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Devices of the Soul

Steve Talbott
Published by O'Reilly Media
0-596-52680-6 281 pages
£ 15.99
Published: 18th May 2007
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the September 2007 issue (pdf), (html)

Steve Talbott became well known as the author of The Future does not Compute which, when it was published in 1995, was a fairly rare example of sceptical writing among the avalanche of hype about the liberating power of the Internet and the personal computer which was current at that time.

The full text of Future does not Compute is available online:

The material in Devices of the Soul was originally written as a set of essays. These have been woven into a book, and as a result this book does not possess a very clear linear argument. It is none the worse for that, however.

The subject matter varies quite widely, but the unifying theme is a strongly humanistic approach to the nature of knowledge, of learning, and of engagement with the world. Talbott discusses among other things education, disability, science, ecology, the Internet, robotics, baby-walkers, community and marriage.

In each case, he argues for the vital importance of real human engagement as opposed to tempting alternatives, and outlines how technology and modern modes of thinking can mitigate against this.

So for instance, in discussing science education he talks about the need for children to get close to and engage physically with the realities they are studying. He dissects examples of modern ``good practice'' and discusses the ways in which they fail to engage students' imagination and hence fail in their educational aim.

Talbott believes that technologies such as the personal computer and the Internet have a two-fold negative effect.

Firstly there is the way in which the nature of the technology limits the ways one deals with the real matters one uses it for (for instance the use of a spreadsheet to constantly view the business ``bottom line'' blinds one to other less tangible matters which do not appear in the spreadsheet but can be controlled and which do affect a company's success). By making particular aspects of reality visible and hiding others, the technology shapes our view of reality.

But the second and more important negative effect for Talbott is the way in which we begin to model our view of our own activities on our understanding of the technology that we use. Thus education (about which he writes very passionately) is seen as a matter of transferring information from one place to another; management of the environment is seen as simply adjusting certain inputs to obtain the desired results; well-being is seen as measurable through an aggregate of economic or other numerical indicators. Worse, he claims that our internal model of ourselves becomes based on our model of the technology that we use: this impacts on our ability to understand the world.

The chapter entitled ``Educational Provocations'' consists of a list of bullet points about the question of computers in education, a subject about which Talbott clearly feels strongly. He challenges the reader to deny any of the particular statements in this list, all of which are arguments against the use of computers in the classroom, particularly below secondary level.

It would be wrong to describe Talbott as a Luddite: he is criticising the effects of the technology from the point of view of a person who has been a close observer of its development. But he is always on the look-out for unintended consequences and his critique of the ways that technology can shape its users in its own image is a profound one. In some ways he reminds me of Ivan Illich, who made the same kind of points in the 1970s not only about motor vehicles (fairly obvious and relatively uncontroversial) but also about schools and hospitals (shocking to most).

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