The Future Does Not Computeby 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… See more details below
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?
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
- 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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