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  • Every Tool Is an Obstacle

    Computer Critics Need Not Worship Books

    Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)

    It inevitably happens: warn people about the risks of our growing reliance upon computers, and most of them immediately assume that you find books refreshingly risk-free and wholesome. The supposed contradiction is pointed out either directly ("So why do you read books? They're products of technology, too") or by mockingly ascribing to the critic a consistency he is assumed to lack ("You must be the kind of person who would decry hammers for alienating carpenters from their nails. `Damn it, man, in the days of higher thinking we used to pound nails in with our foreheads'").

    What is needed here is a little historical awareness. Gutenberg built his press in the middle of the fifteenth century, which was also when the discovery of linear perspective was taking hold. Western man was detaching himself from entanglement in the world. He was learning to look out at it through cameralike eyes, objectifying it and correspondingly "subjectifying" his own interior.

    The physical world, increasingly felt as solid, real, and external, fascinated the Renaissance artisans, even as their thinking processes were beginning a several-century's retreat into misty vagueness. Caught between these two movements, philosophers like Descartes discovered the mind-body problem: how does the weak, qualitatively disappearing mind accomplish anything against the resistance of a world growing ever more alien, independent, and material?

    Books fit in well with this double process. As the mind faded toward an airy chaos that seemed more fit for psychological novels than for scientific investigations, the book comfortingly objectified our words, which were now routinely beheld as external things detached from any human speaker. (Eventually, in the twentieth century, the computational manipulation of words would stand in for a scientific investigation of mind.)

    Books tempted us to hoard knowledge, as if it could be captured between covers and stored on shelves. We took pride in the size of our libraries and the number of books we had read, as if these testified to our grasp of truth. Ever so subtly, we were encouraged to exchange wisdom -- which assimilates information to a living understanding -- for the objectified bits of information themselves.

    Of course, the books lining the walls of my study do not help me through the tight spots in conversation. I am always at risk of being exposed. But the computer is changing that. It not only furthers the word's detachment from its human source, but sets those detached words in coherent motion. In the absence of a speaker, words simply converse with words. My study, you might say, goes head-to-head with your study.

    Computer programs freely exchange information with no human intervention. Increasingly, so do we. The psychological distance inserted between us by electronic media, our habits of superficial skimming, the computer's readiness to supply us with its own choice of words, and our casual inattention while typing at the keyboard all lead toward speech without a consciously present speaker. The computer helps to make the word-as-entity ever more objective, independent, and active,