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Book Review: Devices Of The Soul Steve Talbott

Since the industrial revolution of the 1800s the world has gone through massive technological changes. From the cotton gin of the 1800s to the assembly line of Ford motor plants of the early twentieth century to today's microchip technology the speed of production has increased. The faster the production schedule the faster our lives move and the quicker the world spins by.

What kind of changes has this imposed on us in the way we interact with our environment? Not just the natural world, although that is part of the equation, but with all aspects of the world around us. The people we come in contact with, our involvement in our work, and the way we see ourselves have all undergone changes.

In his new book, Devices Of The Soul, Steven Talbott sets out to examine how our relationship with technology, especially in recent years, has changed us. The subtle manner in which we have gone from an intuitive being who draws upon all the elements at our disposal to make a decision to being dependant on bodies of information that we access on purpose.
This is not an anti-technology book, far from it in fact, for Talbott doesn't deny that elements of technology have made our lives better. It's a matter of how we allow the technology to define us and define how we live that is the problem according to him. By letting machines make so many of our decisions, or relying on them for doing tasks we would have done on our own in the past, we have removed the human element from the equation.

Now this may not sound like such a bad thing on a certain level, but how about our relationships with other people? If we only experience humans and cultures at the remove of technology, and what that technology tells us about them, are we getting a true picture of who and what they are? Maybe in the past we wouldn't have had access to any information at all, but is that any worse to having the information we do receive filtered through someone else's opinion?

Why is it that nobody looks at the sky anymore to see what the weather is going to be like during the day? "How cold is it out?" "I don't know let me check the weather channel?" What about going outside and experiencing it for yourself and feeling how cold it is? Will hearing someone tell you what the temperature is actually tell you how cold you will be when you step outside?

The number they say it is might give you an idea, but it won't tell you whether or not it's damp, or how cold the wind really is? You won't know that until you're outside so why didn't you check that way first? Convenience: or has our reliance on getting the answers from someone or something else gotten to the point that we don't trust ourselves anymore?
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Quick, where does the sun rise each morning? At which cardinal point on the compass does he come up in the sky? How about the moon, do you know the answer to that? East is of course the answer to both questions and to most adults I should hope it was obvious. But for far too many people of the next generation that answer is a mystery, as are many things that we take for granted in the natural world.

But think of the environment that most kids grow up in the West; television, computer games, computers, cars, and an urban landscape. According to Talbott what should we expect from them, that they be aware of things that they are never exposed to or think about? Maybe the question of where does the sun rise sounds a little extreme, but he sites knowing a high school graduate with good grades and very bright as an example of a person who didn't know the answer to that question.

I don't know about you, but things like that scare me and make me nervous. If we are raising people so out of touch with the natural world as to not know in which direction the sun rises, what will they care about the world outside of their own sphere of existence? Will we be able to entrust them with what little we haven't destroyed to keep safe for their children?

Device Of The Soul is not an easy read in any sense of the word. The language Mr. Talbott uses is heavy and specialized to the point of being nearly academic in places. But it is also necessary to use this language as it the only vocabulary capable of discussing the subject. Until you get used to it, and the dryness of the tone, you might have some difficulty reading the material.

But I think that's part of his point of how technology has taken away our ability to communicate complex ideas and thoughts because we are becoming used to a vocabulary that only allows for the expression of basic needs and wants. Higher intellectual ideas and concepts can't be put into text messaging short forms or cute smiley faces.

Devices Of The Soul challenges our conception of our self in an effort to make us examine our relationship with technology and how it has changed us. While change is inevitable, and there is nothing wrong with it intrinsically, blinkered acceptance of all aspects of it can be dangerous.

Steven Talbott has rung an alarm bell that is well worth our while to pay attention to and that we ignore at our own peril.

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