Reviews of Recent Titles on Open Systems Subjects
by Don Dugdale and Jim Johnson
The Future Does
Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst
by Stephen L. Talbott
O'Reilly & Associates
447 pages, $22.95
The Digital MBA
edited by Daniel Burnstein Osborne McGraw-Hill
466 pages; $39.95
Potential users of MBA-Ware are managers facing situations
for which they may not be completely prepared.
The Future Does Not Compute
This is not a book about computing, but it should be read by everyone involved
with information technology. It's about ourselves--as people, not technologists--and
our relationship with machines. It's about what kind of future we might
expect if we allow current technological trends to continue. And at the
deepest level, it's about who we are as human beings and who we might become.
Talbott's view is both chilling and inspiring. It will not sit well with
staunch adherents of global networking and its ability to make the world
a better place. Essentially, Talbott concludes that if we keep on our present
course of adapting our lives to computer technology, we will gradually yield
more and more of our humanity, allowing machines to take over huge segments
of ourselves that once related to people and the world outside. In the end,
he says, we will lose ourselves.
The book is inspiring because Talbott puts his finger on an awareness that,
at some level, everyone who has used a computer has felt--that if we have
invested the computer with such power that it has the potential to revolutionize
the world, perhaps it will change us. If it changes us, will we be happy
with that change? Talbott offers compelling arguments that we will not,
unless we come to grips with that potential and escape from technology's
One by one, he debunks assertions of champions of information technology:
* That computers will liberate us from hollow tasks and allow expansion
of our awareness. Instead, he says, computers restrict our freedom and have
a deadening effect on our perceptions.
* That networked computers will have a democratizing effect on the world.
On the contrary, Talbott says, "The view that a technology can be 'democratizing
and leveling' testifies to a radical alienation from everything that constitutes
both the inner life and culture. When we take such a stance we confirm that
we have lost sight of our own creative responsibility for the substance
* That children will automatically benefit from having an intimate relationship
with computers in the classroom, piquing their curiosity and stimulating
deeper learning. Rather, Talbott asserts, "The crucial requirement
is not that the child receive maximal impact from some display, but rather
that he actively discover within himself a connection to the phenomena he
* That access to an almost unlimited amount of information in our own homes
will empower individuals. While true on the surface, that concept divorces
us from our humanity, which relies on our relationship to what's real in
the world, not to information about the world or power over it. "[This]
objective aura is achieved by eliminating from view everything related to
the content of information," Talbott says. "This raises the question
whether the coming age might actually be the Age of No Content or the Age
* That the Internet will facilitate one-to-one relationships and international
understanding. Not true, Talbott says, because the network can contain only
a projection of ourselves, not what we really are. "If we choose to
reduce ourselves more and more to bodies of information, then it will eventually
become true that we can reside on the Net and discover all there is of each
other there. Our projections of ourselves will have replaced ourselves."
Intellectual and Controversial
Talbott's approach to the subject is intellectual and his style a little
scholarly and somewhat off-putting in the early going. The language, while
stilted in places, has an elegance that tends to impel the reader even while
struggling to grasp its meaning. Talbott's first chapter is so theoretical
that the reader would do well to start somewhere in the middle and come
back to Chapter 1 when ready to digest the rationale behind it all. The
curious reader will become so wrapped up in Talbott's penetrating analysis
that it will be impossible not to finish the book.
Many will disagree with the thesis of the book. Potential for controversy
abounds here, but that is Talbott's objective: Without controversy, without
a penetrating look at our mechanized world and especially at the way we
are employing the computer, we have no chance of regaining ourselves. "I
am absolutely convinced that redemption--sometime, somewhere--is possible,"
he says. "But I also know that a society can choose to make a pact
with the devil."
It is easy to dismiss this kind of statement as paranoia. But without considering
Talbott's thoughtful analysis, no one who is serious about the future can
consider himself or herself as advancing with open eyes into the Information
-- by Don Dugdale
The Digital MBA
The downsizing trend of the last several years has left in its wake fewer
managers filling more roles than most of us would have dared to predict.
Those who have kept their jobs have had to learn many things in a hurry--things
that probably weren't included in their graduate studies. Markets and technologies
continue to change so quickly that it's questionable whether even the best
universities can provide the necessary support in adapting.
Enter MBA-Ware, an emerging class of management software that editor Daniel
Burnstein defines as knowledge-driven without being academic; providing
day-to-day, solution-oriented assistance; and including an expert system,
hypertext, use of algorithms, or possibly all three. Burnstein is president
of the Management Software Association, a nonprofit organization formed
in 1993 to help MBA-Ware find its target market and to give greater prominence
to the general concept.
The term was coined by William Bulkeley in a June 1992 article in The
Wall Street Journal to describe the use of planning software by entrepreneurs.
MBA-Ware may be considered a kind of electronic performance support system
(EPSS), software built around a just-in-time learning philosophy. As compared
to tutorial software, EPSS focuses not on just teaching but actually assisting
users who need guidance for a particular task. It does this by providing
both a structure for the task at hand and context-sensitive information
about specific situations faced by the user. In the case of MBA-Ware, users
are managers facing common situations for which they may not be completely
prepared. This scenario is particularly relevant to the computer industry,
not only because of its rapid growth but because many managers who have
come up through the ranks of software development frequently are unschooled
in management concepts.
The Digital MBA is a compilation of 13 articles written by authors
and executives of companies that produce products of this type; the book
comes with a CD-ROM that features demonstration versions of all of the programs
detailed in the book. In fact, about 30 percent of the book is devoted to
tutorials for the software demonstrations included on the disk; in this
sense, the book is a work of marketing, and prospective readers should be
aware of that. But approximately 70 percent of the book is devoted to an
overview of late-breaking advances in management thinking and tactics. Bundled
with the empowering promise of MBA-Ware, the reader gets an upbeat, optimistic
message that technology and enlightened thinking can make anything possible
in today's business.
Part One is devoted to managing people and projects and covers topics like
goal-setting for subordinates, developing performance reviews, managing
occupational illness and injury costs, negotiation and creative problem-solving.
It includes "guided tours" of software products.
Part Two covers strategic financial planning; it addresses in depth industry
structure analysis, strategic business planning, market-driven change, and
business plans, and again actual software is reviewed.
Part Three covers business process modeling, explores decision analysis
and reengineering and offers product tutorials. Part Four looks into sales
and financial forecasting, including risk analysis, and demonstrates several
Throughout the book, references and quotations from the gurus of the day
punctuate key points. Burnstein has included a comprehensive bibliography,
organized chapter by chapter. One of the final pages refers readers to a
forum on CompuServe (GO MBAWARE) where users may follow recent online discussions
with the author, including plans for a sequel and downloadable files of
yet more information on MBA-Ware.
Because the book is an anthology, the presentation of the material differs
from one chapter to the next. Some of the authors render their topics more
comprehensively than others, and a few points are made redundantly. But
all of the material strikes a balance between usefulness and ease of reading.
The biggest hazard in reading this book may be its built-in temptation to
pick up the phone and buy all of the programs. (The coupons in the back
offering discounts for full-featured versions of the demonstrations should
remove any doubt that selling software is part of the author's purpose.)
But the marketing emphasis remains a minor portion of the book's impact.
What makes the biggest impression is the readable, comprehensive presentation
of the perspectives of current management luminaries and how their teachings
have been integrated into powerful software that is designed for maximum
utility and minimum learning investment.
Those who have recently graduated from far-sighted MBA programs may not
find this book particularly useful, and those who carefully watch the latest
trends in organizational effectiveness also may find nothing new here. But
most of the managers in our industry do not fall into the first category
and are too busy to do the second. Even if one restrains the urge to buy
even one of the featured programs, this book represents an important resource
for struggling managers.
-- by Jim Johnson
Don Dugdale is a technology writer based in San Jose, CA. He can
be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jim Johnson is a certified personnel consultant and the
principal of Options Unlimited, specializing in the placement of Unix professionals
in the Washington, DC, area. He can be reached at email@example.com.