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Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines Hardcover – May 7 2007


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Amazon.com: 3 reviews
13 of 15 people found the following review helpful
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
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
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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