The Future Does Not Compute: Book Report
Putting our finger on how computing distorts us.
I’ve owned the book The Future Does Not Compute by Stephen Talbott for almost 30 years, but for a million reasons it was only recently that I focused on reading it. What I found was what I always knew I’d find: thoughtful and clear reflections on some problems with computing. I want to relate some of his main arguments, and give you an idea of what an eloquent writer he is.
I’ve organized quotes from the book into three themes:
- destructiveness: computers bring about change; they render lifeless things that were alive in us, which is bad
- our existing failures: the destructiveness is the continuation of an arc we’ve been on for centuries
- synthesis: we can use this opportunity to clarify what being human is and can be
Put on your thinking cap
There are a few key points of view, and if you resonate with them then the book will speak to you. Here’s the TL;DR quote:
I am not sure we will be given this many decades [as with TV] to become properly aware of our computers. For what is directly at risk now – what the computer asks us to abdicate – are our independent powers of awareness. Yet these powers are the only means by which we can raise ourselves above the machine.
The key words here are “aware” and “above.” What is the nature of human life and awareness, and how is the computer a debasement of it? Talbott is more or less a reactionary, longing for a time when humans were more integrated with nature and more richly alive. Another important word in the book is “meaning.” For Talbott, there is a state of being where our lives and our language have a living meaning, attached to the natural world and to each other. The antithesis of this is analytical logic, which drains words of their living qualities and shrinks them until they mean more and more specific, and abstract, things. It’s such a novel paradox for me, to think that the more specific we make a word (examples include, say, “atom,” “transparent,” “oak,” whatever, really) the more abstract it is. I’d have thought we were making them more concrete by being specific. But he’s right, we have to divorce from the oak tree a little bit to define a species of tree “scientifically.”
Oh, and here’s a fun prescient bit:
One can, in this regard, venture a fairly safe prediction: over the coming years, fringe Net phenomena such as flame wars, weird impersonations, the more bizarre forms of underground culture, pornographic commerce, manifestations of psychosis … will grow increasingly pronounced and erratic, while at the same time the reasoned mechanisms for filtering “strict business” from the more chaotic background noise of the Net will steadily gain in effectiveness.
There’s hucksterism out there. We can all detect that computers have always been oversold to us by inventors and corporations. But the scam has many layers and some of them are accidental and insidious. Talbott is trying to identify these. They are the lies that we tell ourselves collectively when we dream of the power of computing.
That what is inside the computer is just as rich as what we had put into it:
Data and information are the raw materials of wisdom. That is the lie.
That the gap between our human activity and the digital versions thereof is small:
The computer willingly places its mimicking intelligence at our service. All it asks of us is one small thing: that we allow it to start with information or data, and to proceed from there by means of mechanized logic.
That the hopes and dreams we project onto the computer are actually just hopes and dreams, and are unrelated to the computer:
There is, after all, one absolutely unavoidable fact: technologies for “bringing people together” do not necessarily bring people together.
That nowhere are the tradeoffs more depressing than in education:
One wants so badly to like what Seymour Papert has done.
That our fears around “screen time” are almost certainly justified, but more spiritual than we usually speak of:
It is simply backward to immerse the elementary school student in an artificial, computerized environment before he has learned much at all about the world. How can he translate the terms of artifice, the language of representation, back into a reality he has never known?
That computers do not mediate so much as distort:
the virtue of immediacy possessed by the technical device as such is not a virtue of the content mediated by that device
I had never reflected in this way on apps like The Elements, which I thought of as wonderful eductational tools to show my kids. What if my experience of the app is rich because I have touched so many of the materials in the period table with my senses, whereas a child who has not is receivng a different and poorer experience than I? And what should I do with the fact that I never did reflect in this way?
Our existing failures
Now I need you to summon some of your skepticism about capitalism, the industrial revolution, plutocrats and kleptocrats. Done? Then try this:
Computers didn’t bring anything essentially new; they were just going to be better machines than we had yet managed to be.
There are so many galaxy-brain takes in this book that point out that we have plenty of evidence that computers will definitely not do what we hope they will, because we already confronted an exactly analogous moment. Think that the internet will help reduce feelings of isolation?
Who constitutes the society that isolated them in the first place – persons different from those who will make the Net whatever it becomes?
Hoping for a utopia where barriers are removed? In 2023 I’m thinking of Uber, Airbnb, or Etsy:
When we’re all in the electronic marketplace together, will our enemy be any less ourselves than when we were all in the industrial marketplace together? When the Net subsumes all social functions, will the balance of healthy and destructive forces be more positive than we already know it to be?
Think that lowering barriers to communication will bring the world together, and that examples of dark toxicity are exceptions to this built-in promise?
could it be that what we so eagerly embrace, unawares, are the powers of dissolution themselves?
Want to launch satellites to bring the internet (and Facebook) to villages in Africa?
in attacking any local problem we must yield first of all, not to the meanings inherent in the problem, but to the constraining necessity of the global system itself. The village farmers in Nepal may not feel any need of a satellite dish, but they will receive one nevertheless
Think that VR kayaking on the PlayStation 5 is related to actual kayaking?
We speak of “immersive” virtual reality, but it is immersion in a “nothing” that is compounded of mathematical abstractions and cut off from Nature’s lawfulness.
Think that astronomy constitutes “informed worship” and brings us closer to the universe? (I still think this after reading the quote):
Galileo’s world-changing instrument pushed the moon farther from us. Where once we felt ourselves within the moon’s sphere of influence, we woke up to find the moon far, far away, unconnected to ourselves.
To computerize something we must first change it:
Every claim that “the computer cannot do so-and-so” is met by the effort – more or less successful – to analyze so-and-so into a set of pure, formal structures.
What might the future bring? (These days I think of ChatGPT and how often thinkers (and employers) invite us to find uses for it.)
Our experiment with the computer consists of the effort to discover every possible aspect of the human mind that can be expressed or echoed mechanically – simulated by a machine – and then to reconstruct society around those aspects. In other words, after a few centuries of philosophical reductionism, we are now venturing into a new, practical reductionism: we are determined to find out how much of our mental functioning we can in fact delegate to the computer.
Synthesis: taking a stab at defining what it means to be human
What I’m most grateful for are Talbott’s unsubstantiated claims about what being human used to feel like. He enlists Owen Barfield to do some of this job, and I’m thankful as well to have learned more about this Inkling, Tolkien fan that I am. I take all these claims with a grain of salt, but I find them edifying, inspiring, and lovely. And they help me see what I find disquieting about the computer, by contrast.
When we debate questions such as “what is mathematics?” or “what is chess?”, Talbott offers yet another galaxy-brain framing, which I have found pretty transformative:
It is always ourselves we work on, whether we realize it or not. There is no other work to be done in the world.
As someone who pursues mathematics for primarily aesthetic reasons, this resonates quite a bit. I can definitely believe that I am mostly trying to have experiences and change myself, rather than somehow contribute wisdom to my peers, a secondary goal that is anyway aligned with the first one. But I’m definitely not trying to increase the count of theorems in the world, which is what theorem-proving researchers are optimizing their software for. And those researchers are mostly not grappling with the implications for humans, except to dismiss any concern as luddism.
He’s definitely going for something very spiritual:
I am convinced that much of the “community” we experience is more an effort to bury the loneliness than to reckon with its causes. And I suspect that the causes have a lot to do with our failure to acknowledge, let alone to have any useful language for grasping, the spiritual self whose cut-off condition is at issue.
Even the simple act of making a pros and cons list is too reductionist for him:
Have you, or has anyone you know, ever made an important decision by weighing all related factors, adding them up, and then obeying the sum? This is not really your future we’re talking about; it’s your past. The real question is, what do you choose to become – despite what you are now?
He’s pretty worried that he’s in a double bind, however:
even to argue that there is a threat from computers – if that threat is seen as fixed and objective – is only to further our descent. This is my own greatest challenge, for where my strong predilection is to argue the facts, I should instead seek to awaken. Awakenings prepare the way for a new future, and for different facts.
Here’s a down-to-earth statement of an alternate vision:
There is no neat algorithm for either carving or sailing a little wooden boat in the usual, childlike manner – and yet these activities offer a great deal of worthwhile experience, from which a later appreciation of mathematics and engineering can most healthily arise.
He spends some time, and some eloquent writing, describing what a healthy and connected existence might look like. He, and Owen Barfield, feel that we has such a life during the middle ages (in a narrow western sense, naturally). We lived in harmony with our stories, with nature, and with words we felt to live in an integrated whole with the world, not mere tokens split away from it.
Before the scientific revolution the world was more like a garment men wore about them than a stage on which they moved
Owen Barfield’s remark that “it is not man who made the myths, but the myths that made man.”
Is it our real yearning simply to become alive again, and to know the world as living?
The discipline of consciousness is not a preparation for truth-gathering; it is the increasingly harmonious resonance between the laws of the world and the laws of our own thinking activity, which are the same laws expressed outwardly and inwardly.
Finally I want to mention one more Owen Barfield idea which has stuck with me. It’s the idea that every word is a metaphor. This story checks out! Like how I just said “the story checks out”, and “stuck”, and how I said “galaxy-brain” earlier, or “double bind”.
nearly all linguistic symbols have a figurative origin
Newton’s use of gravitas to describe the force of gravitation was metaphorical – untrue on its face; it made no more sense, given the received meaning of gravitas, than we would make today if we explained the moon’s revolution as resulting from its desire for the earth. And yet, as with many metaphors, it did make sense when one looked through the false statements and, with their essential aid, began to grasp the intended (new) meanings.
The Barvield POV is to notice this, and then to wonder what it would feel like for these terms to be something even stronger than a metaphor. Where my brain being galaxy-sized is somehow deeply true, and connects me with the galaxy into one holisitic concept. I find that very challenging to imagine, but very tempting, and I am definitely in agreement that no computer could do it, and no computer programmer will ever try, because computing entails impoverishment.
Speaking of “reactionary”…
There was bad news in the book as well. I found a few places where I was shocked to hear the voice of a political reactionary who is not terribly enamored of many of his fellow citizens.
all that is best in the uniquely Western development of scientific discipline: the habit of rigorous, detached observation, the finely tuned mental machinery of analysis, the requirement that theories work
Here he is reacting to Jerry Mander, author of In The Absence Of The Sacred, with phraseology that would be at home in National Review.
Mander repeats uncritically the wholly uncertain claim that we face crises of ozone depletion and global warming
his ill-advised singling out of Ronald Reagan
Maybe a blossoming anti-woke crusader?
absurd, guilt-driven expressions of political correctness
We’re no longer going to let those TV moguls keep us down and reveling in smut.
Finally, this asinine quote left me feeling unseen to say the least:
how many students of mathematics still look to the night sky with wonder?