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April 25, 2007

Devices of the Soul--New from O'Reilly: Discussing the Deceiving Virtues of Technology

Sebastopol, CA-- In Steve Talbott's widely anticipated and thought-provoking new book--Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines--the former software engineer and current Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, NY delves into society's seemingly insatiable lust for and addiction to technology.

Talbott's timely exploration of our technological cravings has already garnered enthusiastic praise from one of the nation's most acclaimed thinkers, Michael Pollan. The bestselling author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and The Botany of Desire calls Devices of the Soul an "urgent and important work." Adds Pollan, "Nothing is as rare or sorely needed in our tech-enchanted culture right now as intelligent criticism of technology, and Steve Talbott is exactly the critic we've been waiting for: trenchant, sophisticated, and completely original."

In Devices of the Soul (O'Reilly, $22.99), Talbott challenges readers to critically examine society's ever-increasing detachment from its physical surroundings and reflect on its growing dependence on techno-wizardry. Why? In an era when 65 percent of American consumers spend more time with their PCs than with their loved ones, according to a recent study, Talbott insists something vital can all too easily slip away--our Selves, the human spirit from which technology stems. At the same time, if we accept in the right spirit the challenge presented by our machines, we have an unprecedented opportunity for gaining self-mastery. Everything depends on our wakefulness as we sit in front of the ubiquitous screens mediating so many of our interactions with the world.

"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 obvious 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," writes Talbott. "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."

While the differences between human and machine performance in simple addition may seem unimportant, these differences become crucial when, for example, the machine's arithmetic rises to the sophistication of spreadsheet software. Remembering what makes us human is the only way we can redeem such software, bringing its disensouled operations into proper connection with our own affairs. Remembering is what Talbott helps us to do. As award-winning computer scientist Peter Denning puts it, "Chapter after chapter, he [Talbott] shows how to draw on the powers of technology without losing your soul or breaking your heart."

Talbott devotes chapters to topics as diverse as the role of technology in threatening or saving our natural environment; the effort to endow computers with emotions and other human attributes; the corresponding endowment of social contexts with machine attributes; why technical guarantees of privacy are always self-defeating; how every genuine success in humanizing technology is an invitation to a deeper dehumanization; the frightening ways computers are being used in grade school classrooms; how computers threaten the existence of not only the university, but also of the student; what "primitive" Amazonian tribes can teach us about our own relation to technology; and how certain special communities for the disabled can help us rise above high-tech foolishness.

Talbott's lucid evaluation of the roots and enticements of modern technology makes reading his book a pleasure. Those who join Talbott on this illuminating tour are sure to think more clearly about how they consume technology and how they allow it to consume them long after they close the covers of this soulful, satisfying read.

About Steve Talbott:
Steve Talbott is a Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York. He produces the Institute's online NetFuture newsletter, which was termed an "undiscovered national treasure" in a New York Times feature story on his work. His book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, (O'Reilly, 1995) was named one of the "Outstanding Books of 1996" by the academic library journal Choice.

Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
By Steve Talbott
ISBN: 0-596-52680-6, 281 pages, $22.99 US
order@oreilly.com
1-800-998-9938; 1-707-827-7000

About O'Reilly

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