Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines Hardcover – May 7 2007
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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.
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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).
Inside This Book(Learn More)
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
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.
(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.
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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