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  • In Summary

    This is Chapter 11 of The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, by Stephen L. Talbott. Copyright 1995 O'Reilly & Associates. All rights reserved. You may freely redistribute this chapter in its entirety for noncommercial purposes. For information about the author's online newsletter, NETFUTURE: Technology and Human Responsibility, see http://www.netfuture.org/.

    Our ever more intimate embrace of technology -- which now means especially computerized technology -- is hardly news. At the same time, anyone who claims to discern in this embrace a crisis for humanity risks becoming mere background noise in an era of rhetorical overkill. Nevertheless, something like such a claim is the main burden of this book.

    The qualities of our technological embrace are admittedly difficult to assess. It's not just that we cannot buy things without participating in financial networks and contributing ourselves as "data" to consumer databases; nor that companies are now refusing to work with suppliers who lack "network-compatibility"; nor that in order to compete in most markets today, you must adapt your business to the computational landscape; nor that "knowledge" increasingly means "computer-processed and computer-accessible information"; nor that our children's education is being shifted online with a stunning sense of urgency; nor, finally, that our chosen recreations are ever more influenced by the computer's remarkable ability to frame alternate realities.

    Clearly, these are important developments. But on their surface they don't tell us what sort of embrace we're caught up in.

    Perhaps more revealing is the fact that we can no longer envision the future except as an exercise in projecting technological trends (with computers likely to be doing at least some of the projecting). Questions about the future of community, of social activism, of education, of liberty and democracy -- even of religion -- now threaten to become debates about the evolution of technology.

    The same truth emerges even when we express our fear of technology, for it is often the fear of what "they" will do with technology to rob us of privacy or access to information -- and "they" turn out to be conceived as impersonal mechanisms of government and corporate business: machines running by themselves and largely beyond anyone's control. Nor can we imagine remedies without appealing to these same organizational mechanisms. One way or another, we seem convinced, the Machine cradles our future.

    This helps to explain the advice I've heard too often for comfort: "technology's penetration of our lives will continue in any case; why resist? Why not find the pleasure in it?" -- the rapist's plea, but now applied against ourselves on behalf of our machines.

    All of which raises a question whether the difficulty in characterizing our embrace of technology results partly from the fact that technology is embracing us, the squalid terms of the encounter having largely been purged from our traumatized consciousness. While I would answer a qualified "yes" to this question, I