How To Think About How We Think

Talbott devotes the largest portion of his book to his discussion of the historical evolution of consciousness. What, he asks, could have brought western culture from an intimate relationship with nature to a point where "our alienation from nature is matched only by our passion to 'capture' these bland encounters, to reproduce them in the more easily grasped two dimensions" (255) in less than two hundred years? In order to explain how we have removed ourselves from our own meaning, Talbott draws heavily on the work of philologist Owen Barfield, who in the 1920's first began to explore how symbols themselves change one's perception of the world and emerged with a conviction that complex, formal technologies "suffer decisive limitations relative to the human being" (284). Talbott then turns around to look at the ways in which we, as a species, exhibit symptoms of having culturally divorced our symbols from their underlying reference to the world around us to a point at which we are in danger of losing ourselves.

These symptoms are several, and are dealt with individually. Talbott's demonstration of the results of our separation from our "sacred selves" includes examinations of our unwillingness to recognize the "limitations of mechanical intelligence" and our willingness to accept virtual reality while ignoring reality. In one chapter, he goes so far as to attribute the development of landscape painting to a faint and forgotten desire to recapture the real, while using Barfield to show that, instead, the virtual encourages one to accept the symbol as the real. But in each case both cause and effect are the same: We have met the enemy at the ends of our tools, and it is ourselves. When discussing virtual reality, for example, Talbott reminds us that this phenomenon is not new while simultaneously decrying its existence: "Like the renaissance viewers at Brunelleschi's demonstration [the first appearance in art of "true perspective"], we marvel at the new sensations we call "realistic," but we do not consider the changing standard of reality lying behind our explanations" (280).

Talbott heavy use of Barfield, who hadn't even experienced the extremely formalized technology of today's computer, makes it clear that the limitations we set upon ourselves by adopting the machine's intelligence as our own are related to a cultural phenomenon which began long before these technologies existed. Words and symbols have always been somewhat fluid, we are told. In fact, Talbott says, "logic" itself derived from the grasp of these meanings. But, as logic itself developed, people began more and more "to focus upon the 'objects' given to us by our thinking rather than upon the thinking itself," (298) and to accept those objects as thought "bytes," formal in their definition (in his own words). Of course, as noted in Talbott and the Electronic Word, Talbott believes the underlying self which we have allowed to be obscured by these limitations transcends cultural difference. But by pinpointing the root of the problem in a cultural acceptance of the logic of the computer, and reminding us that, more generally, "entrapment within a particular culture is a dangerous state for any truth-seeker" (343), Talbott shows us that it is our refusal to look beyond our self-imposed cultural parameters which causes these cultural limitations to be "destructive of the truth."

So Talbott is not a fatalist after all; he is not saying that human consciousness has not evolved, nor is he suggesting that this evolution has not had numerous positive results. But he is a pessimist. Talbott seems more interested in demonstrating the complexities of redemption than offering many concrete suggestions on how to avoid technology's projected paradigm of passivity. His final words continue to bemoan the fact that "our consciousness today is, for all practical purposes, incapable of assuming shapes that once were easy and natural" (343). If this is true, it is not after all outrageous "to contend that what we have today is in some respects a seriously disabled consciousness, and that our infatuations with machines is both a symptom of our disability and a further contributor to it." Talbott reluctantly acknowledges that our current consciousness is only truly incapable of assuming a stance of reflection on self, medium and information for so long as we continue to allow things to be that way: "If we do not have this sort of experience, the future will, in the end, merely compute." (344). In the end, however, although we are given both consequenses and a tight description of the problem, The Future Does Not Compute offers few answers, and we are left holding a very large "if."

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