Books: The number-crunching masses

WiredLife: Who Are We in the Digital Age? by Charles Jonscher Bantam pounds 14.99
Click to follow
In WiredLife, Charles Jonscher hopes to do for IT and the new digital media what Hawking and Davies have done for physics, and Dawkins and Jay Gould for biology. Where he differs from these luminaries is that though he is a respected Harvard academic with the practical experience to match, he is not out to proselytise on behalf of his industry. Denying that thinking computers will ever replace humans, he attacks their reputation with a zeal most of us reserve for our flesh and blood enemies, and if his plea for sanity sometimes verges on the rabid, this is not surprising given the weight of received opinion and hype he is up against.

Jonscher claims to have learned two things from the history of electronics, which he very effectively imparts in his own text: that predictions of the progress of technology tend to be understated, and that predictions as to how this will transform our everyday lives tend to be overstated. His thesis is that technology will transform the methods of communication, but not the content of what is communicated. That is, if all goes well and there is no Dilbert future awaiting us all.

The book is ostensibly a whistle-stop tour through the various components of the digital age. It is in the explication of these that WiredLife is at its strongest. Years into the pop science revolution, the layman is still less well informed about transistors, nanotechnology, microwave communications and the like than he is about quantum mechanics and relativity, and Jonscher makes a good stab at redressing this imbalance. He also gives an admirably unfuzzy description of fuzzy logic, though he is perhaps tellingly brief in this and other areas which threaten his central contention. All the devices of the pop scientist come naturally to him, but his favourite is that old technique used by storytellers to frighten small children - describing the monster in terrifying detail before casually adding that he lives on an island very far away. When he tells us that all matter, including ourselves, has both particle and wave-like properties, he cheerfully reassures us that when we pass through a door we "hardly diffract at all". Many other mythic touches make for good reading. In his potted history of IT Jonscher has great fun describing the sacred, hermetically sealed computer rooms of the 1960s, off-limits to all but a select priesthood of operators dressed in white. The microchip itself is a machine with no moving parts, performing its calculations in eerie silence.

But explication is not the aim. Jonscher's top priority is to hammer home his sceptic's agenda, and, in his favour, it is about time someone did. There has been quite enough hysteria and hype surrounding "soul-catcher" chips, millennium bugs and the defeat of Kasparov by Deep Blue. Jonscher has no time for the pundits for whom techno-wizardry has become the answer to every conceivable problem. He reminds us that for all their vaunted processing power, computers are still essentially Turing's calculating machines. For all our talk of "artificial intelligence", the simplest dinosaur of a computer could, given enough time (and that means a lot of time), solve the same problems we feed into modern supercomputers. They are mere number crunchers, confined to the manageable world of digitally encoded information, ignorant of the touchy-feely (and thinky), distinctly analogue real world. He is not the first critic to say this, but the relative space he gives to reiterating this charge when he could be examining in more detail the progress AI and cognitive science have made will be enough to have a few philosophers and researchers beating down his door with torches and pitchforks.

Yet undeniably there is something about high technology that causes business managers to lose their sense of perspective and investors to suspend their normal rules of judgement. At the time of publication, the internet service provider America Online had a market capitalisation of $25 billion against a book, or "real" value of only $125 million. Factories owners routinely spend more on their IT infrastructure than on the plant which produces their goods, and hospitals more than they spend on the technology within operating theatres. The billions continue to pour into the information economy without a corresponding gain in productivity.

To Jonscher the explanation is simple: 80 per cent of America's GNP consists of physical stuff like houses and cars rather than information. His fear is not the often repeated one that the investment bubble will pop, but that our values will skew to reflect our concentration on the kind of data that can be processed by mindless, number-crunching computers. This is not the kind that is important in human life or even in business. What is envisioned is a blighting of the mental landscape by the IT revolution, as there was of the physical by the industrial revolution. But Jonscher has great faith in the human ability to fend off the bogeyman. In the division of our leisure time, gazing into a computer screen has gained so far at the expense only of television. Human integrity thus finds itself in an unlikely alliance with the pleasures of the flesh, which remain as popular as ever.