Sunday, August 26, 2007

Devices of the Soul

This article appears in slightly different form in the July/August 2007 issue of IEEE Micro © 2007 IEEE.

Thinking About Technology

Devices of the Soul by Steve Talbott (O'Reilly, Sebastopol CA, 2007, 298pp, ISBN 0-596-52680-6,, $22.99)

In this book, Steve Talbott distills and sharpens a message he has been working on for a long time. Here is an excerpt from my review of Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute (Micro Review, Nov/Dec 1995):
While many pundits sing the praises of the coming global village, Talbott wants us to examine their unspoken assumptions. Many seem to be saying that simple technological tools can guarantee freedom and privacy, make learning and personal growth easy, and build strong democratic communities.

Talbott sees this as wishful thinking -- magical, automatic solutions to complex human problems. He sees the effects of the new technology as an extension of a trend that runs through most of the twentieth century. We spend more and more of our lives "running on automatic."
Since 1995, Talbott has edited an online newsletter at Most of the material in his new book appeared first in that newsletter. Perhaps for that reason, this book has many interwoven themes that all reinforce the basic message: Self forgetfulness is the reigning temptation of the technological era. 

I often watch the CNBC program Mad Money with former hedge fund manager Jim Cramer. The other day Cramer, who likes to make classical allusions, was talking about the many voices trying to frighten people into the anti-pattern: buy high, sell low. He stuck his fingers in his ears and said, "Don't listen to them, like Ulysses." My fourteen year old daughter and I have been reading the Odyssey, so I told her this. "But that's not what Odysseus did," she replied. "He made his men lash him to the mast so he could hear the Sirens' song." I'm not sure what implications this story has for investing, but it is a key element of a central metaphor of Talbott's book. 

The Sirens sang that they knew all and would tell all to those who approached. Those who listened could not resist approaching, so they perished on the Sirens' rocks. Odysseus saw that the Sirens presented a grave danger. His self-awareness allowed him to perceive the risk and to conceive the clever device that saved him.

Talbott sees the Odyssey as a story of the dawn of technology. Odysseus's growing self-awareness, apparently not so common back then, allowed him to harbor secrets and concoct the many schemes for which he was famous. He conceived and executed the plan of the Trojan Horse, which brought victory to the Greeks in the Trojan War. He devised a complex scheme to free himself and his men from the cave of the cyclops Polyphemus. 

Talbott equates the Sirens' false promise to tell all with today's promises of salvation through digital technology. "You are powerless to affect the technologically mediated future," sing today's Sirens. "Come dull the pain by partaking of its wonders." Talbott believes that we are not analyzing and mitigating against the risks of technology. We are letting the repeated assurances of progress through technology lull us into self-forgetfulness.

Odysseus's technology consisted mainly of mental devices. The golden age that followed Homer's time gave rise to great advances in art, drama, philosophy, mathematics, and science. But the Greeks, except for Archimedes, did little in the area of engineering. By contrast, we are surrounded by gadgets, but we forget that they are human inventions, carrying the aims and assumptions of their creators. This is self-forgetfulness, because we can forget our own aims, assumptions, and skills as we conform our behavior, and even our thinking, to the gadget's requirements.

Talbott contrasts Odysseus, the self-aware contriver, with the cyclops Polyphemus who lived in a simple natural state. While Odysseus moved away from this natural state slowly, today we are almost completely out of touch with nature. We have learned to ignore whatever our mechanisms fail to take account of, thus making us descend to the level of the machines. Holistic medicine, for example, seeks balance, not absence of pathogens. But we do not teach doctors to detect balance, because it is not part of the western model of disease and treatment. The doctors who follow this model cannot see what is evident to the practitioners of, say, traditional Chinese medicine.

The Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evans Schultes was famous for his qualitative knowledge. He could resolve questions in the field, simply by holding a blossom up to the light. Yet even Schultes was amazed at the ability of the forest residents to distinguish ten different kinds of yagé plants by sight at great distances, even though the distinguishing criteria made no sense in the standard botanical scheme.

Talbott views the history of technology as the history of walking away from ourselves. He describes the enormous skill of Tomo, a Waorani (Auca) hunter who could "knock a hummingbird out of the air and hit a monkey in the canopy 120 feet above the forest floor." In learning to use the blowpipe, Tomo had to develop stealth, physical skills, patience, focused attention, and, most important, a qualitative understanding of the animals he hunted and the forest they lived in. He knew, without thinking about it consciously, how it felt to be the animals he hunted.

Tomo, however, preferred a shotgun -- a vastly inferior weapon for his purposes -- because of the intrinsic attraction of the object itself. This is the same sort of intrinsic attraction I have always felt in hardware stores and, more recently, in electronics stores. In Tomo's case, the shotgun might lead him to specialize in shooting large animals at close range -- a task that requires some, but far from all of his skills. It is not hard to imagine his losing the unused skills over time.

Walking away from old skills and developing new ones is not the problem. This happens whenever people grow and progress. The problem Talbott sees is the direction and emphasis of the change. We often let labor-saving technology do the parts of the job that are easy to automate and simply drop the parts that depend on skills that our machines don't have.

Another central metaphor of Talbott's book is the conversation. Talbott calls for a respectful conversation between humans and nature, and a similar conversation between the technology around us and our aware selves. Talbott's model for conversation is human relations. We grant the autonomy and worth of others, and at the same time we act in ways that affect them. The approach we take in human relations models the approach Talbott suggests in the areas of ecology and technology.

A conversation without preconceptions or artificial boundaries necessitates the risk of offense and misunderstanding. We have limited knowledge of the effects of, say, a new industrial process, an experimental gardening technique, or even a new type of bird feeder. This ignorance mandates that we proceed cautiously, but absolute caution makes progress impossible. The important thing is to listen carefully and openly to the answer. This is essentially the approach Bill Joy advocates in his April 2000 Wired Magazine article, The Future Does Not Need Us. There he warns about genetics, nanotechnology, and robotics (GNR) and the potential catastrophes they might precipitate (see Micro Review, July/August 2000).

Bill Joy often appears paired with Ray Kurzweil, author of The Singularity is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology (see Micro Review January/February 2006). Kurzweil and Joy agree on the dangers, but they disagree on how to deal with them. Joy's proposal is to restrict GNR work until we have mechanisms in place to prevent bad consequences. Kurzweil's approach is to accelerate GNR work in order to avert catastrophes and solve humanity's problems. Talbott's approach is much closer to Joy's than to Kurzweil's.

In the conversation between our aware selves and our technology, Talbott raises the question of how our tools should act. Should they act like friends, praising our efforts and offering us companionship? Should they be as unobtrusive as possible, so we can concentrate on the tasks they are helping us with? We can rule out the first one pretty quickly. Hardly anyone likes the Microsoft paper clip. But Talbott regards the second as unhealthy too. Because it is so important to remain conscious of the assumptions and unseen factors that affect us, it's a good idea not to forget about our tools. An invisible tool still embodies the ideals and assumptions of its creator.

Talbott devotes a portion of his book to addressing the views of researchers who, like Kurzweil, paint pictures of a future when computers will think and act like people. He ridicules Rodney Brooks for saying things like "We, all of us, over-anthropomorphize human beings, who are after all mere machines." He convincingly brands Brooks as a bully who argues from ignorance.

He also heaps scorn on certain efforts coming from the prestigious and well funded MIT Media Lab. Computers, in Talbott's view, will think and act like people only if people abandon their humanity and reduce themselves to the level of automatons. The fact that people can imagine being replaced by computers shows how far along that path the Sirens of technology have led them. 

To emphasize the aspects of humanity that computers are unlikely to achieve, Talbott tells the stories of people whose handicaps did little to impair their humanity. I don't go into those astonishing stories in this review, but I hope you will read about them when you buy the book.

Education is another main theme of the book. The essence of education,according to Talbott, is helping children develop their own connections to the world. The Tracker by Tom Brown (Prentice Hall, 1978) tells the story of how an Apache elder, Stalking Wolf, taught Brown about the wilderness. When asked a question, Stalking Wolf would not reply with the requested information. Instead he would say "go ask the mice," "feed the birds," or something of the sort to send his student off on an adventure. 

Our culture, however, works against understanding the world this way. Talbott gives the example of Monty Roberts, who learned to relate to horses in a way that allowed him to persuade untamed horses to do what he wanted, quickly and without force. Roberts, however, was rediscovering what John Solomon Rarey had already published in the mid 1850s. Rarey's work, though sensational at the time, was forgotten, because it did not fit the dominant paradigm.

As Talbott points out, every educator publicly deplores the fact-shoveling model of education, but our educational system moves further and further in that direction. Jane Healy's Failure to Connect: How Computers Affect Our Children's Minds--for Better and Worse (Simon and Schuster, 1998) analyzes the use of computers in elementary school classrooms. Healy sees few benefits, especially for younger children, and many bad consequences. Nonetheless, we continue to computerize classrooms at the expense of programs with greater educational benefit (for example, art, music, physical education, reduced class sizes).

In a chapter called Educational Provocations, Talbott makes blunt assertions about elementary education that he hopes will stimulate discussion. The gist of this eclectic recital is that the push for computers in elementary schools comes from giant computer companies and the parents that they have frightened or enthralled. The justifications are at best unproven and are probably untrue. The change in emphasis that computers produce goes against what educators know. Students need significance, not data. They need individual attention from caring adult mentors, not more sedentary time in front of screens. Finally, nobody has even considered the potential negative effects of the technology itself on developing children. Talbott even questions whether exposing children to the Internet at all is a good idea. Children need safe places in which to develop. The Internet is not a place, and there is no effective way to make it safe.

The fact-shoveling model of education has also brought great harm to higher education. If education is just data transfer, nobody needs to pay $40,000.00 per year to a university. The computer can transfer data much more efficiently than four years of college can. The aspects of education that residence at a four year college is designed to foster are no longer highly valued in the business world. In many jobs, an obedient worker who goes to the help system for just in time learning can be more cost-effective than a worker who has learned to think, introspect, challenge, and do research. In the credentialed society, the hiring manager is happy with fungible degrees based on measurable outcomes like numbers of hours of classes taken or specific scores on standardized tests.

Talbott also addresses the question of privacy. He points out that privacy is not the same as anonymity. It only matters where we know each other well enough to care. If our social functioning is reduced to data interactions, there is nothing for privacy to attach to.

Talbott is not a Luddite. He likes and values the technology he warns us about. He doesn't want us to discard it. He wants us to become fully aware of the tradeoffs between its positive and negative effects. Only with awareness can we make rational decisions.

This book is a highly distilled presentation of more than ten years of Talbott's thinking about these issues. This review only scratches the surface. To do Talbott's ideas justice, you should read the book, look at the works he refers to, and think deeply about the issues. I hope that you will.

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