Book review: “Enchanted Objects”

I don’t usually post book reviews, but I just finished reading Enchanted Objects, by David Rose, which I undertook as research for my speculative fiction work-in-progress.

Enchanted ObjectsThe book jacket copy describes Rose as “an award-winning entrepreneur and instructor at the MIT Media Lab, specializing in how digital information interfaces with the physical environment.” My brain began whirring the moment I heard about the book and I was excited to hear him speak at Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park in July as part of his book tour.

His talk both enchanted and disturbed me, as did the book itself. A few things I found enchanting:

  • that the book begins with the question “What makes something magical?”;
  • that smart people like David Rose are asking what relationship we want to have with technology;
  • that “the most promising and pleasing future is one where technology infuses ordinary things with a bit of magic to create a more satisfying interaction and evoke an emotional response”—and that this enchantment should be based on fundamental human drives that have their earliest expression in myths and storytelling;
  • that optimists like Rose see technology evolving beyond the “black-slab” so ubiquitous now in the form of our ever-proliferating screens.

I have a harder time articulating what disturbed me. Partly it was the obvious fact that any technology can be applied for good or ill. For example, cloud-connected objects open the door to hacking, government surveillance, and further erosion of the membrane between public and private life. (Just look at the potential problems inherent in unsecured devices like Fitbit or “smart” homes controlled by not-so-in-control software.)

A bigger and less specific discomfort arises from one of the questions that is sparking the research and writing of my current novel:

What is our relationship, as a culture, with the ideas and artifacts of progress?

Rose is an unapologetic technological optimist—as well he should be, given his work at MIT’s media lab and the many tech companies he has been involved with starting. To his credit, Enchanted Objects doesn’t ignore the potentially darker side of an Internet of Things. But—optimistically—he believes that humans’ desire for good will check and balance any Big Brother scenarios.

I’m not so sure. Perhaps it’s my pessimistic nature, or my fear of unintended consequences, or the creep-factor inherent in a world of inanimate objects that respond to you as if they were aware. Some of the worst problems in the world have arisen not from the actions of dedicated evil-doers or nefarious anti-heroes but from millions of small and seemingly inconsequential decisions by individuals. Each decision, on its own, seems benign and even positive, but the sum total of these decisions end up leading us down a garden path toward a future much darker than the one we envisioned.

Whether you are an optimist or pessimist, I recommend Enchanted Objects as a chronicle of the important work currently being done by leading technology researchers and thinkers. It’s written accessibly, without jargon, and holds together as a summation of the arc of Rose’s career to date.

We may wish to slow or even reverse humanity’s relentless pursuit of technology, but given the impossibility of that wish, I suppose we could do worse than to end up in the world Rose describes in Enchanted Objects.

What do you think? Would you be charmed or disturbed by an umbrella that tells you when it’s going to rain?

20 thoughts on “Book review: “Enchanted Objects”

  1. Thank you for your thoughtful book review. Will add this one to my to-read list. More and more, I think about the world in terms of evolutionary behavior rather than good and evil. Will we tinker ourselves out of existence? Who knows? It is an exciting time to be alive. (I might be in annoyed by an umbrella that tells me when it’s going to rain.)

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  2. There’s a lot of food for thought, here. And very well-expressed. The problems you raise do scare me – especially as a writer being advised to create a “platform” in that will make me visible in that oh-so-public digital sphere.

    I’ve long been worried about the current pace of change and the much repeated mantra, “change is good.” No, it isn’t. Not inherently. Humans are learning animals whose strength as a species comes largely from our ability to pass on knowledge to younger generations through “cultural transmission.” In order for that to work, the usefulness of knowledge has to last long enough to be of some value to the next generation. – Or am I just miffed because, more and more, I’m identifying with the older generation and I don’t like feeling like a dinosaur?

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    • You expressed so well exactly what I have been wrestling with (hence my desire to work it out in fiction). I am feeling more and more dinosaur-like myself, but then I wonder what the elders of 1456 were saying when Gutenberg’s first Bible rolled off the presses?

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  3. One of the problems with technology is that the innovations outpace our ability to set up rules and parameters for that innovation, and then enforce consequences as a result of misuse of that innovation. It seems the “good guys” always tend to be one step behind the “bad guys” (I’m thinking of the recent Russian hacking fiasco). Hopefully, Rose’s optimism toward human goodwill trumping “Big Brother scenarios ” also extends to these rule-breakers.

    Sounds like an interesting read. 🙂

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  4. Looks like a good book to explore. It’s easy to worry how technology and future discoveries will be warped considering the world wide disturbances and chaos today.
    (Do hope there’s an off switch so when we don’t wish to be “advised and assisted” – when one would prefer a bit of old fashion peace, quiet and human interpretation of things)

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    • I also hope there will be on/off switches built in! It’s interesting to contemplate what that would feel like to “digital natives” like my kids, who have far less experience with unplugging than my generation. I’d imagine at some point their might be something of a counterculture backlash as there is today with the slow food movement.

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  5. Ahem. An umbrella that told me it was going to rain would insult me. I can tell that myself.
    Scary stuff but still technology can be and will be used for good and ill.Every new thing that comes along, someone needs to find a personal use for for their personal agenda. A lot of it boils down to money.

    I believe I’d like to take a peek inside the covers of this book. Thank you for an eye-popping review. 🙂

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  6. I’d be fine with an umbrella that told me when it is going to rain, though it does make one wonder if we grow reliant on such inventions, and perhaps lose our abilities: who can’t tell it might rain?

    Audrey, your review, and the questions you touch on remind me of a conversation I had with a techie friend who claimed he wished he could have his smartphone embedded in his forehead. He was writing a novel at the time about a world where everyone had a computer inside their brains so they instantly had access to all the information available. I told him everyone would commit suicide in short order. Sometimes turning off all the technology and chatter is the only answer – imagine if we couldn’t!

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    • The scary thing is that we practically DO have computers inside our brains these days! It’s so interesting to hear everybody’s different reactions to this. It makes me confident that a novel on this theme will be relevant (not to mention done a thousand times already… but what hasn’t been?).

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