2007-08-14

Devices of the Soul

My friend Arturo Frappé recommended me to read Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines, by Steve Talbott, so I ordered it from Amazon.com. It poses important questions about our open embrace of technology. Since I am an Internet addict, my opinions are certainly biased. Nevertheless, the book motivated me to write some thoughts down, even when I'm half way through it.

Talbott warns about the self-forgetfulness that technology causes: we trust technology so we are not conscious on how much we depend on it. I agree, but when was society more conscious??? When there was slavery? When the majority of population was working most of the day in fields or factories? It is indeed a problem that should be addressed, but rejecting technology will not solve it (not that Talbott suggests this). In my opinion, technology offers more opportunities than dangers. But to harvest a conscious humanity we need a specific education and culture that we have always lacked.

Yes, we should ask and question the benefits of technology, e.g. nuclear weapons, genetic engineering, etc. It is too easy to forget the implications of technology, especially when it works so smoothly.

Talbott uses the metaphor of seeing the Internet as the sirens of the Odyssey. Like Ulysses, we need self-awareness not to succumb to the temptations of technology. This technology is necessary for human development, but it is also risky. I would go farther, and say that we need self-awareness with anything that brings us satisfaction. Any pleasure is potentially addictive.

The book speaks about the dehumanization made by technology. But when were we more "human"? In times of slavery? Industrial age? During the cold war? Well, what is it to be human??? The Maya and the Mexica (Aztec) lived in harmony with nature, but they also offered human sacrifices to their gods. Are these cultures more human, or the industrial/imperialist ones??? I believe that we make what it is to be human. It is not defined beforehand. If blind sheep following mass media is what we are, then that is human. Human is not what we should do, but what we do. We define and evolve it. It is true that we need to become more self-aware, but it might be that we are in an age where self-awareness has reached its highest point so far (so we can complain on how low it is...). The evolution of awareness of technology follows closely behind the evolution of technology.

The problem is not technology per se, but our attitude towards it. As Nadia pointed it out, technology for some is like religion: people trust too much on it (blindly). Krzysztof Kieslowski shows this very emotionally in his Dekalog 1.

This discussion is related to Hegel's Master-slave dialectic. If we, as masters, give all our efforts to machines (slaves), we will become so dependent on them that they will dominate us (not in the Terminator's sense). On the other hand, we can exploit technology to make new efforts. This would lead to our progress, instead of allowing our creations to become our dominators.

Talbott criticizes modern urban environments, where many kids do not have contact with nature or their world. It is true, many city kids do not know anything about nature, but when was it better? Two centuries ago most kids in cities would be working 16 hours a day, and most people would not travel more than a few miles around their birthplace during their whole lives. Not to speak about Roman times... A considerate emperor made a law which forbade people to have sex with children younger than eight...

To my mind, Talbott's message is not against technology, but against mindlessly accepting it, due to novelty, fashion, imitation, marketing, etc. But the same applies for religions, politicians, fads, smoking, etc. Mindlessness is an essence of the human condition. We are not robots to be aware of everything! We are severely limited creatures. The problem lies in the failure to acknowledge this limitations and believe we are masters of the universe.

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