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

Author: Steve Talbott
Format: Hardcopy, 281 pages
Publisher: O'Reilly Media, Inc.; 1st edition (April 27, 2007)
ISBN-10: 0596526806
ISBN-13: 978-0596526801

Review by James Pyles
June 19, 2007

I'll let you in on a little secret. Reviewing technical books is relatively easy for me. A lot of it has to do with discovering the basic premise of the book, the intended audience, and what it's supposed to accomplish. From there, it's a matter of seeing whether or not the book actually hits its goals. Ok, ok, it's a little more involved than that, but that's the nuts and bolts of it. Reviewing Devices of the Soul was more like slowly climbing a mountain trail, trying to notice and record the subtle nuances of the journey and communicating the flavor and color of the experience. Talbott's effort made me want to write an essay, not a review.

Actually, I did write the outline for an essay. Of course, in this day and age of instant gratification, microwave dinners, and high-speed Internet connections, no one is going to want to read an essay. That's unfortunate, but I'll scale down my efforts to meet current requirements. I do suggest you take the time to read Steve Talbott's book. It's rather worth the trip.

The underlying idea behind Devices is an evaluation of the impact of modern computerization and mechanization on human society. It's not as simple as "kill the machines" or "let's get back to basics", so fear not. Once the genie is out of the bottle, not only is it impossible to get it back in, but in many cases, we don't want to. After all, computers and technology aren't evil. In fact, a lot of times, they are really useful tools. So is a car of course and the difference between it being a means of transportation or an instrument of destruction is how it's used. That's the key to the Talbott book, or at least one of the keys.

I don't really agree that it's technology per se that is having an adverse impact on humanity. I rather think that it's humanity that's having an impact on itself and technology is just the latest tool to achieve that goal. What goal you ask? Good question. Think about it for a second. Think about the gripes and groans you have about how computers have affected our way of life. I mentioned that I wrote the outline for an essay. Here's an illuminating example:

Chapter 7 seems to speak to the idea that too much technologically based education and just too much artificial environment limits our awareness of "nature". Again, I don't think it's technology per se that's the problem but our perception of what is true knowledge, what's worth learning and what's worth our time.

The educational system, fueled by high-tech companies is pushing for children to enter into school earlier and for more math, science, and technology classes to be added to the mix. Of course, public education has for decades if not centuries, been all about crowd control and teaching a diverse collection of children information through a single method and style of education...whether it suited a particular student or not. This may be one of the reasons that some children don't do well in school; not because they aren't bright or motivated (the motivation gets killed along the way) but because some children don't learn well via the classic "classroom lecture" model.

That said, parents can be a help or a barrier to a child's education. How many parents even take the time to read to or with their children anymore...at least once they get past preschool or kindergarten?


The idea presented by the book in brief, is that the introduction of and reliance on computers in the classroom injects an artificial interface between the student and the subject being learned. It also offers false "rewards" for learning and ultimately, the rewards become the goal rather than the education. However, the computer isn't the villain; its the people who put it there. Do I mean the public education system? Not really. They just bought into the hype. The "villain" is the person who created the hype. Who did that? Who makes computer hardware and software?

Talbott artistically presents a variety of different life scenarios and shows the audience how imposing a technological interface over them alters, morphs, colors, mutates, and otherwise changes how we perceive and interact with those scenarios. Talbott gives the technology more credit than it deserves in each situation and from what I can see, it's the old shell game all over again. Please don't take the metaphor too literally. What I mean is that modern technological solutions are just the latest ploy in a very old game. What's the game? Who can get rich by manipulating the masses.

The new twist in this game is that computerization tends to receive an elevated status in human eyes and humanity tends to "fade in the shadow of the machine", to paraphrase an old Star Trek episode (and Elisha Cook Jr. played a classic role in it). Since that STTOS (Star Trek: The Original Series) episode aired in 1967, you can see that concerns of man versus the machine are nothing new. The dehumanization of humanity was also showcased in a series that's known as a "cult classic", The Prisoner:

"The Prisoner" is a unique piece of television. It addresses issues such as personal identity and freedom, democracy, education, scientific progress, art and technology, while still remaining an entertaining drama series. Over seventeen episodes we witness a war of attrition between the faceless forces behind 'The Village' (a Kafkaesque community somewhere between Butlins and Alcatraz) and its most strong willed inmate, No. 6. who struggles ceaselessly to assert his individuality while plotting to escape from his captors. -Written by Stuart Berwick {[email protected]}

Talbott offers a sort of balance or compromise between people and their almost "lifelike" creations. I mentioned that the author gives technology more credit than it's worth and at one point even states that "Yes, every human creation is invested with intelligence in one form or another, and it would be pathological for us to ignore this fact in our creations". I don't think this is the same as humans actually providing their creations with intelligence as in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein or the more lovable Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation. Despite what many have said, I don't see Artificial Intelligence (AI) ever approaching the capacities humans possess. Sure, it's fun to play "I Robot" and pretend you're talking to an intelligent machine, but in the end, humanoid robots in literature and other genre serve as mirrors to illuminate humanity's flaws and virtues, not to predict the future.

Devices of the Soul is a compelling presentation of life in the modern era where humans seem to share the world with the machine. That's an illusion because without human programmers, the PC sitting on your desk or the mainframe guiding air traffic through the skies would end up being just expensive paperweights. Talbott in some sense removes the illusion but not enough. He sees machines as having a sort of evolutionary path while I consider the lastest PC just a somewhat smarter screwdriver. It doesn't have a life, or a soul, and it isn't self determining, no matter what sort of programming it possesses to create the illusion. The illusion exists due to a combination of programmatical cleverness, corporate marketing, and human gullibility.

I could go on (and on and on). That's how Talbott's book inspired me and I hope impresses you. I'll leave you with the last two paragraphs of my "essay":

It's not so much that the "movers and shakers" are giving people what they want as they are exploiting the darkest side of human nature and appealing to the easy and quick fix. The Star Wars movies define the "dark side of the force" not as more powerful than the light side but "quicker, easier, more seductive". That's what's being offered here.

Is it technology and its effects that are dehumanizing our society and causing all of the personal and social issues defined by this author? No, not directly. Technology is just a tool. It's the people who control the tool that are doing the dehumanizing. This is nothing new. To make a buck, people have been exploiting other people for as long as humanity has existed. P.T. Barnum's famous quote "There's a sucker born every minute" applies of course. If you get anything out of "Devices of the Soul", the next time you sit down at your PC, remember not to be a sucker.