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Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines [Hardcover]

Steve Talbott

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Book Description

May 7 2007

"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


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Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

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.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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).


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Amazon.com: 3.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Celebrate the Other. Aug. 26 2007
By Douglas Rowe - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This fine book is unusual in so many ways! O'Reilly is generally known as the publisher of authoritative technology study and reference books with animals on the covers. This book, however, has much more to say to the individual about themselves than any technology they may be interested in learning.

First, let me say that this is not some new age, tree-hugging, abandon the Internet and head back to nature manifesto. The focus of this book is understanding human potential and technologies place in it. Talbott makes the point that increasingly technology requires us to give up control of important aspects of our humanity and delivers a poor and inferior replacement. In contrast, he explains that technology can be used with appropriate restraint and respect for the person.

The book is spiritual but only in a sense that humans are special and largely more special than we know because so much technology removes our need to discover. Stories from the Amazon jungle, WWII French Resistance, Greek Legends and communities for the differently abled will inspire you to see people around you differently and relate in a better way to those unlike yourself.

If you enjoy reading, you're likely to come away from this book with a new list of books. Talbott recounts stories and details from classic literature, biographies and history in ways that illustrate his point perfectly and will encourage you to want to read more.
21 of 26 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Not an easy read... helps to be contemplative in nature. June 3 2007
By Thomas Duff - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I was a little surprised when I ended up with a review copy of Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines by Steve Talbott. Back in January, I attempted to read the galley manuscript, and wasn't able to make it past chapter 2. But with a promise that it would get better, I decided to give it one more chance. Looking at it from an overall standpoint, it *did* improve enough for me to understand the message that Talbott was attempting to convey. But I personally think that only certain types of readers will get the most out of it. Unfortunately, I'm not one of them.

Contents

(I'd normally list the TOC here so you could see the chapter headings, but somewhere between home and Ireland the book went missing. I'm guessing I put it in the plane seat pocket when I was done, and forgot to grab it on the way off.)

The main message, as I understood it, is that we as a society are giving up too much of our humanity to technology. In many cases, we bend our view of the world to fit the technology that we want or need, and as such we ourselves become more machine-like in how we frame our outlook on life. Just because we could have our refrigerator track our food and order staples for us, doesn't mean that we should be giving up the control and ability to make those decisions ourselves. Or take our ability to communicate worldwide with people via instant messaging. Talbott would contend that by doing so, we've actually isolated ourselves from regular human interaction that used to take place face-to-face. That's the general theme that runs throughout the book.

I don't necessarily disagree with his basic premise. Geeks automate things because they can, and they build to the mindset that *they* have (which is often quirky and strange to begin with). I also recognize that to make a point, sometimes you have to be a bit extreme to catch someone's attention. But personally I found the message obscured in far too many words and analogies to mythology. If I were more introspective, I might have found this thought-provoking. I know some people who would think this was an outstanding title. Personally, I wanted something far more practical. I don't do "subtle" well, and I likely missed many of the nuances that he was trying to convey.

If you're a contemplative reader who wonders why machines are taking over, you might really like this read. If you're more of a "can we move on and *do* something now?" type, you may well be frustrated as I was.
21 of 33 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Not what you expect from O'Reilly... June 25 2007
By GJ - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
What becomes obvious, once you get past the well-written and interesting intro, is that the rest of the book is clearly and distinctly anti-technology: its title could as well be "How technology will ruin everything for everybody, if it hasn't already."

From what I read on the author's website, after reading the book, Talbott worked as editor-in-chief for highly regarded computer-book publisher, O'Reilly (there are at least 15 O'Reilly-published books on the shelf next to my computer), and O'Reilly's imprint on this book (in Technology/Society series), taken at face value, will inevitably (mis)lead potential readers to think that this is a balanced, in-depth look at technology's role in present-day society. It is not.

The titles of Talbott's articles and presentations published before (and listed on his website) might give potential readers a better idea of what to expect inside this book: "Deceiving Virtues of Technology," "Is High Technology Turning Us into Zombies?", "How Technology Can Enslave Us", or "Virtual Spirituality and the Destruction of the World." Before buying this book, I recommend checking out the chapter titled "Evil" (p. 201-2), with its memorable quote which, for me, well encapsulates the books tone and overall sentiment: "If we follow this path of arrogance, the destruction we call down upon the world may be unparalleled."

Some readers may find this a satisfying read (especially since, in terms of style, Talbott's writing is very polished). I was disappointed, not just because I disagree with author's views (I disagree with Birkert's "The Gutenberg Elegies: The Fate of Reading in an Electronic Age" as well, and still would highly recommend it), but because I hoped for something more balanced, and better researched. I expected a solid, sociological and technological analysis, and got (very articulate) musings of latter-day Luddite, tinged with religious spirituality instead.

Regarding topics addressed in the book: For those interested in the "holistic" approach to knowledge (mentioned in the chapter on environment), Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, offers a much better, in-depth look at the topic. For those interested in the promise and risk of genetic engineering, the novels "Never Let Me Go" and "Cloud Atlas: A Novel" address those issues with more insight; for film fans, the topic gets explored in Gattaca, which manages to make a similar point, in a dystopian vision that is quite complete, balanced, and articulate.

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