Friday, July 15, 2011

While Beyond Boundaries (reviewed below) is essentially a brief for the research and potential of a new technology, these three books are outside analyses of the nature, uses and future of new and on-the-horizon technologies by people who know these technologies well. 

The Techno-Human Condition by Braden R. Allensby and Daniel Sarewitz (MIT Press) examines the many aspects of technological enhancements to human beings.  The authors nudge the less knowledgeable into realizing that these technologies are underway and are in a sense just the latest in a long line of enhancements.  But they also aim to restrain the overenthusiastic who are thoughtless of consequences, counselling a bit more humility.

This is a sophisticated examination of the issues and assumptions that applies to areas beyond these technologies, to an approach to technological change--or even other sources of change-- and future ramifications in general.  The section on war ("Killer Aps") is chilling. There's jargon and technical language to navigate, with lots of long paragraphs, but the process is helped by wit ("In short, we are now back in the comfort zone of ambivalence, ambiguity, and mud wrestling") and a balanced skepticism.  The book itself is handy to hold and carry--always a plus when reading about an alien world that is rapidly becoming our own.

Technological Nature: Adaptations and the Future of Human Life by Peter H. Kahn, Jr. (MIT Press) looks at the psychological effects of experiencing nature second-hand through technology.  It's got case studies, statistics and analysis, with the author's summaries and recommendations.  These occasionally highlight the absurdity of technological nature, as when he suggests that instead of creating simulated views of nature in offices and hospitals, it might make more sense to create views of actual nature.

Some of the examples of how far technological nature has gone may well be surprising, though the prescriptions are not.  The broader and deeper work on these subjects (particularly children and nature) by human ecologist Paul Shepard and others is bearing some fruit in studies like those described here.

Sentient City: ubiquitous computing, architecture and the future of urban space (MIT Press) is a collection of articles and studies by various authors, edited by Mark Shepard, that stems from a 2009 exhibit at New York's Urban Center.  The topic is certainly topical, as information technologies are embedded in the everyday street, often invisibly, with a plethora of often hidden sources, intentions and effects.

Some of the chapters describes projects and studies, while others offer analysis and context, including historical context.  The vocabulary is often pretty dense for the general reader and no sustained examination is possible in a collection from various authors, but this volume can serve the non-specialist as an often provocative introduction to the technologies and issues involved.  And with technologies that enable a park bench to eject someone who oversits his welcome, or that can create an entire city of linked workers (or data-slaves), these issues are pertinent.  Plus the projects themselves can be witty.

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