The Fundamental Deceit of Technology(1)


Stephen L. Talbott(2)


No law seems more certain than this one: the next generation of computers will be better than the last. Yet no law conceals a more socially devastating lie.

I recently heard an industry pundit say, "As voice recognition technology gets more sophisticated, we can expect computers to become more user-friendly." Self-evidently true? Let's consider.

Perhaps the most conspicuous application of voice recognition today is in telephone answering systems. The idea, of course, is that better listening skills will enable the software to deal more flexibly with your and my needs. The notorious klunkiness of the current answering systems will yield to friendlier capabilities.

In a sense, this is true. When I call a business in the future, the options will be more numerous, and I'll be able to negotiate those options with voice commands more complex than "yes" and "no."

But this is to ignore an obvious fact about the new capabilities: their reach will be extended. Where earlier software eventually routed you to a human operator, the "friendlier" version will replace the operator with a software agent who will attempt to conduct a crude conversation with you.

So the earlier frustrations will simply be repeated -- but at a much more critical level. Where once you finally reached a live person, now you will reach a machine. And if you thought the number-punching phase was irritating, wait until you have to communicate the heart of your business to a computer with erratic hearing, a doubtful vocabulary of 400 words, and the compassion of a granite monolith!

The technical opportunity to become friendlier, in other words, is also an opportunity to become unfriendly at a more decisive level. This is the prevailing law of technological development, underlying nearly every claim of progress.

For example, the computer is supposed to lead us out of the television wasteland "because now everything is interactive." But interactivity will not redeem the television sitcom. What it will do is transform even those activities where formerly we interacted with each other directly. "Direct" will become less direct. Local, face-to-face politics, to cite just one consequence, will yield more and more to computer-mediated politics.

You see the fallacy. Enthusiasts summon a vision of couch potatoes happily released from passivity to a new activity. Yet the essential development turns out to be not so much the greening of the former wasteland as the the reduction of rich, adjacent territory to a kind of semiaridity. And then we hear it said: "Look how much greener than the desert this new, semiarid land is!"

"But surely," you may say, "all our technological advances do represent an accumulating gain. Nearly everyone agrees that technically mediated services are getting better!" But this confusion of technical advance with human benefit is the heart of the reigning lie.

I work for a book publisher, O'Reilly & Associates. It is now possible for us to exchange our customer service people for an order- taking telephone system. I hope we don't. Much of the company's success has arisen from its unusually close contact with its readers. A bond of mutual trust and respect has developed, which influences the quality of our books.

But if we do take the leap, everyone will doubtless adapt. Another remnant of personal meaning will disappear from the world of commerce with scarcely a sigh. Industry observers will remark the increased efficiency, the reduced manpower. Few will note that the human signature upon the products we produce has grown yet a little fainter.

Do not blame the computer. If you and I are satisfied with products and services that bear no moral, artistic, or purposeful imprint of another human being, then the computer is the perfect instrument of delivery. We can continue altering our expectations and habits until even those software telephone operators begin to seem progressive.

But keep in mind that this "progress" reflects not so much the machine's increasing friendliness and humanity as it does your and my willingness to become more machinelike,

There is an alternative, however, and it does not require us to sacrifice efficiency. Anyone who suggests we give up efficiency for the sake of human values has missed the critical issue. Efficiency is never at war with value.

The question, rather, is whether we might still recover a sense for the artistic human gesture, for the inner significance of every personal meeting, for the communal sharing out of which a society's future can be fashioned.

If we learn to care about these things, we will happily pay for them in every product and service -- not because we have given up efficiency, but because we now seek ends that simply cannot be mechanically contrived. We will no longer lash out against our machines. Nor will we fail to recognize the anti-human consequences of a progress conceived in purely technical terms.

Machines will then find their rightful place in our lives precisely because we are paying attention first of all to each other.



[We asked Steve Talbott if he would like to comment on his article of 1995 and specifically if he would, with the benefit of two decades of hindsight, wish to change any of it.  The following is his response.]

I am sometimes asked today whether I still believe the central message of The Future Does Not Compute.  I often get the feeling that the person asking this question assumes I will have pulled back from my criticisms — presumably because computer technologies have become so central to our lives, and our lives so unthinkable without these technologies. 

But — remarkable as it may seem — I can think of no part of The Future Does Not Compute that I would retract, or that I consider wide of the mark.  My point from the very beginning was that the new technologies will become essential to our lives, and that we will rebuild our lives around them.  (My own current research would have been impossible without the substantial aid of online search and access tools.)  This inevitability was the very reason why a higher degree of mindfulness was required, so that our fate would not be dictated by forces beyond our control.  In the absence of such mindfulness, technology can only lead us downward. 

In my writings on technology I often drew a comparison with the automobile.  In the early twentieth century it would have been misguided to say, “We should refuse the automobile”.  But think how much better it might have been if we had looked ahead a bit and thought about the implications of automobile exhaust, or of a million miles of asphalt and concrete cutting through every ecological setting, or of the effects of the new machines upon community, family life, and our inner cities? 

We’re still early in humanity’s history with computers.  But I fear that there has already been a substantial abdication of personal responsibility for the role they play in our lives, and little thought given to the future implications of what we once referred to (rather simplistically) as the “information highway”.

(1) This article was first published in Netfuture on December 14, 1995

(2) Stephen L. Talbott is author of The Future Does Not Compute--Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.   His "bio" will be found in our Contributors' section.

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