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Bookworm: Do machines run us?

Your email is down. Again.

It’s been that way on and off for a month now, and it’s driving you to distraction — literally. You check it every five minutes, ever hopeful, and you’ve called IT so many times, they’re probably avoiding you. It’s up. It’s down.

Glass Cage_webSometimes, email is almost addicting — but is that good? Read the new book “The Glass Cage” by Nicholas Carr and think hard before you answer.

But first, ponder this: You are automated. There are hundreds of activities you do without thinking: driving, riding a bike, buttering your toast, reading this review. Psychologists call that tacit knowledge; they’re things you had to learn but can now do automatically. If you can make step-by-step directions, that’s called explicit knowledge.

Computers, increasingly, are starting to step into this knowledge sphere because a “lot of the very smart things that people do don’t actually require a brain.” Computers help architects, doctors, attorneys, teachers and others by performing minor tasks, thus changing the way those workers work.

That can be beneficial or not. Researchers know that work is a conundrum for humans: We profess to prefer being leisurely, but the truth is that we’re happiest when deeply involved in our work. The best thing a computer can do in the workplace, therefore, is to allow blissful flow.

But again, that’s good and bad. Studies show that when a computer takes over tasks that we formerly used our brains to do, we tend to lose ability to efficiently do the tasks manually when needed. Pilots and doctors have learned the hard way that humans experience “automation complacency … when a computer lulls us into a false sense of security.” We also lose the ability to remember minutiae because we reason that the computer will do it.

Yes, “information underload can be equally debilitating.”

And yet, says Carr, “computers still display a frightening lack of common sense,” and they’re only as good as “their makers.” We just need to remember not to allow them to make decisions for us — professionally or ethically — and “Unless we start having second thoughts about where we’re heading, [the] trend will only accelerate.”

I wrote this review on a computer and you’re reading it because of one or two somewhere down the line. We rely on those machines more than we think we do, which makes “The Glass Cage” even more alarming.

But Carr doesn’t take an alarmist tone here. He lays out the facts from science, psychology and business, allowing us, in many cases, to draw our own conclusions. What I appreciated, in fact, is that Carr doesn’t shout about negativity; instead, he ultimately urges readers to use automation to enhance work and life and to reclaim computers “as instruments of experience.”

If you always wanted your own Rosie the Robot, or if you’ve unsuccessfully tried to give up your smartphone for a day, this book will give you plenty to ponder — or to fear. Start “The Glass Cage” and you won’t be able to put it down.

“The Glass Cage: Automation and Us” by Nicholas Carr

c.2014, W.W.Norton $26.95 276 pages