In the introductory chapter, Bolter argues that throughout history, technology has transformed human thought on two levels: self-conception and relation to nature. He uses the term ‘defining technologies’ to describe technical innovations which have defined or redefined humanity and its relationship to the natural world. While other technologies such as electric lighting and mass communications systems have had such effects in recent history, Bolter asserts that the computer is the latest and most radical defining technology, as it has become the dominant metaphor for the human mind in popular culture as well as in more technical fields such as psychology and neuroscience. This metaphor, in essence, is Turing’s man. It is not important, Bolter argues, whether A.M. Turing was right when he predicted that computers would perfectly mimic human intelligence by the year 2000. Instead, what matters are the ways in which our belief in Turing’s prediction have penetrated and transformed human society, since “by making a machine think as a man, man recreates himself, defines himself as a machine…as an information processor and of nature as information to be processed”(Bolter 13). By building artificial intelligence, we have transformed ourselves into artificially intelligent beings.
Chapter 2 tracks the history of defining technologies in Western culture. Beginning with the Greeks, Bolter discusses the role of manual technology such as the potter’s wheel and the spindle in shaping the ancient conception of the world. For example, at the end of the Republic, Plato used the spindle as a metaphor for the afterlife in the Myth of Er, while Aristotle often used analogies of skilled craftsmen in his philosophical writings. Bolter generalizes these views and ascribes them to “the ancients,” who “…saw their world as an expression on a cosmic scale of the principles of manual technology”(Bolter 23-4). He then takes up the effects of mechanical technology on Western Europe, with the defining technology here being the weight-driven clock. The arrival of the clock divided time into arbitrary, mathematical units and caused thinkers to abstract and quantify time, which led to subsequent advancements in astronomy and physics, such as Copernicus’ heliocentric theory and Kepler’s laws. Next, Bolter examines dynamic technology such as steam engines and vacuum pumps which created a new metaphor for the human body - a heat engine that produced power by burning water and fuel. This new focus on power led to an obsession with the domination of nature and the resulting abuses of both human workers and the environment during the industrial revolution. Finally, at the end of the chapter Bolter returns to the effects of the computer on society and revisits the themes of the intro in more depth. The computer-as-mind metaphor is the latest step in a trend away from Greek animism, since we have come to understand the processes of nature as more abstract, mechanistic, and quantifiable. The universe is no longer a living entity or even a moving machine, but data which can be captured and computed.
At first glance, there is not much new here. The arguments seem to be in the McLuhanesque vein of technological determinism. Yet the book as a whole focuses primarily on the computer rather than other technologies or mediums and describes the connections between what Lev Manovich calls ‘the computer layer and the cultural layer’ with great specificity. Later chapters include detailed, technical explanations and diagrams of electronic space, language, and memory inside the computer, then traces the effects of these computer elements to their cultural counterparts in the way we view and process the world. In addition, while some of the concepts are complex, the language is clear, simple, and to a large degree avoids complicated abstractions and specialized terms. Therefore, Turing’s Man might make an ideal starting point for an investigation into the cultural effects of the computer for a reader who is new to the subject.