Unnatural practices

The Future does not Compute
October 13, 1995

As evil destroys Bosnia, Africa and Chechenya, as powerless observers we may well ask what better future could we offer? What help do they need? The proponents of the Internet, cyber-utopians, see peace, democracy and personal advancement as necessary consequences of empowering individuals with computers and communications. Thus the Internet, the World-Wide Web and all the modern computer communications are just what Bosnia, Africa and Chechenya need.

Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute is a non-technical book that starts by questioning these assumptions. It is worth reading if you thought you ought to know about the Internet. It is worth reading if you thought that a commercial, originally military network is going to have any automatic benefit for humanity. This book is a start of returning sense to those knocked senseless by technical arrogance. Or rather, some of it is worth reading, and the rest is rather peculiar. The usual imperative is to get on the Net because it is good. As one Net voice said: "I think the networks of the future will be the most incredibly egalitarian technology ever invented. Imagine that homeless people or single-parent children can interconnect with anybody who is willing to talk to them in the world. The possibilities are rather dazzling."

People talk of the global village. But what do they know of real villages such as those in Bosnia? Folk there used to talk to each other before the war started.

How do the utopians of the Net ignore its hopelessness to give people effective power? Having powerful computers in our romantic cottages does not give us democracy. Who will open the jam jar lids for the old, arthritic invalids? Surely nobody on the Net will.

The Future Does Not Compute is an important book, a heartfelt antidote to the usual Net hype and the eulogies that get lost in their own technological imperatives. Stephen Talbott is perceptive. Why, he asks, are people so excited by the vast resources of information on the Net, when they could walk down to their local library? Their library would have higher quality information, more easily found, and with greater historical and cultural perspectives.

Our society is clearly becoming addicted to the quick impact multimedia image. A virtual reality experience is more seductive than going and working for your wisdom. Tom Brown, a wilderness expert and animal tracker, had to work for years in the wild to develop his skills. Talbott wonders what he would have learnt from a computer. I agree, probably not much; but then there is only one Tom Brown. I think multimedia is better than nothing for the millions of inner city children who know little of the wilds.

Talbott might seem perceptive, but this is because his point of view is at odds with mainstream western culture. Too much of the book is given over to explaining why his view is right and why he believes what he does, rather than in continuing to keep us awake with his unusual observations.

Talbott, perhaps unintentionally, challenges readers to provide the framework to work for urgently needed change. From his accidental insights he makes implausible leaps. By analogy to the lifetime effort of the expert animal tracker, it seems we should never tolerate the reduction of an animal's activities to mere computer algorithms. There is a streak here of "nothing good ever came without effort". Why should the Net be successful when it is so easy? Such views made me doubt Talbott's underlying values. He has sympathies with anthroposophy and he seems to think the world has gone downhill since Homer, and certainly since the Renaissance. A full chapter, and several allusions throughout the book, discuss perspective painting. Once humans were part of what they saw, and then Brunelleschi invented perspective.

This is a fascinating discussion, but what has it to do with computers? Perspective is mathematical and therefore, apparently, separates us from what we experience. Talbott does not like mathematics. For him, we lose imagination when we favour rational and analytic operations, as in mathematics or programming. If a tern can fly around the world, we are asked what does it know of maths? Nothing, because for Talbott a tern "takes wing upon an ethereal sea of wisdom, borne along invisible paths by an intelligence calling as much from Nature as from within its own mind." If Talbott was writing poetry, fine; but I thought he was trying to make us think about technology more critically. Surely to feel inspired by fictitious myth evokes Talbott's criticism of unfounded Net optimism?

I do not accept that, as Talbott believes, "Equations have become so utterly detached from the phenomena of the world that we cannot find our way back". Talbott goes on to argue that we are criminal to inflict this "lostness" on children, which computers do because they make no abstract distinctions: here all is points and numbers. I do agree we should not inflict lostness, but Talbott himself has surely lost his own perspective when he connects this with mathematics or whatever goes on inside computers.

Stephen Talbott has moved from the Boston technology belt to the countryside. He lives what he believes; I suspect that few of us who use the Net daily do so. Talbott might have made us think, briefly, that technology and the Net in particular are not going to solve any problems on their own. But if we are going to work together to improve the world, rather than waxing romantic about childhood, getting in touch with fairies and a mystical Nature (and magnets, but I have no space to review that idea), we will need more coherent arguments.

Harold Thimbleby (harold@mdx.ac.uk) is professor of computing research at Middlesex University.

The Future does not Compute: Transcending the Machines in our Midst

Author - Stephen L. Talbott
ISBN - 1565 920 856
Publisher - O'Reilly & Associates
Price - £16.95
Pages - 502

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