Book Review

by Steve Talbott

O’Reilly Media

Nothing beats a Mac. Nothing. Right? I mean, sitting in front of your computer at work, effortlessly creating new things and being totally productive is a way of life for so many of us. We know our work and our creative abilities so well, partly because our computer has provided us with the means of bringing our dreams to reality. Perhaps as never before in the history of Man, has any generation has such power to change the world as our generation, because of machines and technology such as the Apple Macintosh.

Having said that, each of us must certainly realize that there should be, there must be, a COUNTERPOINT to all of the above. To address this counterpoint, a book has been written. A most excellent work by Steve Talbott, published this year by O’Reilly Media, entitled Devices Of The Soul. (First Edition April 2007 281 Pages, $22.99)

In essence, the book tries, and succeeds, in defining “The Battle for Ourselves, in an Age of Machines.” To begin with, Steve takes us to back to Homer’s Odysseus, 3500 years ago, in the cave of Polyphemus, the Cyclops. Odysseus, as described in that ancient Greek language, comes up with ‘devices’ or ‘contrivances’ and various mechanisms of deceit, crafted by “techne” (the root word for our ‘technology’ “meaning craft, skill, cunning, art or device.”). Later, Odysseus plugs the ears of his crew with wax, to protect them from the Siren’s song and destruction, while he, with clear ears, has them tie him to the mast of his ship, so he can hear the song for himself.

To the ancient Greeks, and to the rest of us, the words of ‘techne’ in this early fable hold several meanings at the same time. They can refer to some external, invented, mechanical thing, or they can refer to what is invented within our thoughts. More so, there is also the double intent, of good or evil in all this ‘techne’ of our making – that is, for us to use it with wisdom and constraint, or with abandon and unlimited power. Steve has observed from these earliest of stories about ourselves, that we can become victims of our own devices, as well as the devious and artful employers of the same.

From there, the author talks about distant Amazonian tribes and their amazing and skillful use of ancient and ‘primitive’ technology within their jungles, to the good of everyone in the tribe – and to their ultimate downfall when they become exposed to modern technology, and within a generation, lose their whole history and culture to it.

Not to reveal too much, but I said this book is comprehensive. In it, Steve talks about wide ranging effects of technology in every part of our lives. For instance, how it affects the process and decision-making of having children, to the point of removing ‘undesirable’ births from our lives, to assuming total control of the kind (and ‘quality’) of the children we wish to be born to us – and what the true cost of that is to our lives and happiness. Steve also discusses how technology impacts the education of our children, and ourselves, in both good and detrimental ways, as we as a civilization promote technology over self-discovery, and information flow over wisdom and understanding. There seems to be no end to where technology invades our lives, from our dwellings, to our food, to the very freedoms we hold dear – all of which are addressed very thoughtfully in this book.

However, as any great teacher should do, Steve does not spoon feed us answers and solutions along the way. He much prefers for us to seek those personal and global solutions on our own. (I know from personal experience as a teacher, that students always prefer to be handed the answer, since having to think for yourself is so painful.) But, you see, finding the answer for yourself is part of the path to self-awareness and self-discovery. There are no shortcuts here.

In all of this work, there is the underlying question, which lies at the very center of our dilemma with technology – are we using it, or is it using us? Steve is bringing to our attention the need to be able to see the counterpoint to technology, and hopefully, to discover ourselves in the process. His is a strong, heartfelt lesson in finding and knowing our true and better selves, of achieving a wisdom-filled life of BALANCE, quite apart from all our toys, gadgets, the Internet and our computers.

How difficult this is, may be seen in how far we have come. Before the Computer the Internet, there was Television and Movies. Before all that, there was the Automobile, Radio and the Printed page. And before that, there existed the technology of steel and concrete, steam and rapid transportation. So you see, we have been a people, a world, locked into technological advance for centuries, ever with the siren song of all its devices blasting in our ears. Little wonder we seem to have lost our way. And the solution, even for the most technologically entrenched of us, is to simply begin to discover ourselves, and in that process, to discover that life and loving relationships have never depended on technology. (Of course, it is entirely up to you to discover this for yourself.)

Far from dwelling on doomsday scenarios or Luddite distopias, as so many similar works seem to do, Steve’s book is a keeper, and one I am glad I found. I believe you will find “Devices Of The Soul” both an excellent read, and a reference you will want to keep on your short shelf, along with your other most beloved books and novels.

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