Masthead CMC Magazine October 1, 1995 / Page 9


Thinking Hard About Where We Want to Go Today

by Kevin Hunt (

Book Review:
The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst
by Stephen L. Talbott
O'Reilly & Associates Inc., 1995
ISBN: 1-56592-085-6
$22.95 (USD)
502 pages

It's presumably no accident that the imagery on the cover of Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute is similar to the imagery that Microsoft has selected to package Windows 95. The irony of the imagery is apparent--by wrapping his important exploration of the dark side of computers and human consciousness in a dust jacket covered with Windows 95's billowy white clouds on a pale blue sky, Talbott (or at least the publisher) makes a powerfully visible statement. He alerts us to the tensions, ironies, and paradoxes seething beneath the surface of what most of us experience when we turn on our computers, process information, and surf the Net.

Talbott delivers a complex and intriguing thesis, and he meticulously argues his case, engaging us in such seemingly disparate topics as the Renaissance discovery of the mathematics of perspective to an analysis of group decision support systems. Talbott succeeds in tying it all together to support a thesis that goes something like this: Each day we hear (and perhaps even sing) the praises of computers and network technology. Yet the unexamined acceptance of this technology represents the interiorization of the logic and rationality of the computer into human consciousness.

The force with which Talbott delivers his thesis is made all the more powerful by the irony of the circumstances surrounding the book's publication. No neo-Luddite, Talbott is an editor at O'Reilly & Associates, the publisher of Ed Krol's successful Whole Internet User's Guide and Catalog, as well as many other "how to" guides to using computers and network technology. Yet while O'Reilly was profiting from the explosive growth of the Internet during the last two years, Talbott started asking questions about some of the claims that have both emerged from and fueled the Net's hype, and he began examining these issues within the space of the Web-based Global Network Navigator.

Fortunately, publisher Tim O'Reilly granted a forum for Talbott to collect, unify and present his explorations into a coherent whole, presumably for a wider, print-based audience. The result is a read that is exhausting, insightful, and important. Wide-ranging and interdisciplinary in scope, Talbott's work forces us to think hard about the connections we have to the world and to others and how computing technology is fragmenting these connections.

Our Lost Sense of Community

Talbott begins his work by exploring the roots of some of the more salient metaphors that pop up again and again in discussions of computers and the Net: "global village", "on-line community", etc. In Part 1, "Man, Computers, and Community," he asks, for example, why it is that Net wanderers have such a special affinity for the word "community," and why they're relying on network technology to rekindle their sense of it. The ensuing discussion of the longing for--and lost sense of--community is one of the many highlights of the book. "The more we lack something," he reasons, "the more we may be fascinated by fragmentary glimpses of it." The problem, as Talbott sees it, is that we're looking for the substance of community in the technology itself, while we lose sight of community's true source: what Talbott calls "soul qualities," "expressions of our own inner life" (p. 75).

Talbott next turns to education in his exploration of how computerization leads us increasingly away from connections to anything concrete and into an abstract realm divorced from any meaningful connections to the world and to others. This is especially alarming, Talbott argues, in current trends in education. In Part 2, "Computers in Education," Talbott critiques the current rush both to bring computer technology into the classroom and to eliminate classroom walls using the Internet and other network communications technologies.

Computers Confounding the Classroom

One target of Talbott's critique of computers in education is Seymour Papert's views on--and programs aimed at--introducing computers into elementary school classrooms. According to Talbott, the agenda of Papert and others is to place the computer at the center of educational programs as a means of reintegrating education into life, thus returning to students more concrete ways of knowing.

Unfortunately, Talbott writes, computers have the opposite effect of that proposed by Papert. Computers in the classroom have served, in his view, to increasingly alienate children from "healthy, knowledge-producing participation in the world" (p. 161). Talbott reasons that the computer's ability to present slick images, animations, and models of the world cuts children off from actively discovering within themselves a connection to the phenomena presented to them via computer.

In his look at computers in education, Talbott is perceptive and mostly on the mark. Where he falls short, though, is his tendency in this section (and elsewhere in the book) to base his arguments on a view in which the application of technology is taken to the extreme. For example, here he bases his argument on a speculative world in which the computer replaces the role of teacher while also eliminating the use of imagination in the learning process. For example, in his attack on Papert's agenda, Talbott states:

"The information that the child can receive from a Knowledge Machine--or any other source, including the encyclopedia--is hardly what matters. What counts is from whom she receives it" (p. 171).
and later,

"To lose sight of the child's healthy dependence upon the teacher is to forget that all knowledge is knowledge of the human being" (p. 171).
One doubts that Papert would argue with Talbott's imperative that effective, imaginative teaching is facilitated by a teacher who understands the need to tie in what goes on on the screen with what goes on in the real world. And Talbott is not at all clear as to how computers used in the classroom are mere logic machines that stifle a child's imagination. Perhaps most educational software developed so far is stifling, yet this is hardly a fault inherent in the technology itself.

Free-flowing Words and the Fragmentation of Thought

Talbott's argument continues to be a little uneven in the brief Part 3, "The Electronic Word." Here Talbott decries, among other things, the text processing capabilities of computers, capabilities that splinter our relationships with words and fragment our ability to "realize thinking's highest potential" (p. 187). To Talbott, this "highest potential" requires "grasping the whole through a process of sustained and intense thinking before struggling to articulate it in a particular manner (p. 187). What the word processor does, according to Talbott, is reverse this process. The word processor enables the creation of textual fragments which in Talbott's view are half-baked, incomplete thoughts. The writer must then combine these fragments into a cogent whole--a process, according to Talbott, that is not genuine thinking.

Unfortunately, Talbott fails to consider how the computer may enable composing processes that reflect culturally specific modes of thought and communication. One finds it hard to accept his idea that there is only one genuine mode of thinking, and that we must ward off the computer's ability to fragment that one genuine mode.

Embracing the Paradoxes of Technology

Fortunately, Talbott's thesis again regains strength in the intense and exhausting Part 4, "Owen Barfield, Computers, and the Evolution of Consciousness," a section in which Talbott draws on the work of Owen Barfield, a philologist working in the early part of this century. This section takes up almost half the book, and in it Talbott pulls much of the first three sections together by tracing how many of the potential dangers surrounding our passive embrace of computer technology have evolved from of our increasing detachment from the surrounding world and our increasing tendency to reconceive our "interiors" as computational in nature. In short, we outwardly project the inner contents of our consciousness into the machines we create. The result is "an unconscious, misguided, and potentially dangerous effort to recover 'out there' what actually has been lost 'in here'" (p. 358).

In this section Talbott is at his finest. What is fascinating is his ability to force us to look at the paradoxes surrounding our use of computers and the Net: computers can democratize as well as centralize power; the Net is an instrument of rationalization and a den of pathological inequity; computer communication is both distant and immediate, etc. From our recognition of these paradoxes, Talbott then urges us to recognize that each side of each paradox represents the projections of our own mental functioning onto the machines we've created.

Once we've gained this understanding, where do we go from here? What does Talbott prescribe as a remedy to the situation we currently (and perhaps even unconsciously) find ourselves in? Although the second part of the book's title, the Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, would seem to promise that he will offer his vision of how we can "look technology in the eye and begin deciding what to do about [our] own relation to it" (p. 24), he discusses the complexity of doing just that, and in the end provides few answers. While early on Talbott does describe how he went about reassessing his relation to technology (which included relocating to rural New York) his only prescription is that we can only find the answer "by looking into ourselves," "at the silent places," places "we find ourselves passing through for a few moments upon waking in the morning..." where "we may feel ourselves ever so briefly on the threshold of new possibilities, remembering whispered hopes borne upon distant breezes" (p. 383).

The question is, can we take time out from our endless and frenzied routines of scanning our email logs, surfing the Net, and thinking about elegant and logical computational approaches to problem solving to again find these "silent places" and to begin the sort of self-reflection that Talbott calls for? Reading Talbott's book is an indication of just how demanding and exhausting this process of self-reflection is. This read will leave you tired.

We can only hope that those who are unwrapping the cloud-covered boxes in which Windows 95 is packed will also delve into the pages wrapped in this book's cloud-covered dust jacket. Talbott forces us utterly to think seriously where we want to go today, and how we want to get there. [CMC TOC]

Kevin Hunt is an assistant editor at CMC Magazine. He is contemplating buying Windows 95, but is afraid that such a purchase would eliminate any of his own "silent places" where he might go to transcend the computers in his midst.

Copyright © 1995 by Kevin Hunt. All Rights Reserved.

This Issue / Index / CMC Studies Center / Contact Us