Devices of the Soul

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This book review was published by Slashdot, 2007-06-25. It was featured on the Slashdot homepage for about six months.

Devices of the Soul

In our increasingly mechanized world, we repeatedly hear promises that every new digital product, computerized service, or other form of technology, will make our lives easier — bestowing greater leisure, health, and happiness. Yet are any of those promises being fulfilled? Are we not instead becoming slaves to the very "conveniences" that we struggle to master? These weighty questions are addressed by Steve Talbott in his book Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines.

Published by O'Reilly Media on 27 April 2007, under the ISBN 978-0596526801, Devices of the Soul argues that we are now blindly accepting technology with little or no countervailing efforts or even awareness, and we are paying a terrible toll, both individually and as a society.

From the day a child of the 21st century begins his education, he is confronted with mind-numbing statistics, numbers, and facts via the computer — which he must accept. Perhaps even more important, he must master its "techniques" as the sine qua non tool to be successful in life. This is not a voyage of self-discovery; it is a demand by "the system" that the individual accept a way of viewing the world that invades, conquers, and ultimately controls his life. The child will learn most of what he knows with it, play with it, talk with it, and allow his thinking to be ruled by it — all because it is the magical machine that gives him access to the world's knowledge, e.g., the Internet.

By the time this child makes the transition from high school to college, he will be required to accept a curriculum that too often lacks meaning and content, that fails to allow him to satisfy his own curiosity about the challenges facing humanity, and is, moreover, expensive and will likely lead to indebtedness. There are few alternatives to this gauntlet, especially if one wishes to belong to the 'credentialed society', which determines modern man's measure of success.

But education is only the first stage in the numbing of our consciousness. What follows is built upon this edifice. Our acceptance of machines — ubiquitous in our everyday lives — provides our food, transportation, entertainment, information, and prestige — in sum, everything we need to function in modern society.

Talbott shows how the machines we use create a grand illusion, namely, that by having every technological gadget, we will save time and money, and be able to spend more time with our family and loved ones. However, that leisure time never materializes. The technology costs more, not less. Consequently, we find ourselves in a perpetual struggle to preserve a bare minimum of human emotions and instincts.

The next stage in the individual's life is integration into the mature world of the computerized economy, i.e., when he becomes a "stakeholder". He accepts a world that does away with human values and subordinates him to "market values". Furthermore, he is bound to lose his sense of privacy.

It follows that almost everyone willingly accepts that advancement in life and career increasingly requires having electronic conversations with machines — and eventually robots — that will never ask us what our personal assumptions and/or values are, and have no intentions of doing so. In short, our resistance to the machine fades. It is "far easier to assign the intelligence solely to the machine than to seek out those tortured pathways" to the human urges within us. Society itself, not just the individual, says Talbott, "is unsurprisingly assuming the character of our technology."

The outcome is grim: "Historically, there appears to be an element of tragedy in all this. We stumble along in ignorance and, by the time we realize the subtle ways our actions have caught up with us, the damage and loss are already irrevocable." (p. 31).

Technology expresses itself in numbers and computations divorced from human values. Efficiency is nearly the sole criterion by which modern corporations make decisions, and it is no accident that these two ideas, human values versus efficiency, are mutually exclusive. In objecting to the mess we humans have created, Talbott notes: "If you want human values, if you want qualitative distinctions, then your theoretical constructs must retain those values and distinctions every step of the way. The minute you allow them to collapse into number alone, you have no way to get back from there to the qualitative world." (p. 252).

Despite these tragic overtones, he argues that we can and must return to that qualitative world where we can realize our deepest human qualities. We can retain our humanity in connection to the natural world, despite using tools skillfully, as exemplified by the wily trickster Odysseus, as well as Tomo, a member of the Waorani Indians in the Amazon jungles of Ecuador who demonstrated phenomenal knowledge of his world.

His prescription for humanity's emergence from this present Dark Age also includes developing a strong sense of history. We must realize how other humans expressed their individuality, and realized their hopes and dreams. Despite the fact that Americans generally have little appreciation for or cognizance of history, there may come a time when reading history may be the only place to find models of human behavior that went against the technophilic grain.

Interspersed throughout his analysis, Talbott offers suggestions to arrest this headlong rush into a mechanized future. They tend to be general in nature, such as urging us to seek a sense of "place," and to engage in conversations with our fellow men (and even our machines) to remind them of our human needs. Echoing Edward Abbey, who attempted to alert us to the environmental disasters of the 1960's with books like The Monkey Wrench Gang, Talbott writes, "This may at times require us to throw a wrench into the machinery in order to serve the worthy human intentions behind it." (p. 261).

Despite Talbott's skills as a writer, the book, sadly, has some substantial flaws. Two of the most obvious are the overly long digressions into the stories of Jacques Lusseyran and Martha Beck, which admittedly are fascinating, but delay the presentation of more topical material. Furthermore, they suggest that Talbott is misidentifying the emotional power of those stories as proof of his arguments, and thus committing the common error of anecdotal evidence. Even worse, they border on romanticizing blindness and Down syndrome, respectively.

He also fails to address a major factor in our growing discontent with the Information Age: the nonstop ratcheting up of our expectations, driven largely by marketing on the seller side, and a lack of philosophic questioning on the consumer side.

A common pattern in the book is a deep criticism of any given aspect or consequence of technology, to the extent that Talbott appears to be arguing that we should do away with it completely. But he often then wraps up his analysis by briefly contradicting the earlier implication, and stating that he does not believe the phenomenon at issue should be eradicated. This schizophrenic reasoning mixes bold, blanket criticisms with assurances to the contrary. Yet one may argue that, with so much of current social discourse failing to question technology, its critics must never err with overly cautious warnings.

There are other problems in his analysis: He invests much hope in what he terms "conversation", "meaning", and "value" — not clearly specified, and yet spoken of highly. He fears machine intelligence (and perhaps rightly so), and doubts its viability, but fails to understand its potential for emergence. Even though a former computer programmer, he does not seem to understand the value of abstraction, and the possibility that it can be used beneficially, without being considered the only source of important knowledge. Lastly, it is odd that he does not cite the pioneering work of a well-known predecessor, Jacques Ellul, in The Technological Society.

Nonetheless, the issues that Talbott raises are of critical importance — so much so that they make his lapses of logic that much more maddening. Because so much is at stake, our efforts at analyzing, understanding, and solving these problems, must be proportionally energetic and effective. Technophiles may dismiss his entire effort based upon the book's weaknesses, and consequently miss out on the valuable gist of his viewpoint. Similarly, impatient readers in our age of limited attention spans, might not make it through the aforesaid tangents, and likewise miss out.

The issues that he discusses should be raised more often and more loudly, with broader acceptance and expansion of the debate and its importance. Otherwise, we will continue our robotic march deeper into a future that is controlled more by soulless devices, and less by skeptical humans. If we fail completely to change course, we may be saddled with a life that is intolerable to the human spirit.

Devices of the Soul is an insightful, disturbing, imperfect, eloquent, and important contribution to what may ultimately become the most critical debate in the intensifying conflict between humans and our technological creations: Humans may survive, but will our humanity?

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

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