Automation and Instrumentation


In his book on history and technology, Connections, author James Burke quipped “If the Normans didn’t have stirrups we’d all be speaking Anglo-Saxon”. His point was how the introduction of technology influences the outcome of events, which in turn triggers a course change along our path into the future.  For what ever reason, this quote has stayed with me for many years, in part because it encapsulates the impact that even seemingly minor changes can make over the long term.  

Wikipedia provides a nice summary of major technology advances, starting 2.5 million years ago with Olduvai stone technology (Oldowan) used for butchering animals, huts 2 million years ago, fire 1.5 million years ago, boats 900,000 years ago, cooking (500,000 years ago), javelins (400,000 years ago), glue (200,000 years ago), clothing (170,000 years ago), etc.  It’s an interesting list, not just because of what’s on it, but the distance in time between each of these advances.  My grandparents said they recalled when electricity was introduced into the home, when they saw the first automobile drive into their town.  Within their lifetimes they witnessed the advance from horse and buggy  to putting a man on the moon.  All in less than 80 years.

Fast forward to today,  my iPhone  presented to me a list of notifications related to world events, home automation, home instrumentation, monitoring my personal state, and what my friends are up to.  It’s both wonderful and maybe a bit creepy.  Our ability to automate, at least partially, many of our household activities certainly relieves us of some of the drudgery, and as we get older, postpones the need to consider assisted living.  

Yet these technologies do have odd consequences, one being they often isolate us from other people and the environment around us.  Contrary to its intended use as a communications tool, it is easy to get lost inside the apps of an iPhone, thus being completely disconnected from your immediate surroundings.   The dishwasher may have reduced the drudgery of washing dishes, but that act was a social activity, often involving at least a couple of people — one person washing, another drying — and that created a space to talk to each other. The automobile has enabled us to travel wide distances, to work or to meet with friends, yet sitting within its cab we are separated by glass and steel from the environment around us.  If one is travelling from garage to garage it is entirely possible to avoid any exposure to the outside elements; a big plus when it’s -20C, but is that isolation really a good thing?

This separation, this isolation, from others and the environment takes us out of the physical world and plants us in a virtual one.  Communications is mediated through text messages or video calls, information access and purchases are through online services.  During this pandemic these capabilities have been extraordinarily beneficial allowing us to break through the physical boundaries created to prevent the spread, to form a virtual wormhole via FaceTime, to at least stay in touch and see the faces of our friends and family without a mask.

So while there are both benefits and cautions I can’t help but reflect on what it all means. Is this relentless drive to automate and instrument really about removing drudgery and enablement, or is it a symptom of something else?

People are often categorized along any number of dimensions.  One of them is whether they are “left” or “right” brained people.  Conventional wisdom is a person who is “left-brained” is thought to be more logical, analytical, and objective; a “right-brained” person is said to be more intuitive, creative, emotional, thoughtful, and subjective.

Scottish psychiatrist Iain McGilchrist argues evidence shows the right and left hemispheres actually amount to two brains. The right and left brains perform the same basic functions, but in very different ways. How we interpret and experience the world depends on whether those two brains are working in balance, or whether one is dominant or damaged. That, in turn, shapes the world we live in. “The two hemispheres have styles — takes, if you like, on the world. They see things differently. They prioritize different things. They have different values,” McGilchrist makes the case that the left hemisphere has taken over our minds and reshaped the world in its image in a way that is good for neither humans nor the planet and everything that lives on it. “A way of thinking which is reductive, mechanistic has taken us over … [It] treats the world as a simple resource to be exploited. It’s made us enormously powerful. It’s enabled us to become wealthy, but it’s also meant that we’ve lost the means to understand the world, to make sense of it, to feel satisfaction and fulfilment through our place in the world.”  [1

I see within our relentless effort to instrument and monitor everything, confirmation of the “left-brain” dominance McGilchrist speaks of, and if that is the case, it might further explain some of the reductivism we see around us, the separation of individuals from society, and the growth of self interest, the tribalism. Has shifting the balance towards left-brain priorities and values, set a context for enablement, down a path of further isolation that is complemented and supported by these technologies?  

The trouble with this path is it becomes self-perpetuating, feeding on itself. Our social media apps continue to draw us in further and further. Our wearable technology feeds us with information about ourselves, our instrumentation reports on our environment and the more we get, the more we want; we continually want more data and more specific numbers.  The numbers become our focus, not the self.  Focusing on the numbers gives us a false sense of control.  Our focus on the virtual rather than the physical self decouples us from the people around us, decouples us from real communications, real feelings, sympathy, tolerance and understanding.  

We have an intersection of technologies that both further themselves and further our left-brain bias that complement each other, that seems unstoppable.  


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