May 1997

Seduction and Technology

Book Review: Moths to the Flame: The Seductions of Computer Technology
by Gregory J. E. Rawlins
The MIT Press, 1996
184 pages, indexed (no bibliography)
ISBN 0-262-18176-2

Reviewed by Don Langham

Moths to the Flame: The Seductions of Computer Technology would make a great title for a book critiquing the naive enthusiasm that often marks some discussions of the World Wide Web, virtual reality and all things digital. As used by Gregory Rawlins, this title is less a critique of our embrace of computer technology than a bald assertion of fact: We are, Rawlins argues, no more than moths to the flame when it comes to computer technology, inexorably drawn toward it, unable to help ourselves even if we care to try.

In eight chapters Rawlins discusses the issues of privacy in the digital age, electronic publishing, the emergence of the World Wide Web, the computerization of warfare, the mediation of the "real" world by computers, the future of work, our perilous reliance upon technology to control complex systems like commerce and transportation, and our future evolution into a new species, "transhumanity."

The dust jacket explains that Rawlins intended this book for an audience unfamiliar with the mysterious world of computer science and artificial intelligence. It should serve that audience well as it steers clear of jargon and uses a wide variety of examples drawn from news headlines to illustrate important trends and concepts. Rawlins is at his best in a series of well written and provocative vignettes depicting life in a future world of artificial intelligence and virtual reality. And his patient explanation of the inherently biological origin of technology makes for interesting reading. Unfortunately, this introduction to the future of computers and civilization provides neither cited references nor a bibliography for the reader's continued research.

For me, more interesting than Rawlins' predictions about the future is his brand of biological or evolutionary determinism. When Rawlins uses the words "inexorable" and "inevitable" (as he does many times) to describe the coming world of artificial intelligence, artificial reality and multimedia communication, Rawlins is arguing for an evolutionary, rather than strictly technological, imperative. Indeed, the most interesting aspect of Moths to the Flame is Rawlins' deconstruction of the technology / biology dichotomy:

    "Evolution is a continual dance of new technologies for living life, always with too few resources and always with only one penalty for failure--extinction. . . . Technology isn't, therefore, some new thing recently invented by mad scientists to make our lives miserable; it's woven into our bones and blood, into our very existence. Life itself is the ultimate technology."

Although I like this undoing of the technology / biology distinction, I found Rawlins' use of the Darwinian evolutionary paradigm to be a bit much, as when he likens fourteenth century scribes to the dinosaurs--"kings of the hill" unable to deal with the only rule of life, "adapt or die," after equally earth-shattering events (i.e., the big meteor strike for the dinosaurs, Gutenberg's press for the scribes). More troubling than this tiresome dog-eat-dog rhetoric and the accompanying trite aphorisms (e.g., "Rest on last year's laurels and you're next year's fishbait") is how this perspective casts human beings as victims of uncontrollable forces instead of agents of change. In this view of human development, our choices regarding technology are reduced to expressions of our inevitable biological development rather than expressions of human agency. The fourteenth century scribes were done in by laws of nature, according to Rawlins, rather than the thousands of decisions large and small made in the years after Gutenberg by printers, consumers, government and religious officials.

Fast forward this vision of evolutionary determinism to the late twentieth century and you scarcely feel the need to examine how people can possibly influence the development of technology through community activism, government action, corporate shareholder meetings, etc. Instead, Rawlins argues that the rapid development of computer technology combined with publishers' survival instincts make the emergence of electronic books "inevitable," and with electronic publishing will come a new era of ready, inexpensive access to information for the masses, as though this desirable social end is inherent in the technology itself. While Rawlins doesn't deny that the same tools that make information inexpensively reproducible and distributable won't be used instead to block information access to all but the highest bidders, neither does he provide any insight into how we can act proactively to influence the use of technology rather than becoming its passive victims.

Fortunately, you don't have to buy into Rawlins' deterministic vision to benefit from his insight into how the technology we've come to take for granted may radically alter our understanding of humanity and civilization. Although not a must-read for scholars of computer-mediated communication, Moths to the Flame can provoke renewed awareness of the perils associated with the Promethean fire.

Don Langham ( is a contributor to CMC Magazine.

Copyright © 1997 by Don Langham. All Rights Reserved.

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