August 05, 2007

Book Review: Devices of the Soul by Steve Talbott

I mentioned before that I'd read this one, and it's been quite a while since I finished it. But this book gives you a LOT to think about, and a lot to digest -- even after you finish reading it. And it's NOT a walk in the park to read, either. But it's a book with an important message.
Talbott starts off with a sort of definition of terms. He defines technology in the classic sense -- the Greek term techne referred to mental craftiness and trickery as often as it did the mechanical product of that craftiness. Talbott also reminds us that the Greeks didn't consider techne something that was inherently good -- it was always respected, no matter how grudgingly, but it wasn't always something that led to a positive outcome.

Talbott's use of The Odyssey in this context is very effective, reminding us that the 20th and 21st centuries don't have the corner on the technology market. The emphasis on the mental aspect of techne -- the craftiness and inventiveness -- is important to Talbott's thesis -- we must consider whether something should be done (the impact on society of new technology), not just whether we can do something. As Talbott puts it on page 9

When you look today at the mesmerized preoccupation with the sweetly sung promises of salvation through digital information, you realize that our own culture honors the Sirens far more than it does the healthy respect for the risk, the self-discipline, and the inner cunning of Odysseus, man of many devices.
Talbott's purpose in the book is to advocate a more balanced approach to technology, and a willingness to question whether an advance is really an advantage.

Chapters 2 and 3 take a slight detour. Each chapter examines how nature and humanity interact, which is important when we examine how non-natural technology attempts to make human life "better." Most telling are Talbott's stories of native cultures and how they are changed by the introduction of what we would consider simple technological advances. Talbott shows that these native people have a communion with their environment that allows them to see things that others do not see at all, and he posits that this type of communication with nature is possible for all mankind -- if we would just try. When we do that, we begin to interact with what Talbott refers to as The Other.

Talbot uses a lot of spiritual/religious language in the book, especially in these two chapters, without actually approaching The Other as God, though it would seem that The Other is more of a "god in us all" concept, almost panentheistic as opposed to classically theistic. It seems that Talbott's dedication to Naturalism as a worldview keeps him from considering that there is anything outside of Nature, so his idea of The Other has to come from within everything -- very similar to the idea of The Force in Star Wars. At one point, he speaks of our unique ability to "detach ourselves from our environment ... to see things from the Other's point of view..." without fully exploring or understanding why we are that way. Mankind was created to enjoy fellowship with God. I found myself repeatedly agreeing with what Talbott was saying, but wanting him to go a bit further -- this section was simultaneously very interesting and very frustrating.

Many scientists will be upset with Talbott's "anthropocentrism" -- a tag he readily accepts, and in fact seems to wear proudly. But he again differs from a classic theistic perspective by saying, "What distinguishes us is not our moral worth, but the fact that we bear the burden of moral responsibility." In other words, we're not worth more morally than an owl or a whale, but we bear more moral responsibility than those animals do -- assumably because we have that unique ability to commune with the Other in us all.

One popular arguement in favor of expanded use of technology is the idea of helping people -- especially "the handicapped." Talbot gives an incredible example of someone whose "handicap" actually helped them to succeed. The story of Jacques Lusseyran should be taught to every school-aged child in America as an example of what can be done even in the face of what everyone else considers a severe handicap. Talbott uses his story to show that technology may make the handicapped "normal" but it will never make them whole.

I also admire Talbott's willingness to question technologists and geneticists who claim that our obligation is to use technology to "improve humanity." I've always found it interesting how many evolutionists want to try and thwart the natural evolutionary process by using genetic engineering or technological implants to improve humanity. Talbott correctly points out that the obsession with technological improvements to humankind (or technological alternatives to humanity) is, in the end, rooted in fear. Fear of death, fear of obsolescence, and most of all fear that there really is more to us than just an individual collection of molecules. Talbott, unlike so many others, is willing to ask whether something is right to do, regardless of whether it's possible or not. "The moral range of our responsibility ... is determined not only by the range of our power to act, but also by the extent of our understanding." Our use of mechanical techne must be informed by our biological techne.

There's a LOT to this book. And there are many things that we won't like to hear -- we like our lives that have been simplified through technology. We like having information at our fingertips. We don't want to have to think about right and wrong -- we just want better, faster. But Talbott has my attention. This book is a must read, especially for Christians in churches whose answer to decreasing attendance is more bells and whistles.

Talbott has some very interesting things to say about modern education as well, and it's reliance on technology. What he writes mirrors a lot of my own personal experience, but that's a topic that deserves it's own post -- probably Monday.

Posted by: Warren Kelly at 12:01 AM | No Comments | Add Comment
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