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Copyright

Title: The Invisible Future
Editor: Peter J. Denning
Publisher: McGraw-Hill
Copyright: 2002
ISBN: 0-07-138224-0
Pages: 348
Price: $24.95
Rating: 80%

This book is a collection of papers from a conference organized by the anachronic-sounding Association for Computing Machinery on the theme "Beyond Cyberspace: A Journey of Many Directions". Given the theme chosen for the 2001 conference, this is a somewhat deceptive book. It’s title and subtitle lead one to believe that it is a book of speculative futurology about how technology will become integrated into our lives, but many of its chapters read like paeans to their authors’ organizations or companies. Sounding more like corporate white papers, vaunting positive results and presenting future initiatives, many of the authors just give a litany of advances in their specific fields or talk about how their company’s products will revolutionize the world.

With discussions of such things as the golden age of science that we are experiencing (“more science is happening today than ever before…”, Neil de Grasse Tyson), few of the authors look at the flip sidu. When Rita Colwell, director of the National Science Foundation, talks of “the increasing ubiquity of sensors gathering data on all levels of complexity in our world,” she then goes on to point out that there is “an ever accelerating avalanche of data”, but does not broach this problem, one that, in the end, could have much deeper repercussions than our “golden age of discovery”.

Not all of the authors have this apparent confidence in the power of their disciplines to change the world. Douglas Hofstadter adds the gee-whiz factor to the book, sounding like an author from Popular Science, as he describes his discovery of music created by a machine. “I was truly shaken,” he says. “How could emotional music be coming out of a program that had never heard a note, never lived a moment of life, never had any emotions whatever?” While his explanation gets a bit technical for most readers, he manages to express his wonder eloquently, and raises profound questions about music and the human soul.

A brief article by Alan Kay shows rare humility amongst these pages overflowing with hubris. In his piece “The Computer Revolution Hasn’t Happened Yet”, he points out that the printing revolution did not begin with Guterberg’s printing of the Bible, but more likely 200 years later, when society had embraced literacy as a value. “The invention of technology does not coincide with the innovations produced with that technology,” he says, cogently. This simple sentence shows the folly of the hundreds of millions of dollars in get-rich-quick investments in dotcoms that went belly-up in record speed because investors believed that the technology was the innovation. “There will come a time when the computer is used in unique ways that we may not be able to foresee today…” he says, prophetically, though this forecast is based on simple logic and an observation of how the computer and other technological objects have evolved.

This book contains several other interesting and thought-provoking essays, by such well-known members of the digerati as Michael Dertouzos, Ray Kurzweil, curmudgeon in residence Bob Metcalfe, and Vint Cerf. Oddly enough, the only real vision in this book comes from the one author who is used to creating worlds rather than analyzing them: Bruce Sterling, author of many books sometimes classified as science fiction. Sterling tells us of his vision of ubicomp, or ubiquitous computing, when, in the near future, objects will bear tags allowing us to know where they are and what their state is. While his idea is a little far-fetched, so was television. He shows, in this ingenious tongue-in-cheek essay, that perhaps scientists should spend more time listening to science fiction authors in order to imagine the future.

This is truly a mixed bag, ranging from white-paper hubris to speculative fiction, with a lot of in-between that shows how much those who craft are future are in the dark about it. Some of the authors make bold statements, often in observation of our relationship with technology, but do not unfortunately take these anywhere. While the title, and especially the subtitle of the book are deceptive, several of these essays make this book worthwhile, and could spark a bit of prospective thinking in the reader’s mind.

Kirk McElhearn

Kirk McElhearn (kirk@mcelhearn.com) is a freelance writer and translator living in a village in the French Alps. You can find out all about him at his web site, http://www.mcelhearn.com.