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|Mark Slouka’s War of the Worlds is part of cyberspace’s
cautionary literature, where authors challenge the popular assumptions that
technological progress makes a transition from a physical to a virtual world
inevitable. What’s worse, he writes, is that many participants in the trends
don’t stop to ask whether full-body sensoria, digital orgasms, or uploaded
personalities are necessary, let alone good.
Much of Slouka’s writing is on target, though is must be said that he takes on the extreme edge of cyberspace prognosticators, including Wired‘s Kevin Kelly and the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s John Perry Barlow. Neither of those individuals are known for their reluctance in making strong claims about advancing technology’s potential benefits, though Slouka argues that some of what Kelly and Barlow describe as blessings are actually curses. One basic reason full virtuality isn’t desirable, Slouka argues, is that history is about man’s “debate with the world”; how we as a species attempt to come to grips with our surroundings. When we can program and modify our surroundings, the debate becomes meaningless and humanity suffers as a result.
In particular, one aspect of Kevin Kelly’s Out of Control: The Rise of the Neo-Biological Civilization that particularly disturbs Slouka is the notion of the “hive society”, where billions of interconnected humans (I hesitate to call them “individuals” in this context) interact and move toward goals defined by...who? A hive has only one queen, small numbers of warriors and attendants, and vast quantities of drones. Who gets to be the leader? And the drones?
In another section, Slouka mirrors Steve Talbott’s arguments in The Future Does Not Compute regarding the primacy of nature and the importance of children experiencing the world without a filter. One effective anecdote relates how the digital elite in Silicon Valley is experiencing a “back to the land” movement, growing grapes and sharing the product with their friends. Anyone who has ever taken a day, week, or month “off” from email and the online world can understand the change in perspective that comes from spending time with friends and the world at large.
War of the Worlds is a solid book, but I only give it an 83% rating because it doesn’t effectively take on the “weak” case for the benefits of advancing technology, which holds that improved simulation technology will augment the physical world, rather than replacing it. While addressing the wide range of scenarios would have lengthened the book by quite a few pages and diffused the main argument, Slouka’s attention to the radical edge of the debate limits the scope of his counter arguments. Nonetheless, War of the Worlds is a clear, concise, and impassioned caution against assuming that electronic connectivity is a one-way street to utopia.
Curtis D. Frye (email@example.com) is the editor and chief reviewer of Technology and Society Book Reviews. He worked for four years as a defense industry analyst at The MITRE Corporation in McLean, VA, and is the author of Privacy-Enhanced Business, from Quorum Books.