Book Review

The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the machines in our midst

by Stephen L. Talbott
Published by O'Reilly & Associates, 1995

Excerpts from The Future Does Not Compute
Book ordering information
Author's biography

Review by Harold Thimbleby

As evil destroys Bosnia, Africa and Chechen, as powerless observers we may well ask what better future could we offer? What help do they need?

Tienanmen Square and the fall of Soviet Russia surely showed that these oppressed peoples lack full participation in the electronic global village of the Internet. The proponents of the Internet, cyber-utopians, see peace, democracy and personal advancements as necessary consequents of empowering individuals with computers and communications. Thus the Internet, the World Wide Web and all the modern computer communications is just what Bosnia, Africa and Chechen need.

Stephen Talbott's The Future Does Not Compute is a non-technical book that starts by questioning these assumptions. It's worth reading if you thought you ought to know about the Internet. It is worth reading if you thought that a commercial, originally military network, is going to have any automatic benefit for humanity. The Future Does Not Compute is a start of returning sense to those knocked senseless by technical arrogance. Or rather, some of it is worth reading, and the rest is rather peculiar.

People talk of the global village. But what do they - usually Californians - know of real villages? Not much of Sebreneca, anyway. Folk there used to talk to each other before the war started.

The usual imperative is to get on the Internet because it is good. As one Internet voice said,

I think the networks of the future will be the most incredibly egalitarian technology ever invented. Imagine that homeless people or single parent children can "interconnect" with anybody who is willing to talk to them in the world. The possibilities are rather dazzling.

How do the utopians of the Internet ignore the real hopelessness of the Net to give people effective power in their lives? Just because we have powerful computers in our romantic cottages doesn't automatically give us democracy. Who will open the jam jar lids for the old, arthritic invalids? Surely nobody on the Internet will, and certainly nobody in Kuala Lumpur is going to help someone so practically in another country. Let alone fix the problems of what was Yugoslavia.

The Future Does Not Compute is an important book, a heart-felt antidote to the usual Internet hype and eulogies that get lost in their own technological imperatives. Stephen Talbott is perceptive. Why, he asks, are people so excited by the vast resources of information on tap on the Internet, when they could walk down to their local library? Their library would have higher quality information there, more easily found, and with greater historical and cultural perspectives.

An American school teacher wrote to Talbott he had noticed that his students would talk electronically to pen pals in Kuala Lumpur but would not say so much as a word to fellow students from Southeast Asia in the same school.

Our society is clearly becoming addicted to the quick impact multimedia image. A virtual reality experience is more seductive than going and working for your wisdom. Tom Brown, a wilderness expert and animal tracker, had to work for years in the wild to develop his skills. Talbott wonders what he would have learnt from a computer. I agree, probably not much; but then there is only one Tom Brown. I think multimedia is better than nothing for the millions of inner city children who know little of the outdoor wilds, though whether that's the best way to spend the money it takes is another question.

Talbott might seem perceptive, but this is because his point of view is at odds with mainstream Western culture. Unfortunately too much of the book is given over to explaining - if that is the best word - why his view is right and why he believes what he does, rather than in continuing to keep us awake with his unusual observations. Talbott might have shown that we need to turn about, but he has not shown us which way to face. We need more solid arguments to discuss thoughtfully and to reach consensus. Without being more rational, perhaps unintentionally, Talbott challenges his readers to provide the framework to work for change that is so urgently needed.

From his accidental insights he makes implausible leaps. By analogy to the lifetime effort of the expert animal tracker, it seems we should never tolerate the reduction of an animal's activities to mere computer algorithms. There's a streak here of nothing good ever came without effort. Why should the Internet be successful when it is so easy? Such views made me doubt Talbott's underlying values.

Talbott has sympathies with anthroposophy and he seems to think the world has gone down hill since Homer, and certainly since the Renaissance. A full chapter, and several allusions throughout the book, discuss perspective painting. Once humans were part of what they saw, and then Brunelleschi invented perspective. This is all fascinating discussion, but what has it to do with computers? Perspective is mathematical and therefore, apparently, separates us from what we experience.

Indeed Talbott doesn't like mathematics. For him, we lose imagination when we favour rational and analytic operations, as in mathematics or programming. If a tern can fly around the world, we're asked what does it know of maths? Nothing, because for Talbott a tern "takes wing upon an ethereal sea of wisdom, borne along invisible paths by an intelligence calling as much from Nature as from within its own mind." If Talbott was writing poetry, fine; but I thought he was trying to make us think about technology more critically. Surely to feel inspired by fictitious myth evokes Talbott's own criticism of the unfounded Internet optimism? Talbott suggests we look inside an intercontinental ballistic missile, which though flying like a tern, is full of mathematics, astronomy and geophysics. Yet if Talbott can't see anything mathematical going on in a tern, where does he actually find the maths inside an ICBM? Perhaps some manuals were left in by its designers?

I don't follow his argument that ICBMs are mathematical and so are destructive. I don't accept that, as Talbott believes, "Equations have become so utterly detached from the phenomena of the world that we cannot find our way back." Talbott goes on to argue we are criminal to inflict this "lostness" on children, which computers do because they make no abstract distinctions: where all is points and numbers. I do agree we shouldn't inflict lostness, but Talbott himself has lost surely his own perspective when he connects this with mathematics or whatever goes on inside computers.

An appendix tells us about Waldorf education. It may be all very well telling primary age children fairy tales, but why jump from J. R. R. Tolkein's mythologies to computer languages? Talbott comes back to the computer because it does not dream; it has a consciousness contracted, so we are told, to nullity with empty logical forms of its own perfect acuity. This is utter nonsense. One can by chance be perceptive talking nonsense, but it doesn't do anything for Talbott's credibility.

Like many people, Talbott is worried about reducing humans to computer bits. Again he loses his way. His argument is more obviously wrong if we substitute televisions - another of his concerns - for computers. Just because televisions use radio signals does not mean that what children watch on television is any more or any less worthwhile. So why does it matter if inside computers there are all these bits? It's as naïve a comment as people are hard headed because their skulls are made of bone. Yes, it's true that a few people do get carried away with technology and do want to reduce everything to abstract numbers, but not everyone. And these people are not, by and large, the ones we should be worrying about. Recent studies indicate that sex in one form or another is one of the Internet's main uses; I believe it's not how the net technology itself works, it's what people do with it that matters in the end.

Stephen Talbott has moved from the Boston technology belt to the countryside. He lives what he believes. I suspect few of us who use the Internet daily do. Talbott might have made us think, briefly, that technology and the Internet in particular isn't going to solve any problems on their own. But if we are going to work together to improve the world, rather than coming over all romantic about childhood, getting in touch with fairies and a mystical Nature (and magnets, but I haven't space to review that idea here), we are going to need more coherent and reasonable arguments.

Read the book (which can be sampled on the Internet at, think more clearly, which won't be hard, and change the world for the better. Peacekeepers in the world's hotspots would like to hear from you, Internet or no Internet.

Harold Thimbleby is Professor of Computing Research at Middlesex University, London. He may be contacted by email at, or see his World Wide Web pages at