Reading "The Future"

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

Reviewed by: Joshua L. Farber ( for the Spring 1997 issue of Kairos: A Journal For Teachers of Writing in Webbed Environments.

Meta-text: About This Review

That The Future Does Not Compute explores the relationship between computer technology and its users thoroughly is no surprise; author Stephen Talbott, the Senior Editor of O'Reilly and Associates (a publisher of some of the leading Internet how-to books), is eminently qualified for his subject. He recognizes the value of computer technologies (he telecommutes to work, for example, giving him more time available to spend with his family). His home workstation is fully wired, leaving him "isolated in front of a large screen and surrounded by a high-powered computer, modem, laser printer, telephone, and fax machine" when he works (24). And from within this technological cave, Talbott examines the relationship between the technology and himself.

Talbott walks the line between the celebratory optimism of cyber-believers and the doomsday critiques of Neo-Luddites. Aware of the paradoxical directions in which the Net appears to be growing (on the one hand, a tool of liberation, on the other, an Orwellian tool of governmental and big business control), he rejects both optimists and pessimists as generally naive. The Net and other similar media are, after all, only tools. For the Net to work well as tool, it has to be, like a hammer in one's hand, an extension of one's self, controlled and directed by the user, not by its own weight and gravity. When we stop thinking of the tool as "an extension of ourselves," argues Talbott, we can lose sight of the "true" self: "Machines become a threat when they embody our limitations without our being fully aware of our limitations"(33). In other words, if not technologically critical, we "descend to equality with our machines" (35).

Thus, although Talbott drifts towards a fatalistic tone in his arguments, his concern should be read as a cautious, hopeful optimism. The book picks up where Neil Postman's more recent works (for example, Technopoly and The End of Education) left off: Postman points at what we need to think about, and Talbott takes up the challenge. Both Talbott and Postman look critically at, and bemoan, our societal acceptance of the symbols which we use to understand reality as reality. It is no surprise that the two men recently co-hosted a conference questioning our current attitudes towards technology.

Talbott's use of computers to mediate information and communication is tempered by a firm belief in such questioning. He believes that we need, as Robert Sardello puts it, to "discover the soul of technology, and work towards its redemption" in order to fully take advantage of it. Talbott further warns that if we do blindly accept the paradigm of the computer we allow ourselves to continue accepting the abstract, virtual world as the "real" world. Talbott describes his goal in this struggle to articulate his views on "the machine in the ghost" as "understand[ing] the relationship between human and computer." Most fundamentally, Talbott does this on a philosophical, meta-level of understanding. His cautious conviction that the Net can be harnessed and utilized for wonderful things ultimately rests on the possibility of humans being able and willing to recognize, put relative value upon, and think about different kinds of information, from the mediated abstraction of a program in Lego/LOGO to the child's direct and immediate experience of saving himself from a rattlesnake.

The Future Does Not Compute is a hard read, sometimes; Talbott covers a lot of ground, and his arguments, many of which stretch on for pages, contain an impressive vocabulary. However, when one closely examines his terms, some arguments are weakened. In my discussion of his sections on Computers and Community and Computers in the Classroom, I demonstrate how stipulative definitions at the heart of several arguments subtly weaken his case. But a careful read is also encouraged for more positive reasons. Talbott's seamless combination of anecdote and analysis makes for a smooth and enjoyable journey. And when his logic sings, it really sings. Talbott's logic is especially piercing in his examination of the Electronic Word or his astute application of the ideas of Owen Barfield to condemn "the computational paradigm." For Talbott, the paradigm emerges in the ways we allow the computer's design and programming logic to insist upon formal definitions and structures that determine how we perceive and use the information which comes to us via the computer. As the dust jacket promises, "you will never again be able to sit in front of your computer with quite the same glazed stare."

Ultimately, The Future Does Not Compute is a must-read for anyone involved with computer technology at work, at home, in a classroom, or just about anywhere. Several chapters of Talbott's work are available on- line, and most of Talbott's main ideas can be gleaned from them, but only the printed text reveals all the intricacies of his position. The chapters, which range in length from four to almost 50 pages, can be read individually as essays on the different contexts in which he has tested his thesis. The book is further categorized into four major content-based sections, with three appendices; The appendices are excellent essays in and of themselves but are only available in print form.

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