“Toward True Economies of Goods and Words”
A Review of
Devices of the Soul:
Battling for Ourselves
in An Age of Machines.
By Brent Aldrich.
Recently, desiring what I assumed would be an ironic and out-dated read, I picked out from our recycling bin of books a book from 1984, Selecting the Church Computer, with a photograph on the cover of a computer older than I am. In reading and laughing at much of the text (“Did [God] have any inkling that with the passing of time his children would be using a creation of humankind’s knowledge called the computer to complete his work?”), it also began startlingly apparent how much faith was recommended in the computer for its use in education, developing software “to explain moral values and lead the church youth in a deeper understanding of the church’s mission and ministry” or in simulations of “real world” events such as “nuclear holocaust where the student must make the decision whether or not to push the button that sends the missiles.”
Although some questions as to the human work displaced by the computer are raised, notably absent are questions such as, “What will the church members do with the time they used to spend forming their youth?” Instead, the attitude is that “computers are here, and they are here to stay.” It is, it seems, our destiny. This technological acquiescence is the subject of Steve Talbott’s new book Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines. Technologies, of course, are a result of our human devices, and as such can assist in our human workings; the trouble lies when this scenario is switched, when the human conforms to the machine, when the artifact or representation replaces the artificer, the real. This process of automation discretely grows and has grown to such a degree that our machines are increasingly defining us as human creatures. In that process, abstractions, disconnections, and placelessness become normative, and when turned back on humans presents a desolate outlook. As our mechanisms allow us to forget ourselves, our humanity is lost.
I am reminded of Wendell Berry’s advice in the poem “How to be a poet (To remind myself)”:
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life.
Stay away from screens;
stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
Surely this is a central critique of technology, that it obscures its context, and becomes its own end, leading to further abstractions. Talbott counters this inclination to disconnected abstractions most fundamentally with the practice of conversation, real interaction: “a satisfying conversation is neither rigidly programmed nor chaotic; somewhere between perfect order and total surprise, we look for creative tension, a progressive and mutual deepening of insight, a sense that we are getting somewhere worthwhile” (39). This conversation acts to heal the gulf of separation that technologies can create; and not only the distances formed between people, but also from the land. Two excellent chapters, “Toward an Ecological Conversation” and “Why is the Moon Getting Farther Away?” describe an engagement that is qualitative, that is rooted in very particular places and direct experiences. This model of “intimacy and sympathy” (119) should be practiced in conversation with nature, as in human relations.
Throughout this book, Talbott practices this art of conversation, telling stories, and navigating between polarizing arguments to address the root of the matter, so while it might be often easier to take sides, Talbott repeatedly considers both opinions against how technologies affirm (or deny) human life and flourishing. For example, in regards to the ecological conversation, Talbott suggest that two classic antagonists, the “radical preservationists” and the “scientific managers” (36) both “regard nature as a world in which the human being cannot meaningfully participate…Both stances deprive us of any profound engagement” (38). Similarly, more specific to technology, the “contest is not between information management and information inflation, but between the obsession with information and the habit of quiet reflection” (207).
This “habit of quiet reflection” is intended to deepen and sustain that which is distinctly human, essentially to affirm life as distinct from mechanisms. Early on, Talbott makes distinct the techne of the human from that of created technology, suggesting the relationship of the two, and the importance of preferring the human. We must remember ourselves as distinct from our technologies; as the technology increasingly is used to define the human, the balance is off.
Talbott at several turns suggests the individual life in the community, and it seems to me that this is where the resistance to technology will flourish. The placelessness of the Internet in particular is a reminder of its limitations; on the Internet:
there is no “place”…no place where the way people relate to each other, where the design of the houses with their private and common rooms, the layout of streets…the rhythms of work, study, commerce, dining, recreation, and conversation, the grounding reality of sun, breezes, rain, and mosquitoes – no place where these and a thousand other factors can come together to say, “Here you are. Your name is written into this place. You belong here, and you are safe. (263)
As we become rooted in our places, in our communities, in the cultivation of both a sensitive inner life, as well as deep relations with others, we develop the means to affirm life, and place our technologies in their places, rather than be dominated by them. For the church, this act of remembering ourselves and engaging conversationally with one another and nature must be coming into communion with all of the creation, affirming life as a gift, however it comes; our life together must be primary over any other powers, and certainly the technological hold is one of the dominant powers of our age. Talbott’s point is that we must come to resist that impulse “in our culture [that] works powerfully against a sensitive, participative understanding of the world” (118).
Would that we learn to value one another, the human lives nearest to us, over and against the technologies that fight to be the definitive measures of identity. Talbott leaves open many possibilities of using our devices, but re-valuating their worth and our relationship to them. To close with another excerpt from Wendell Berry that is relevant:
Teach me work that honors Thy work,
the true economies of goods and words,
to make my arts compatible
with the songs of the local birds. (Sabbaths, 2002, Given)
Many of Talbott’s stories, including those of chickadees and other birds in his yard, suggests this intimate, qualitative, and human learning and relation that is desperately needed in our technological society.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
"This book will inspire, motivate and challenge anyone who cares a whit about the written word, the world of ideas, the shape of our communities and the life of the church."
-Karen Swallow Prior
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