Why do computers frustrate instead of satisfy? What do we lose when we sign onto the net? How come the Internet doesn't deliver the goods? With a careful eye to detail, Stephen Talbott looks over the culture of computing, finding both aggravation and comfort; hope and despair."
Cliff Stoll, author of Silicon Snake Oil
The technological Djinn, now loosed from all restraints, tempts us with visions of a surreal future. It is a future with robots who surpass their masters in dexterity and wit; intelligent agents who roam the Net on our behalf, seeking the informational elixir that will make us whole; new communities inhabiting the clean, infinite reaches of cyberspace, freed from war and conflict; and lending libraries of "virtually real" experiences that seem more sensational than the real thing.
Not all of this is idle or fantastic speculation -- even if it is the rather standard gush about our computerized future. Few observers can see any clear limits to what the networked computer might eventually accomplish. It is this stunning, wide-open potential that leads one to wonder what the Djinn will ask of us in return for the gift. After all, any potential so dramatic, so diverse, so universal, can be taken in many directions. That is its very nature. Who will choose the direction -- we, or the Djinn?
The intelligent machine receives a shadow of our own intelligence. This shadow consists of all the collective, automatic, sleepwalking, deterministic processes we have yielded to. That is, it consists of our own willingness to become machines. The crucial question today is whether we can wake up in time. Only in wakefulness can we distinguish ourselves from the automatisms around us. Where we remain asleep -- where we live in our own shadow -- we are the Djinn.
The Net is the most powerful invitation to remain asleep we have ever faced. Contrary to the usual view, it dwarfs television in its power to induce passivity, to scatter our minds, to destroy our imaginations, and to make us forget our humanity.
And yet -- for these very reasons -- the Net may also be an opportunity to enter into our fullest humanity with a self-awareness never yet achieved. But few even seem aware of the challenge, and without awareness we will certainly fail.