The Future Does Not Compute

The Future Does Not Compute

3.0 1
by Steve Talbott

Many pundits tell you that the computer is ushering us toward a new Golden Age of Information. A few tell you that the computer is destroying everything worthwhile in our culture. But almost no one tells you what Stephen L. Talbott shows in this surprising book: the intelligent machine gathers its menacing powers from hidden places within you and me. It does so

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Many pundits tell you that the computer is ushering us toward a new Golden Age of Information. A few tell you that the computer is destroying everything worthwhile in our culture. But almost no one tells you what Stephen L. Talbott shows in this surprising book: the intelligent machine gathers its menacing powers from hidden places within you and me. It does so, that is, as long as we gaze into our screens and tap on our keyboards while less than fully conscious of the subtle influences passing through the interface.Talbott awakens us to these influences by conducting a wide-ranging tour:

  • Why do we hail the birth of the electronic global village just as villagers around the world are killing each other? Is the Net an instrument for social dissolution?
  • Do the Renaissance origins of virtual reality throw light on our world-creating and world-destroying choices today? Does reality have a future?
  • Were the barriers to creation of thinking machines clarified by a little-known philologist investigating the mythic consciousness of the ancients?
  • Does the computer centralize or decentralize structures of power? Or does this question miss the point, because intelligent machines that run by themselves are creating a new global totalitarianism without a despotic center?
  • Is the frantic urging to put schoolchildren on the Internet any more reasoned than the seventies' fad for programmed instruction, or the eighties' fad for computer literacy?
  • Does an unrecognized law link the public face and the dark underside of the Net? If so, can we expect flame wars, weird impersonations, pornographic commerce, and Net psychoses to grow increasingly pronounced and erratic, while at the same time the reasoned mechanisms for filtering "strict business" from the chaos steadily gain in effectiveness?
  • Is artificial intelligence raising machines to a human level, or are we descending to the machine's level?
After reading The Future Does Not Compute, you will never again be able to sit in front of your computer with quite the same glazed stare.(BACKCOVER COPY) The technological Djinn, now loosened from all restraints, tempts us with visions of a surreal future. It is a future with robots who surpass their masters in dexterity and wit; intelligent agents who roam the Net on our behalf, seeking the informational elixir that will make us whole; new communities inhabiting the clean, infinite reaches of cyberspace, freed from war and conflict; and lending libraries of "virtually real" experiences that seem more sensational than the real thing.Not all of this is idle or fantastic speculation — even if it is the rather standard gush about our computerized future. Few observers can see any clear limits to what the networked computer might eventually accomplish. It is this stunning, wide-open potential that leads one to wonder what the Djinn will ask of us in return for the gift. After all, any potential so dramatic, so diverse, so universal, can be taken in many directions. That is its very nature. Who will choose the direction — we, or the Djinn? The intelligent machine receives a shadow of our own intelligence. This shadow consists of all the collective, automatic, sleepwalking, deterministic processes we have yielded to. That is, it consists of our own willingness to become machines. The crucial question today is whether we can wake up in time. Only in wakefulness can we distinguish ourselves from the automatisms around us. Where we remain asleep — where we live in our own shadow — we are the Djinn.The Net is the most powerful invitation to remain asleep we have ever faced. Contrary to the usual view, it dwarfs television in its power to induce passivity, to scatter our minds, to destroy our imaginations, and to make us forget our humanity.And yet — for these very reasons — the Net may also be an opportunity to enter into our fullest humanity with a self-awareness never yet achieved. But few even seem aware of the challenge, and without awareness we will certainly fail.

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Editorial Reviews

The subject is the dark side of the Internet and computers and the negative impact they have on individuals and society-- an interesting offering from a computer books publisher (the author is a senior editor at O'Reilly, and the editor is O'Reilly himself). The subject certainly merits plenty of discussion, but Talbott's prose is scattershot. Though he sounds some alarms, he doesn't offer the clear, incisive thinking that is an antidote to the frustration and alienation caused by machines. Maybe those whirling electrons have already done some damage. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
Ray Duncan

Two Faces of Technology

The Future Does Not Compute, by Stephen Talbott, is a philosophical descendant of Joseph Weizenbaum's landmark work Computer Power and Human Reason (W.H. Freeman, 1976) and the technically-savvy counterpart, perhaps, to Jerry Mander's In the Absence of the Sacred (Sierra Club, 1991). Talbott addresses a broad range of issues centered on the inexorable mechanization, depersonalization, and derealization of the world by increasingly pervasive computer and communications technology, the destruction of cultures, the blurring of boundaries between subject and object, and the replacement of value-oriented, experience-based human judgments by rule-based bureaucracies and corporate information systems.

I was especially impressed with Talbott's analysis of computer-based education in general, and Seymour Papert in particular. Many of us have deep-seated doubts and fears about the trend toward the replacement of teacher-child interactions with computer-based tutorials and games, the preoccupation with computer literacy, and the introduction of small children to control of a fantasy world via Logo and Basic programming. Talbott has articulated the dangers of this trend in a few pithy chapters that should be force-fed to every elementary-school administrator, teacher, and well-meaning PTA hell-bent on computer lab fund-raising.

Talbott is a former presidential scholar and is currently a senior editor for O'Reilly & Associates, the premier hard-core technical publishing house. So he is no Luddite; most of us would class him, in fact, as a "power user." But Talbott occasionally strays onto shaky ground as the issues get closer to home. For example, I found his warnings about the insidious dangers of computer-based word-processing rather laughable. Talbott feels that the ease with which words can be set down with a computer leads willy-nilly to undisciplined, automatic writing:

I sit at my keyboard and produce all letters of the alphabet with the same undifferentiated, inexpressive, purely percussive strokes. Words, phrases, endless streams of thought flow effortlessly from me in all directions, with so little inner participation that I have reached the opposite extreme from the ancient word-self unity. I spew out my words easily, unthinkingly, at no psychic cost to myself, and launch them into a world already drowning in its own babble. And as I produce my own words, so I will likely judge those of others, discounting them as the superficial disjecta membra they too often really are.

No doubt Gutenberg, and later the manufacturers of the first typewriters, were similarly taxed with complaints by the scribes of their eras. However, I must admit that the post-modern structure of Talbott's book, when compared to a classic like Weizenbaum's, lends some unwitting support to this particular argument. The traditional painstaking, tightly reasoned development of a thesis over the course of a chapter has been replaced by collections of subsections that are essentially extended thoughts of 500-800 words each, the literary counterpart to TV sound bites. It is almost as though the author wrote his musings on index cards, sorted them by keyword, and divided the whole stack into chapters at arbitrary boundaries of several thousand words. Perhaps this is the style of the future, but I don't feel entirely comfortable with it.--Dr. Dobb's Electronic Review of Computer Books

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Product Details

O'Reilly Media, Incorporated
Publication date:
Edition description:
1st ed
Product dimensions:
6.47(w) x 9.35(h) x 1.38(d)

Meet the Author

Stephen L. Talbott went from Presidential Scholar to farmer, and from editing an interdisciplinary, scholarly journal about the catastrophist theories of Immanual Velikovsky, to fourteen years working in the computer industry. Mr. Talbott recently moved with his family from the Boston technology belt to rural New York, where his efforts to reach an accommodation with his computer continue.

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