THE USER ILLUSION by Tor Norretranders


Cutting Consciousness Down to Size
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A leading Danish science writer argues that our conscious mental processes are only the surface aspect of the mind. N—rretranders begins with a history of information theory, leading up to a distinction between the quantity of information (number of bits) transmitted and the quality of communication. A good conversation consists of much more than just the words exchanged: There is context, body language, tone, expression—an entire spectrum of information. Our conscious mind can process only perhaps a few dozen bits per second of that information. Millions of bits are processed by the senses in the same amount of time, choosing what the consciousness considers important. A road sign displaying a curved line is all a driver needs to see to slow down; by the time he could absorb a detailed history of the accidents caused by excessive speed on the curve ahead, it would be too late. In short, conscious and linear discourse is only a fraction of what our mind perceives. In partial explanation N—rretranders adopts the metaphor of consciousness as the equivalent of the “user interface” of a computer system: The user sees only the screen icons that trigger commands inside the machine, largely unaware of the actual machine language in which those commands are written. Some researchers even postulate that consciousness is a relatively new mental process; according to one interpreter, the characters of the Iliad and Odyssey appear to act completely without self-awareness. Consciousness may indeed be nearing its end; only a few generations from now it may be obsolete. This leads to speculations on what is likely to follow, although naturally without firm conclusions. But the author sees no great loss; better to understand the territory than to read the map. Clearly written speculations on a highly provocative subject; food for serious thought about thought itself. Highly recommended.

Pub Date: April 6th, 1998
ISBN: 0-670-87579-1
Page count: 456pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1st, 1998