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Book Review – Devices Of The Soul: Battling For Our Selves In An Age Of Machines by Steve Talbott

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When efficiency is our only goal, how do we know if we are going in the right direction? This is the fundamental question asked by Devices Of The Soul, by Steve Talbott. We allow our selves to think that a computer can add two plus two in the same way that we can and nothing can be further from the truth, says Talbott. The computer has no motivation, no consciousness of the task, no mobilization of will, no metabolic activity and no imagination.

Devices Of The Soul is broken down into five parts that takes you from the dawn of modern technology by using the tales of Odysseus and building a foundation to understand the use of technology today.

Part one, "Technology, Nature, and the Human Prospect", looks at how technical devices have played a positive role in human transformation, but now are leading us toward a state of unconsciousness. Here Odysseus, the man of many devices has transformed to the modern man of many devices. From there we explore what happens when a primitive culture has to adapt to modern technology. Then the idea of how is the environment affected by technology? Just as when we put bird food out in winter, we encourage an unnatural amount of birds into the area, what are we affecting in the bird population? Disease, overpopulation; and when we stop the feeding? Death?

Part two, "Extraordinary Lives" asks the question, "Can Technology make the handicapped whole?" This part explores that question and as well as the questions of just because we can do something, does it mean that we should? Especially if we don't really understand what we are doing.

Part three "From Information To Education," considers the natural world as an educational resource and then a teacher who finds disturbing, the actual use of computers in classrooms across the country. By elevating the importance of information we may loose sight of the purpose of actual knowledge.

Part four, "On Socializing our Machines," we may find that by loosing sight of our powers of transformation we may wish our computers to surpass our own limitations and if they do, will they tolerate us. There may be a time where we must show our respect for machines by sabotaging them.

Part five, "On Mechanizing Society," tries to expose to us the dangers when technology fulfills our fondest expectations. Here it is not the glitches that worry the author, it is when the system is running to expectation. It is the mechanization of society and the de-humanization of civilization.

Overall, Devices Of The Soul: Battling For Our Selves In An Age Of Machines is a good read. The first chapter dragged a bit and so you really need to give a little longer to get into it. It is based on the premise that change in society must be rooted in the individual. That each one of us has to step back and take stock of what technology is and what it should mean to each of us. I think that perhaps this should be required study in high school and college, especially to those whose career paths wind through technology. While you may not agree with Talbot's take, it will give you pause to reflect, which is all one can really hope for.

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About T. Michael Testi

Photographer, writer, software engineer, educator, and maker of fine images.