The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst
Author: Stephen L. Talbott
Publisher: O'Reilly & Associates
ISBN: ISBN 1-56592-085-6
Reviewer: Danny Yee
At heart The Future Does Not Compute is an attack on the excesses of technological optimism, particularly those associated with computers. Talbott is worried about the identification of technology with the ends it is supposed to help us achieve (of communication systems with community, for example) and with what our growing reliance on technology indicates about ourselves: he sees computers as bringing out the worst in people and as a kind of reflection of a wider malaise. Part one is a broad survey of the relationship between computers and human communities (which wanders as far afield as globalization and business ethics); part two considers the effects of computers in education; part three is about the effects of computers on writing and language and on the elevation of “information” to an end in itself; and the final part is about the “evolution of consciousness”.
I got about two thirds of the way through The Future Does Not Compute before giving up on it. It wasn't its anti-technological stance which turned me off, but rather the way Talbott went about presenting his ideas. All too often he lapses into complete mysticism, with such outbreaks as
The solitary bird, gripped by an unknowing intensity as it ploughs through the trackless ether, hears, on the dull edges of its consciousness, a call of destiny sung by hidden choirs.
(which is defended by a counter-attack on a ridiculous straw-man reductionism). Even where he avoids outright obscurantism, Talbott lacks any kind of respect for philosophical niceties. He keeps on attributing intentionality to machines, for example, in such fashion as
the computer ups the ante in a game already extremely perilous. It relentlessly, single-mindedly, apes us even in those habits..., for it is endowed in some sense with a mind of its own.
and talks about them “acting in their own right”, but at the same time refuses to allow that there is any sense in which they can approach human beings. For all he goes on about the “mechanical” being present in our “inner selves”, Talbott's rhetoric relies heavily on a rigid and fundamental dichotomy between the natural and the artificial, between man and machine. He makes no attempt at all to justify this assumption: even the references to Searle and Penrose I kept expecting never turned up.
Talbott has an eye for an effective phrase and an impressive vocabulary (sometimes he verges on poetry), but this is taken to extremes: he is always prepared to sacrifice clarity and content on the altar of rhetoric and effect. Terms like “human nature” and “consciousness” and phrases such as “our trust as stewards of the Earth” and “sleepwalking subservience to technology” are used without any explanation in critical contexts. Here are some longer examples:
We must tame technology by rising above it and reclaiming what is not mechanical in ourselves.
Where, as a child, I differentiated myself from the animal, now I must learn to differentiate myself from the machine—and this differentiation lies in the deepening of consciousness. It is therefore not only a matter of pointing to established human nature; it is also a matter of realizing human nature in its movement toward the future. Related problems are that Talbott presents his ideas in a rambling and disconnected fashion, in short sections within short chapters, and that he has a tendency to say the same thing over and over again in different ways.
The Future Does Not Compute also lacks any kind of sociological or psychological depth. The discussion of globalization, for example, doesn't engage at all with historical or economic perspectives on the subject, and analysis of at least one concrete example (of a network group which claims “community” status) might have given some basis to his analysis of the relationship between technology and community; as it is, all he can offer on these subjects are empty generalizations.
The most distressing thing about The Future Does Not Compute is that I actually agree with quite a lot of what Talbott has to say, both on general subjects like education and the evils of assuming there are technological solutions to all human problems and on more specific ones such as profit-seeking business ethics and naively optimistic claims by artificial intelligence researchers. I fear, however, that many people will use his book as another excuse to reject all discussion of some important questions as obscurantist nonsense. In the end I abandoned The Future Does Not Compute because I wasn't learning anything from it: it is emotionally stirring but intellectually vacuous.
Disclaimer: I requested and received a review copy of The Future Does Not Compute from O'Reilly & Associates, but I have no stake, financial or otherwise, in its success.
All book reviews by Danny Yee are available via anonymous FTP ftp.anatomy.su.oz.au in /danny/book-reviews (index INDEX) or URL www.anatomy.su.oz.au/danny/book-reviews/index.html Copyright © Danny Yee 1995. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com. Comments and criticism welcome.
|Contrast Security's Contrast Enterprise||Aug 30, 2016|
|illusive networks' Deceptions Everywhere||Aug 29, 2016|
|Happy Birthday Linux||Aug 25, 2016|
|ContainerCon Vendors Offer Flexible Solutions for Managing All Your New Micro-VMs||Aug 24, 2016|
|Updates from LinuxCon and ContainerCon, Toronto, August 2016||Aug 23, 2016|
|NVMe over Fabrics Support Coming to the Linux 4.8 Kernel||Aug 22, 2016|
- Contrast Security's Contrast Enterprise
- Download "Linux Management with Red Hat Satellite: Measuring Business Impact and ROI"
- illusive networks' Deceptions Everywhere
- Happy Birthday Linux
- What I Wish I’d Known When I Was an Embedded Linux Newbie
- New Version of GParted
- Tech Tip: Really Simple HTTP Server with Python
- ContainerCon Vendors Offer Flexible Solutions for Managing All Your New Micro-VMs
- All about printf
With all the industry talk about the benefits of Linux on Power and all the performance advantages offered by its open architecture, you may be considering a move in that direction. If you are thinking about analytics, big data and cloud computing, you would be right to evaluate Power. The idea of using commodity x86 hardware and replacing it every three years is an outdated cost model. It doesn’t consider the total cost of ownership, and it doesn’t consider the advantage of real processing power, high-availability and multithreading like a demon.
This ebook takes a look at some of the practical applications of the Linux on Power platform and ways you might bring all the performance power of this open architecture to bear for your organization. There are no smoke and mirrors here—just hard, cold, empirical evidence provided by independent sources. I also consider some innovative ways Linux on Power will be used in the future.Get the Guide