Mstation Book Reviews
pre Dec 04 reviews are here
Thu, 01 Nov 2007
Steve Talbott, Devices of the Soul: Battling for our selves in an age of machines, O'Reilly
Sometimes you come across books that you think should be widely read but you know there's no chance whatsoever. The people who do read it will be the already converted who hear of it through their personal grapevines.
One reason is that this is not an easy read, not because the concepts are out there, but because the organisation of the book doesn't lead to rapid enlightenment. And there are no real answers either.
What is the question then?! It has to do with a computerised world that has people emulating machine behaviour - to some degree becoming servants of the machines that are meant to serve us. There's nothing new here: Rules-are-rules people come from the same simple-minded family and those same people now love to say things like 'I'm sorry but our system won't allow that' - in a recent personal case, the thing it wouldn't allow was a five line address - so that company couldn't send mail to it! Handwriting wasn't an option.
But Steve Talbott isn't talking about programmer and designer shortcomings: He's in a more lofty place which might be illustrated by an architect's famous dictum that form follows function. Why then do so many people find quite a few of buildings built with that dictum in mind to be not to their liking and to not possess utility? The answer is simple and it is that the functions were not properly defined - in those cases, they were too simplistic.
In other words, in a complex world, the constant seeeking for ultra-simple, one line answers (take a bow, tabloid media) is not only wrong, it's dangerous. Machine "wisdom" is a mighty danger as well. Steve Talbott is trying to warn us about this.
Efficiency is another, and allied, idea that gets a questioning. Frequently, all this means is cheapness. Solutions that are being labelled as efficient are mostly only definable in that way by severely limiting the scope of what's been examined - ie. cost! Ideas of what might be the wider affects have typically not been well examined. Is it efficient in the aggregate, for example, to export vast numbers of jobs? At what point does this become nonsense -ie. when does it become plainly obvious that a society is threatened? ST doesn't ask these questions at all, by the way, so you can relax. What he does ask is that we do ask these sorts of questions and that we do embrase complexity rather than shun it. Anti-intellectual societies won't have a bit of it of course.
Another major worry of his is disconnectedness - from each other, from moral imperatives, from humanitity, in other words. He sees the internet, the "bad" internet, as a danger here, computer games as well.
What might the solutions be? Talbott doesn't overtly supply them but it can inferred that more humanities in education might be a good thing and that more humanity in general might also be good. More education itself sounds good too. We can live in hope. Placenessness, disconnection, efficiency form follows function... mind - disabled