Book of the Week: Steve Talbott’s Devices of the Soul

Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines*, by Steve Talbott.

I have long been an admirer of Steve Talbott’s deep and continuous reflection on the spiritual aspects of our relations to our computing tools, as he expresses it in his regular newsletter, Netfuture, available via

He has now published a book with his best essays on the topic, and I have asked him to present his book and choose a number of significant excerpts.

Please already note his other contributions to participative epistemology, amazingly a very popular entry in our wiki, which we cover as part of our ongoing investigation of P2P Spirituality.

Steve Talbott:

‘We are being tempted to lose ourselves in the presence of our technologies. We have come a long way since the time of Odysseus, whose vaunted “techne” was a combination of craft and craftiness, machine and machination, outer and inner contrivance, artful device and cunning deceit. The outer accomplishment of this techne was satisfying primarily because of the inner development it signified — development that amounted to the historical birth of the individual.

In practicing his techne, Odysseus rejoiced in the discovery and exploration of that private inner space where he was free to calculate and devise, deceive and contrive — the space wherein he crafted the technical achievement and the glorious ruse of the Trojan Horse.

Since that time there has been a kind of reversal. It is no longer our inner achievements we primarily celebrate, but their outer, mechanical tokens. The ubiquitous machinery of our lives threatens to lull us into a sleep of oblivion. If we were attuned to the inner realities of our Selves, we would not give assent to the absurd proposition that a computer can add two plus two, when it can do nothing of the sort — not if we have in mind anything remotely resembling what *we* do when we add numbers.

The computer, after all, does not bring consciousness to the act.

It is not exercising and therefore strengthening certain skills and cognitive capacities. It requires no focusing of attention, no motivation, no supportive metabolism, no memory, no imagination, and no sympathetic muscle movements. Nor is it engaged in any larger purpose when it carries out the computation — or any purpose at all.

It is not deriving satisfaction from the exercise of a skill, nor is it strengthening that skill through the exercise. It brings neither an aesthetic sensibility to the task nor a mobilized will.

And finally: it has no sense of the truth or falsity of its results — the sense by which we were guided in developing our mathematics in the first place, and by which the mathematics gains meaning.

The example may seem trivial, but by continuing this forgetfulness of our Selves as we elaborate the simple task of addition into the sophisticated calculation of the spreadsheet — and a thousand other varieties of programmed logic — we spawn disastrous tendencies in

Devices of the Soul takes up the problem of self-remembrance in many different contexts: the meeting of primitive Amazonian cultures with modern technological society; the use of technology to aid the handicapped; the role of the human being, if any, in “managing” — or,
alternatively, “conversing with” — a damaged Nature; the prevailing and very odd denigration of the significance of individual choice within a capitalism that supposedly celebrates individual choice; the impossibility of erecting technological defenses of privacy; the incoherent doctrines
being urged upon us by robotics gurus who insist that we ourselves are machines; and much, much more.

Steve Talbott produces the online newsletter, NetFuture (
and is Senior Researcher at The Nature Institute in Ghent, New York. His
first book was *The Future Does Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in
Our Midst*, named to a list of the Outstanding Academic Books of 1996 by
the library journal, *Choice*. Steve’s email address is
[email protected]

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