Saturday, November 22, 2008

Machines R Us

Sherry Turkle, one of the most respected analysts and most interesting writers on new technologies, has edited an anthology of essays which brings together three traditions--"memoir, clinical practice, and fieldwork or ethnography"--as applied to human relationships with their intimate machines, from cell phones to dialysis machines. With Turkles introduction, the essays in The Inner History of Devices (MIT Press) explores how people and their machines in specific personal and professional redraw (or dissolve) boundaries between their devices and their own minds and bodies.

But what of society's relationship to the fast-expanding capabilities of these technologies? In Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World (MIT Press), Alex Pentland writes of a digital sensor--a "sociometer" that monitors and analyzes non-verbal 'signals' among groups of people. Much of the book is an argument for the importance of such signals, particularly in relation to the hot topic of social networks. But it is the existence and use of the sociometer that raises plenty of Nineteen Eighty-Four questions, unfortunately not well addressed.

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