limits your means to express yourself. Cut and paste is easier.
Hard is joy
There is joy in doing something difficult. When we work hard at something, when we make it the focus of attention and effort, our mind rewards us with greater understanding. Learned carelessness. We remember more, and we learn more. In time, we gain know-how, a particular talent for acting fluidly, expertly, and purposefully in the world. With automation, there is no feedback, no “friction. You see nothing and learn nothing.
We lose artistry
Just knowing that information will be available in a database appears to reduce the likelihood that our brains will make the effort required to form memories. But external storage and biological memory are not the same thing. Knowledge and mastery involve more than looking stuff up; it requires the encoding of facts and experiences in personal memory. Honing our skills, enlarging our understanding, and achieving personal satisfaction and fulfilment are all of a piece. And they all require tight connections, physical and mental, between the individual and the world. When automation distances us from our work, when it gets between us and the world, it erases the artistry from our lives.
People are mindful; computers are mindless. And the mind is not sealed in the skull but extends throughout the body. Robots and computers do not have a gut as a brain. Do not have embodied cognition. We think not only with our brain but also with our eyes and ears, nose and mouth, and limbs and torso. When we think abstractly or metaphorically about objects or phenomena in the world, tree branches, say, or gusts of wind, we mentally reenact or simulate, our physical experience of the things. A study of rodents, published in Science in 2013, indicated that the brain’s place cells are much less active when animals make their way through computer-generated landscapes than when they navigate the real world. Half of the neurons just shut up. That is what automaton does.
Automation creates distance
It halves you. Automation creates an (emotional) distance. We are in danger of becoming observers. Not active participants. Automation bias is closely related to automation complacency. Learned carelessness. If we do not watch it, we will sentence ourselves to idleness. Idleness is the devil’s pillow. A degeneration effect.
In an automated system, power concentrates with those who control the programming. Automation simplifies and thus, stereotypes. Automaton does not allow for uniqueness or for the exception to the rule. As human beings, we are all exceptions to the rule. We really need to watch out for data fundamentalism. Everything homogenised. If you don’t fit the average, you don’t exist.
How far away from the world do we want to be
What we should be asking ourselves is, How far from the world do we want to retreat? If we’re not careful, the automation of mental labour, by changing the nature and focus of intellectual endeavour, may end up eroding one of the foundations of culture itself: our desire to understand the world.
Society is adapting to the universal computing infrastructure—more quickly than it adapted to the electric grid—and a new status quo is taking shape. The prevailing methods of computerised communication and coordination pretty much ensure that the role of people will go on shrinking. We’ve designed a system that discards us. That root system is also feeding automation’s spread into the broader culture. From the provision of government services to the tending of friendships and familial ties, society is reshaping itself to fit the contours of the new computing infrastructure.
t provides the raw material for the predictive algorithms that inform the decisions of individuals and groups. It underpins the automation of classrooms, libraries, hospitals, shops, churches, and homes—places traditionally associated with the human touch. Industrialisation didn’t turn us into machines, and automation isn’t going to turn us into automatons. We’re not that simple. But automation’s spread is making our lives more programmatic. And then the question is who controls the software? Who chooses what’s to be optimised? whose intentions and interests are reflected in the code
Slaves of technology
If we do not watch it, we turn our lives into a barren place. Drugs that numb the nervous system providing a way to rein in our vital, animal sensorium, to shrink our being to a size that fits the computer. The belief in technology as a benevolent, self-healing, autonomous force is seductive. It allows us to feel optimistic about the future while relieving us of responsibility for that future. As we become dependent on our technological slaves, the thinking goes, we turn into slaves ourselves.
Take back control
We need to take back control. By reclaiming our tools as parts of ourselves, as instruments of experience rather than just means of production, we can enjoy the freedom that congenial technology provides when it opens the world more fully to us. We are humans. Not robots.
The question is where citizen development is giving back control to the individual and allows individuals to express themselves and become a source of good? Enabling those changemakers. Or will it dumb down the users and will become an efficiency tool? What do you think?