Synopses & Reviews
"Self-forgetfulness is the reigning temptation of the technological era. This is why we so readily give our assent to the absurd proposition that a computer can add two plus two, despite the obvious fact that it can do nothing of the sort--not if we have in mind anything remotely resembling what we do when we add numbers. In the computer's case, the mechanics of addition involve no motivation, no consciousness of the task, no mobilization of the will, no metabolic activity, no imagination. And its performance brings neither the satisfaction of accomplishment nor the strengthening of practical skills and cognitive capacities."
In this insightful book, author Steve Talbott, software programmer and technical writer turned researcher and editor for The Nature Institute, challenges us to step back and take an objective look at the technology driving our lives. At a time when 65 percent of American consumers spend more time with their PCs than they do with their significant others, according to a recent study, Talbott illustrates that we're forgetting one important thing--our Selves, the human spirit from which technology stems.
Whether we're surrendering intimate details to yet another database, eschewing our physical communities for online social networks, or calculating our net worth, we freely give our power over to technology until, he says, "we arrive at a computer's-eye view of the entire world of industry, commerce, and society at large...an ever more closely woven web of programmed logic."
Digital technology certainly makes us more efficient. But when efficiency is the only goal, we have no way to know whether we're going in the right or wrong direction. Businesses replace guiding vision with a spreadsheet's bottom line. Schoolteachers are replaced by the computer's dataflow. Indigenous peoples give up traditional skills for the dazzle and ease of new gadgets. Even the Pentagon's zeal to replace "boots on the ground" with technology has led to the mess in Iraq. And on it goes.
The ultimate danger is that, in our willingness to adapt ourselves to technology, "we will descend to the level of the computational devices we have engineered--not merely imagining ever new and more sophisticated automatons, but reducing ourselves to automatons."
To transform our situation, we need to see it in a new and unaccustomed light, and that's what Talbott provides by examining the deceiving virtues of technology--how we're killing education, socializing our machines, and mechanizing our society.Once you take this eye-opening journey, you will think more clearly about how you consume technology and how you allow it to consume you.
"Nothing is as rare or sorely needed in our tech-enchanted culture right now as intelligent criticism of technology, and Steve Talbott is exactly the critic we've been waiting for: trenchant, sophisticated, and completely original. Devices of the Soul is an urgent and important book."
--Michael Pollan, author of The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals and The Botany of Desire: A Plant's Eye View of the World
"Steve Talbott is a rare voice of clarity, humanity, and passion in a world enthralled by machines and calculation. His new book, Devices of the Soul, lays out a frightening and at the same time inspiring analysis of what computers and computer-like thinking are doing to us, our children, and the future of our planet. Talbott is no Luddite. He fully understands and appreciates the stunning power of technology for both good and evil. His cool and precise skewering of the fuzzy thinking and mindless enthusiasm of the technology true believers is tempered by his modesty, the elegance of his writing, and his abiding love for the world of nature and our capacity for communion with it. "
--Edward Miller, Former editor, Harvard Education Letter
"Those who care about the healthy and wholesome lives of children can gain much from Steve Talbott's wisdom. He examines the need to help children spend more time touching nature and real life and less touching keyboards. He eloquently questions the assumption that speeding up learning is a good thing. Is, after all, a sped-up life a well-lived life? Most importantly, he reminds all of us that technology is just one part of life and ought not to overshadow the life of self and soul."
--Joan Almon, Coordinator, Alliance for Childhood
"One of the most original and provocative writers of our time, Steve Talbott offers a rich assortment of insightful reflections on the nature of our humanity, challenging our own thinking and conventional wisdom about advances in technology."
--Dorothy E. Denning, Department of Defense Analysis, Naval Postgraduate School, Monterey, CA
"Are you experiencing growing unease as computational metaphors have seized our discourse? Steve Talbott offers immediate relief. You are not losing your mind! Chapter after chapter, he shows how to draw on the powers of technology without losing your soul or breaking your heart."
--Peter Denning, Past President of ACM, Monterey, California
"Steve Talbott is a rare writer whose words can alter one's entire perception of the world. He is our most original and perceptive defender of the wholeness of life against the onslaught of mechanism. Devices of the Soul is written with Talbott's typical grace and clarity. It displays a quality hardly found anymore in our high tech culture--wisdom. "
--Lowell Monke, Associate Professor of Education, Wittenberg University
"From the very first chapter, which presents a creative re-reading of Homer's Odyssey, author and professor Talbott (In the Belly of the Beast) takes his elegant treatise on technology and humanity in some surprising, discipline-hopping directions. With one part Aristotelian rigor, one part transcendental humanism and a healthy dollop of indignation, Talbott examines the often troubling relationships among people, technology and society from a number of angles, including education, toys, ecological management, artificial intelligence, bioengineering and disability. Talbott's thoughtful analysis gets readers thinking less about technology's value than technology's values-the principles it supports. Hanging in the balance, Talbot claims, is the fate of humanity: 'a hellish, counter-human, machine-like society' or 'a humane society in which the machine...reflects back to us our own inner powers.' Talbott is upfront about his biases and assumptions, giving him the freedom to steer his arguments into strange, sometimes contentious territory. His enormous range of literature references and responses keep things lively; combined with a dearth of technical details, Talbott's work should find readers among non-specialists, but his fresh ideas are sure to intrigue techies of all kinds." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
In this deeply thoughtful work, the author reviews humanity's technological dreams of improvement and destruction, finding both possibilities where others see only one or the other.
About the Author
After a several-year stint in organic farming, Steve Talbott began working in the high-tech industry in 1981 as a technical writer and software programmer. His 1995 book, The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst, was named one of the "Best Books of 1995" by UNIX Review and was chosen by the library journal Choice for its 1996 list of "Outstanding Academic Books." In the years since then Steve has produced over 165 issues of the highly regarded online newsletter, NetFuture - Technology and Human Responsibility (http://netfuture.org), from which the contents of this current book are drawn. In a New York Times feature article about Steve's work, NetFuture was termed "a largely undiscovered national treasure."
Since 1998 Steve has been a Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York (http://natureinstitute.org). He is currently working on issues relating to the establishment of a new, qualitative science (http://qual.natureinstitute.org).
Table of Contents
Introduction; What's Ahead; Credits; Part I: Technology, Nature, and the Human Prospect; Chapter 1: The Deceiving Virtues of Technology; 1.1 Devices of the Mind; 1.2 The Man of Many Devices; 1.3 Balance and Separation; 1.4 Reckoning with the Scoundrel; 1.5 Reversals; 1.6 Triumph of the Contrivance; 1.7 Rousing Ourselves; Chapter 2: Hold a Blossom to the Light; 2.1 On Reading One's Environment; 2.2 The Powers of Recognition; 2.3 Puzzling Knowledge; 2.4 Seeking a New Balance; 2.5 The Thrill of Cutting Down Trees; 2.6 Don't Bemoan the Loss of Old Skills; Chapter 3: Toward an Ecological Conversation; 3.1 We Converse to Become Ourselves; 3.2 Permission and Responsibility; 3.3 Approaching Mystery; 3.4 Where Does the Wild Live?; 3.5 Toward Creative Responsibility; 3.6 A Word Unasked For; Part II: Extraordinary Lives; Chapter 4: Can Technology Make the Handicapped Whole?; 4.1 Hearing with More Than Ears; 4.2 Lost Sight, Second Sight; 4.3 Dangers; 4.4 Attending to the World with New Eyes; 4.5 The Human Being as a Developing Potential; 4.6 Saving Illnesses; 4.7 Addendum: The Living and the Dead; 4.8 From And There Was Light; Chapter 5: The Many Voices of Destiny; 5.1 Falling Apart, Coming Together; 5.2 At Harvard; 5.3 Enjoying Life; 5.4 Listening; 5.5 Epilogue: Tinkering with Ourselves; 5.6 On the New Eugenics; Chapter 6: On Forgetting to Wear Boots; 6.1 Dignity and Laughter; 6.2 Trying to Communicate; 6.3 Gift-Bearers; 6.4 Serving the Other; 6.5 Of Accident and Destiny; 6.6 A Parent's Disconcerting Revelation; Part III: From Information to Education; Chapter 7: Why Is the Moon Getting Farther Away?; 6.1 The Loss of Significance; 6.2 Living in a Virtual World; 6.3 Learning the Language of Horses; 6.4 A Chickadee Lesson; Chapter 8: Failure to Connect; 8.1 Looking for the Benefits; 8.2 Remembering the Alternatives; Chapter 9: Educational Provocations; Chapter 10: Three Notes: On Baby Walkers, Video Games, and Sex; 10.1 Beware the Baby Walker; 10.2 Pianists and Video Game Players; 10.3 Sex, the Internet, and Educational Reform; Chapter 11: Who's Killing Higher Education?(Or Is It Suicide?); 11.1 When Business Embraces the Academy; 11.2 Buying an Education More Cheaply; 11.3 The Credentialed Society; 11.4 Toward Greater Standardization; 11.5 Becoming Qualified; 11.6 Nothing to Teach; Part IV: On Socializing Our Machines; Chapter 12: Conversing with Ella; Chapter 13: Flesh and Machines:The Mere Assertions of Rodney Brooks; 13.1 Searching for the Bottom; 13.2 Order and Form; 13.3 Losing Consciousness; 13.4 Turnabout Is Fair Play; Chapter 14: From HAL to Kismet; 14.1 The Human Response; 14.2 How Do You Simulate Life?; 14.3 Invisible Authors; 14.4 Learning from Kismet; Chapter 15: Invisible Tools or Emotionally Supportive Pals?; 15.1 We Need to Recognize Our Own Assumptions; 15.2 Complementary Errors; 15.3 The Computer in Context; Part V: On Mechanizing Society; Chapter 16: Evil; Chapter 17: The Threat of Technology That Works Well; 17.1 Press "1" for Frustration; 17.2 An Information Arms Race; 17.3 Do Cell Phones Make Us Safer?; 17.4 Will Lie-Detecting Software Make Us More Trustworthy?; 17.5 The Automobile; 17.6 Being Positive by Being Negative; Chapter 18: The Ideal of Ubiquitous Technology; 18.1 Digital Servants Everywhere; 18.2 There Are No Solutions; 18.3 Not Solutions, But a Strengthening of the "I"; 18.4 Automating on Principle; 18.5 A Strengthened Inner Activity; Chapter 19: Privacy in an Age of Data; 19.1 The Life of a Vibrant Neighborhood; 19.2 The Privacy of Community; Chapter 20: A Taste for Number Magic; 20.1 The Importance of Capitalism; 20.2 Flights of Abstraction; 20.3 All You Need Is Numbers; 20.4 Cutting Ourselves Off from Change; 20.5 Beyond the Gambling Hall; Chapter 21: The Internet: Reflections on Our Present Discontents; 21.1 Vacant Efficiency; 21.2 Personalizing Our Transactions; 21.3 Movable Places; 21.4 The Virtue of Friction in the Landscape; 21.5 Programming Levity; 21.6 A Hope Beyond Technology; Bibliography; About the Author;