InReview – Issue 23

A.I. – Artificial Intelligence
directed by Steven Spielberg

The movie, AI, evokes a “love it” or “hate it” response from most viewers. A collaboration between super-directors Spielberg and Kubrick (who asked Spielberg to direct it before he died), AI fuses fairy tale and sci-fi, and utopian and anti-utopian views of technology and human nature.

In a future with global warming and scarce resources, the world is populated by “orgas” (organic persons) and energy efficient “mechas” (mechanical persons). To fill the emotional void created by population control rules, Dr. Hobby (William Hurt), a Cybertronics Corp. scientist, develops “David,” the first mecha able to love, dream and be nearly human. As David’s “beta release” parents, Monica (Frances O’Conner) and her Cybertronics husband (Brendan Gleeson), both grieving over their son who is in suspended animation, activate David’s irreversible love for Monica. But once revived, their real son becomes jealous, forcing Monica’s painful rejection of the mecha David. Similar to Pinocchio, David then embarks on a treacherous journey to pursue his dream of a mother who loves him as uniquely as he loves her. Fast forward to a disturbing, distant future: orgas are a memory, resting in the databanks of benevolent mechas. Yet true to fairy tale form, David realizes his dream. Happy ending, Spielberg style. Or is it?

AI combines a euphoric view of technology with a sober view of the flaws and limitations of human nature, while asking a number of intriguing questions along the way. Could we ever create a technology that transcends our own limitations? Or will our technology always embed our own blemishes and imperfections? If we could create a sentient being in our own image, able to love with greater determination than we ourselves are capable of, could we love it in return? Or would we be pained by the gap between who we are, and who we aspire to be, and revert to destructive jealousy? AI is disconcerting in a delightful sort of way. Or is it the other way around?

Reviewed by Gerard Beenan

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The Future of Success: Working and Living in the New Economy
by Robert B. Reich; New York, Vintage Books, 2002; 289 pp.

Robert B. Reich is a professor at Brandeis University and this is his eighth book. He was Secretary of Labor in the Clinton administration and has recently (March 2002) announced his candidacy for governor of Massachusetts.

We often laugh when we look at forecasts made several decades ago that promised more leisure time because of technology. Americans are working harder than ever today, and those at higher income levels seem to work harder than the average. Why is this? That’s the question Robert Reich takes on in this book.

He starts this edition of the book with a personal story of missing his son’s bedtime five nights in a row because of late work. When his son told him to wake him no matter how late he got home because he just wanted to know he was home, Reich suddenly realized he had to leave his job. Yes he loved his work; it consumed him. But he realized his life was out of balance.

Reich’s analysis of the causes of this pattern of hard work in an era of affluence is wonderfully insightful. At the heart of the issue is what technology has done to work. The business advantage for anyone is only for a short period of time. The availability of information makes competition an open book. The opportunity to do very, very well financially causes the “ladder of success” to have its rungs further apart. This means the cost of not staying ahead is to fall further and further “behind.”

Yet Reich is not a neo-Luddite when he pinpoints technology. Rather, he says to blame technology is naive at best. The problem is all of us. When we demand the lowest price, the best deal, at all costs, we are creating the frantic environment that never allows rest in innovation and cost cutting.

Reich is at his best in analysis mode. He looks in detail at data, cause and effect, and unintended consequences. While it is occasionally ponderous, there is always a purpose to the ground he is laying.

The question is, what to do about all of this? Of course, the question is tough enough for individuals, let alone society. The four pages at the end of the book devoted to sketching his answer are unlikely to satisfy anyone. In describing his taxation ideas, he leaves his analysis tools in the bag, never hinting at the potential unintended consequences. My conservative friends are likely to dismiss the entire book as just more liberal tax and spend programs.

Taken more positively, I believe he is proposing some ideas as a starting place for a discussion. That the starting place is weak is no reason to dismiss the entire book. Rather, it should start a discussion on a problem that very important and is well framed.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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Building a Bridge to the 18th Century: How the Past Can Improve Our Future by Neil Postman; New York, Vintage Books, 2000; 213 pp.

Neil Postman is a professor at New York University and the author of twenty books including Technopoly and The End of Education. The book shelves are full of books that will try to tell you about the future of technology, the future of business, the future of … But Postman argues that the future doesn’t exist, and if we are going to learn our lessons they must come from the past.

On this basis he takes contemporary issues in technology, education, consumption, etc. and looks at them through the lens of the eighteenth century. It is not just about getting the right answers, he argues. Rather it is about getting the right questions. This is vintage Postman in his criticisms, insight, and humor.

As usual, I find a few things to disagree with. First, in arguing the case for the printed word in a digital age, you would get the impression he believes the printed word is going away. My favorite book stores, and my library, would seem to raise a counter-example he should consider. Second, he argues against the need for most modern technologies. “I write my books with pen and paper because I have always done it that way… I don’t have a computer. The Internet strikes me as a mere distraction.” Perhaps. But I wonder if this is like my mother who hung on to her wringer washing machine rather than try an automatic. Holding the familiar rather than giving something new an honest try. Third, I find he looks at the 18th century through “rose colored glasses.” We can learn a great deal from history, but should see its faults as clearly as its strengths,

Nevertheless, this book is well worth the price and time it requires. Even if it doesn’t provide many answers, it helps us ask better questions.

Reviewed by Al Erisman