In Context #17 (Spring, 2007, pp. 11—12); copyright 2007 by The Nature Institute
Steve Talbott's latest book, Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines, has been published by O'Reilly Media. Here is Steve's introduction to the book.
Self-forgetfulness is the reigning temptation of the technological era. This is why we so readily give our assent to the absurd proposition that a computer can add two plus two, despite the fact that it can do nothing of the sort — not if we have in mind anything remotely resembling what we do when we add numbers. In the computer's case, the mechanics of addition involve no motivation, no consciousness of the task, no mobilization of the will, no metabolic activity, no imagination. And its performance brings neither the satisfaction of accomplishment nor the strengthening of practical skills and cognitive capacities.
How is it, then, that we can so easily think of the computer as doing the same thing we do? Only because nearly the entire content of our own activity has fallen from view. It may seem trivial to forget ourselves in the matter of simple addition. But if we greatly increase the sophistication of the calculation, and if we continue to r