The Deceiving Virtues of Technology


Steve Talbott



The following is the text of an invited address steve Talbott gave at the Cognitive Technology 2001 conference at the University of Warwick in England, held August 6 - 9.


This morning I would like to take a long view of technology.  A very long

view.  It begins with Odysseus and his beleaguered companions penned up in

the cave of Polyphemus, the great, one-eyed, Cyclopean giant, offspring of

Poseidon.  Polyphemus had already twice brained a couple of the men by

smashing their heads against the earth, then devouring them whole for a

day's meal.


Odysseus, of course, was desperate and, as he later told the story, "I was

left there, devising evil in the deep of my heart, if in any way I might

take vengeance on him, and Athena grant me glory".  So he hit upon a plan.

Finding a huge beam in the cave, he and his companions sharpened it,

hardened the point in the fire, and hid it beneath one of the dung heaps

littering the place.  When Polyphemus returned from pasturing his flocks,

and after he had dined on a third pair of the companions, Odysseus offered

him a wondrously potent wine the Greeks had brought with them.  The

Cyclops drank without reserve, draining three bowls and then falling into

a drunken stupor.  But before passing out, he asked Odysseus for his name,

and the warrior answered, "Nobody is my name, Nobody do they call me".


As the giant then lay senseless, dribbling wine and bits of human flesh

from his gullet, Odysseus and his comrades heated the end of the beam in

the coals of the fire and then, throwing all their weight onto it, thrust

it into the eye of Polyphemus.  Roaring mightily, the blinded Cyclops

extracted the beam from his bloodied eye, groped to remove the huge stone

blocking the mouth of the cave, and bellowed his outrage to the other

Cyclopes living nearby.  But when they came and asked who was causing his

distress, his answer that "Nobody" was the culprit left them perplexed.

"If nobody is tormenting you, then you must be ill.  Pray to Poseidon for

deliverance".  And so they left him to his troubles.


At this, said Odysseus, "my heart laughed within me that my name and

cunning device had so beguiled" the Cyclops.  Danger remained, however.

Polyphemus stationed himself at the cave mouth to make sure no man

escaped.  So again Odysseus devised a plan.  He used willow branches to

tie his men beneath the bellies of the giant's huge sheep.  Polyphemus,

feeling only the backs of the sheep as they filed out of the cave to

pasture, failed to note the deception.


The escape, it appeared, was made good.  But the Greek captain's bravado

would yet endanger the lives of all his comrades.  As they silently fled

to their ship and plied their oars to distance themselves from the

frightful abode of the Cyclops, Odysseus was loathe to remain an anonymous

"Nobody".  In his pride, he could not resist the temptation to call ashore

to Polyphemus, taunting him and naming himself the author of the

successful strategem:  "O Cyclops", he shouted, "Odysseus, the sacker of

cities, blinded thine eye".


Infuriated, Polyphemus broke off a huge piece of a mountain and hurled it

in the direction of the taunt, nearly demolishing the ship.  Then he

prayed to his father, Poseidon, asking that Odysseus should endure many

trials and that all the company, if not Odysseus himself, should perish

before arriving home.  Poseidon honored the prayer; Odysseus alone, after

long wandering and many sufferings, returned to his beloved Ithaca.


Devices of the Mind

Now, jumping ahead to our own day, I'd like you to think for a moment of

the various words we use to designate technological products.  You will

notice that a number of these words have a curious double aspect:  they,

or their cognate forms, can refer either to external objects we make, or

to certain inner activities of the maker.  A "device", for example, can be

an objective, invented thing, but it can also be some sort of scheming

or contriving of the mind, as when a defendant uses every device he can

think of to escape the charges against him.  The word "contrivance" shows

the same two-sidedness, embracing both mechanical appliances and the

carefully devised plans and schemes we concoct in thought.  As for

"mechanisms" and "machines", we produce them as visible objects out there

in the world even as we conceal our own machinations within ourselves.

Likewise, an "artifice" is a manufactured device, or else it is trickery,

ingenuity, or inventiveness.  "Craft" can refer to manual dexterity in

making things or to a ship or aircraft, but a "crafty" person is adept at

deceiving others.


So we find this interesting link between technological products and inner

cleverness.  Hardly surprising when you think about it.  But we don't in

fact think much about it.  If we did, we might wake up to some of the

distortions in our current relations to technology.  To begin with, we

might wonder why the element of guile or deceit figures so strongly in the

various meanings I've just reviewed.


This odd association between technology and deceit occurs not only in our

own language, but even more so in Homer's Greek, where it is much harder

to separate the inner and outer meanings, and the deceit often reads like

an admired virtue.  The Greek techne, from which our own word

"technology" derives, meant "craft, skill, cunning, art, or device" -- all

referring without discrimination to what we would call either an

objective construction or a subjective capacity or maneuver.  Techne was

what enabled the lame craftsman god, Hephaestus, to trap his wife,

Aphrodite, in a promiscuous alliance with warlike Ares.  He accomplished

the feat by draping over his bed a wondrously forged snare whose invisible

bonds were finer than a spider's silken threads.  The unsuspecting couple

blundered straightway into the trap.  As the other gods gathered around

the now artless couple so artfully imprisoned, a gale of unquenchable

laughter celebrated the guile of Hephaestus.  "Lame though he is is", they

declared, "he has caught Ares by craft (techne)".  Here techne refers

indistinguishably to the blacksmith's sly trickery and his skillful

materialization of the trick at his forge.


Likewise, the Greek mechane, the source of our "machine", "mechanism",

and "machination", designates with equal ease a machine or engine of war,

on the one hand, or a contrivance, trick, or cunning wile, on the other.

The celebrated ruse of the Trojan Horse was said to be a mechane, and it

was admired at least as much for the devious and unexpected turn of mind

behind its invention as for the considerable achievement of its physical



The Man of Many Devices

We come back, then, to Odysseus, the trickster par excellence, introduced

in the first line of the Odyssey as "crafty-shifty" -- a man of many

turnings, or devices.  One of his standard epithets is polumechanos --

"much-contriving, full of devices, ever-ready".  It was he, in fact, who

conceived the Trojan Horse, one of the earliest and most successfully

deceitful engines of war.  Listen to how Athena compliments Odysseus:


   Only a master thief, a real con artist,

   Could match your tricks -- even a god

   Might come up short.  You wily bastard,

   You cunning, elusive, habitual liar!


   (transl. Stanley Lombardo)


These traits, any psychologist will tell you, are closely associated with

the birth of the self-conscious individual.  The ability to harbor secrets

-- the discovery and preservation of a private place within oneself where

one can concoct schemes, deceive others, contrive plans, invent devices --

is an inescapable part of every child's growing up.  The child is at first

transparent to those around him, with no distinct boundaries.  If he is to

stand apart from the world as an individual, he must enter a place of his

own, a private place from which he can learn to manipulate the world

through his own devisings.


Granted, such manipulative powers may be exercised for ill as well as

good, and the Greeks sometimes appear to us remarkably casual about the

distinction.  But, in any case, the gaining of such multivalent power is

inseparable from growing up; to give people greater capacity for good is

also to give them greater capacity for evil.  In what follows, it is the

conscious capacity that I will speak of as having been necessary for our

development, not its employment in a negative or destructive manner.


What I want to suggest is that, to begin with, technology was a prime

instrument for the historical birth of the individual self.  And the

Odyssey is almost a kind of technical manual for this birth -- for the

coming home, the coming to himself, of the individual.  When you realize

this, you begin to appreciate how the "My name is Nobody" story, which

seems so childish and implausible to us, might have entranced Homer's

audiences through one telling after another.  You can imagine them

wondering at Odysseus' presence of mind, his self-possession, his ability

to wrest for himself a private, inner vantage point, which he could then

shift at will in order to conceal his intentions from others -- something

no one lacking a well-developed ego, or self, can pull off.  And they

doubtless wondered also at his self-control, as when he refused his

immediate warrior's impulse to respond in kind to the Cyclops' aggressions

-- an impulse that would have proven disastrous.  Instead he pulled back,

stood apart within himself, and devised a trick.  In re-living Odysseus'

machinations, the hearers were invited into that place within themselves

where they, too, might discover the possibilities of invention and craft.

It requires a separate, individual self to calculate a deceit.


The classicist, George Dimock, has remarked that Homer makes us feel

Odysseus' yearning for home as "a yearning for definition".  The episode

with Polyphemus is symbolic of the entire journey.  In the dark, womb-like

cave, Odysseus is as yet Nobody.  Homer intimates childbirth by speaking

of Polyphemus "travailing with pains" as his captive is about to escape

the cave.  Only upon being delivered into freedom, as we have seen, can

Odysseus declare who he is, proclaiming his true name (Dimock 1990, pp.

15, 111).  Further, every birth of the new entails a loss -- a destruction

of the old -- and the thrusting of the sharpened beam into the great

Cyclopean eye suggests the power of the focused, penetrating, individual

intellect in overcoming an older, perhaps more innocent vision of the

world (Holdrege 2001).


To grow up is to explore a wider world, and Dimock points out that, first

and last, Odysseus "got into trouble with Polyphemus because he showed

nautical enterprise and the spirit of discovery" -- not because of

recklessness or impiety.  "In Homer's world, not to sail the sea is

finally unthinkable".  Perhaps we could say, at great risk of shallowness:

in those days, to set sail was to embark upon the information highway.

There were risks, but they were risks essential to human development.


Homer certainly does not downplay the risks.  Having been warned of the

fatally entrancing song of the Sirens, Odysseus plugged his sailors' ears

with wax, but not his own.  Instead, he had the others lash him to the

ship's mast, sternly instructing them not to loose him no matter how

violent his begging.  And so he heard those ravishing voices calling him

to destruction.  His desire was inflamed, and he pleaded for release, but

his men only bound him tighter.


You may wonder what the Sirens offered so irresistibly.  It was to

celebrate in song the great sufferings and achievements of Odysseus and

his followers, and to bestow upon them what we might be tempted to call

the "gift of global information".  In the Sirens' own words:


   Never yet has any man rowed past this isle in his black ship

   until he has heard the sweet voice from our lips.

   Nay, he has joy of it and goes his way a wiser man.

   For we know all the toils that in wide Troy

   the Argives and Trojans endured through the will of the gods,

   and we know all things that come to pass upon the fruitful earth.


   (xii.186-91; transl. A. T. Murray)


"We know all things".  The rotting bones of those who had heeded this

overpowering invitation to universal knowledge lay in heaps upon the

shores of the isle of the Sirens.  Only the well-calculated balance of

Odysseus' techne -- only the developing self-awareness with which he

countered the excessive and deceitful offer -- enabled him to survive the

temptation.  As Dimock observes about Odysseus lashed to the mast:


   Could a more powerful example of the resisted impulse be imagined? ...

   Odysseus has chosen to feel the temptation and be thwarted rather than

   not to feel it at all.


Here we see the perfect balance between the open-hearted embrace of life

with all its challenges, and artful resistance to the ambitions of hubris.

The temptation of knowledge leads only to those rotting bones unless it is

countered by the kind of self-possession that enables us to resist our own

impulses.  The external gifts of techne come, in the end, only through

the strengthening of the techne of our own consciousness.  When you look

today at the mesmerized gaze of web surfers as they hypnotically respond

to the sweetly sung promises of online information and glory, you realize

that our own culture honors the Sirens far more than it does the healthy

respect for risk, the self-discipline, and the inner cunning of Odysseus,

man of many devices.


Balance and Separation

If my first point, then, was that technology can serve as midwife to the

birth of the individual, the second is that this midwifery requires a

well-calculated balance between the challenges we take on and our self-

possession, our wide-awake, conscious resourcefulness.  This sensible

calculation is part of what it means to be grown up, notwithstanding the

widespread, if impossibly foolish, notion today that whatever can be

attempted ought to be attempted.


There's a third point here.  The Cyclopes, unlike Odysseus, lived in a

kind of state of nature, and they spurned all advanced technologies.

Never faring upon the open sea, they refused voyages of discovery.

Odysseus describes them this way:


   To the land of the Cyclopes, violent, innocent of laws,

   we came; leaving it all to the gods

   they put hand to no planting or plowing;

   their food grows unsown and uncultivated,

   wheat, barley, vines which produce

   grapes for their wine; Zeus' rain makes it grow for them.


   For the Cyclopes have no red-cheeked ships,

   no craftsmen among them, who could build

   ships with their rowing benches, all that is needful

   to reach the towns of the rest of the world as is common --

   that men cross the sea in their ships to meet one another;

   craftsmen would have built them handsome buildings as well.


   (ix.106-30; transl. George Dimock)


If "nature is good to the Cyclopes", observes Dimock, it is "not because

they are virtuous. Rather, the kindness of nature has deprived them of the

stimulus to develop human institutions".  To venture out -- to separate

themselves from the womb of nature -- would have brought risk and pain,

but it could also have brought self-development.  Technology, I would add,

is an instrument, a kind of lever, for this necessary detachment of the

individual self from a nurturing surround that otherwise can become

stifling, as when an infant remains too long in the womb.


My third point, then, is this:  technology assists the birth of the

individual in part by separating him from the natural world.  To begin

with, this separation, this loss of paradise, reconstitutes the world as

an alien, threatening place, continually encroaching upon the safe

habitations fortified by human techne.



But here things begin to get interesting, for if you look at technology

and society today only through the lens of my argument so far, you will be

badly misled.  After all, nearly three millennia -- most of recorded

history -- lies between Homer's day and our own.  Things have changed.

What we see, in fact, almost looks like a reversal.


There is, to begin with, the "inversion" of nature and culture that

philosopher Albert Borgmann talks about.  Early technological man carved

out his civilized enclosures as hard-won, vulnerable enclaves, protected

places within an enveloping wilderness full of ravening beasts and natural

catastrophes.  We, by contrast, live within a thoroughly technologized and

domesticated landscape where it is the remaining enclaves of wildness that

appear painfully delicate and vulnerable (Borgmann 1984, pp. 190 ff.).

Today, if we would set bounds to the wild and lawless, it is the ravening

beast of technology we must restrain.  If nature still threatens us, the

threat is that it will finally and disastrously succumb to our



A second reversal is closely related to this.  You will recall that the

Odyssey opens with its shipwrecked hero on the isle of Ogygia, where the

beautiful goddess, Kalypso, has kept him as her consort for seven years

while urging him to marry her.  She would have made him a god and given

him a good life, free of care.  The name "Kalypso", of course, means "the

Concealer", and her offer of an endless paradise would in effect have kept

Odysseus unborn and nameless, concealed within an immortal cocoon.  But he

chose instead to pursue the painful path to his own home so as to realize

his mortal destiny as a man.


The contrivings and devisings of techne, as we have seen, served

Odysseus well in his striving toward self-realization and escape from

anonymity.  But now note the reversal:  as Neil Postman has famously

elaborated in Amusing Ourselves to Death and other works, today it is

technology that cocoons us and promises us endless entertainment,

distraction, and freedom from cares.  I'm sure I don't need to elaborate

this point for you.  Just watch the advertisements on television for half

an hour.


I remarked earlier that when Odysseus set sail on his perilous journey

over the high seas, he was, in a sense, embarking upon the information

highway of his day.  But I added that the comparison might be a shallow

one.  Why shallow?


Well, look at the differences.  Odysseus' journey was a continual risking

of life and happiness.  It was a journey of horrific loss as well as gain,

so that preventing the ultimate loss required every ounce of strength,

every bit of cunning he could muster, every crafty art he could set

against the temptation to abandon his mission and therefore also himself.

He wrestled not only with the foolishness of his companions and the armed

might of his opponents, but also with the enticements and hostilities of

the gods and the despair of the shades in Hades.  Faced with the Sirens'

promise of boundless knowledge, he could not simply lean back and choose

among the knowledge-management systems offered by high-techne solution

providers.  Any lapse of will or attention on his part, any succumbing to

temptation, would have been fatal.


When, by contrast, I venture onto the information highway today, I put

almost nothing of myself on the line.  I know, we hear much talk about

transformation -- about the coming Great Singularity, the Omega Point, the

emergence of a new global consciousness.  But, to judge from this talk, we

need only wire things up and the transformation will occur --

automatically.  Complexity theorist Ralph Abraham says that "when you

increase the connectivity, new intelligence emerges".  Our hope, he adds,

is for "a global increase in the collective intelligence of the human

species .... a quantum leap in consciousness".  And computer designer

Danny Hillis tells us that "now evolution takes place in microseconds ....

We're taking off .... There's something coming after us, and I imagine it

is something wonderful".


Call this, if you will, "Evolution for Dummies" or "Plug-and-Play

Evolution" -- just add connections and -- presto! -- a quantum leap in

consciousness.  What easy excitements we revel in!  But our excitement is

not for the potentials of our own growth; what we anticipate, rather, is

our sudden rapture by the god of technology.  No blood and sweat for us,

no inner work, no nearly hopeless perils of the hero's quest.  If, through

our own folly, we face the end of the natural world, no problem:  we will

be spared the Tribulation because technology, in a singular saltation,

will translate us into altogether new and better conditions of life.


Victory of the Contrivance


Personally, I see a rather different promise in all the machinery of the

digital age.  The techne we invest in outward machinery always gains its

character and meaning from the techne of our inner devisings.  What we

objectify in the hard stuff of the world must, after all, first be

conceived.  Look at the technologies heralded by people like Abraham and

Hillis, and you will notice that the conceiving has a distinctive and

limited character.  We have invested only certain automatic, mechanical,

and computational aspects of our intelligence in the equipment of the

digital age, and it is these aspects of ourselves that are in turn

reinforced by the external apparatus.  In other words, you see here what

engineers will insist on calling a "positive feedback loop", a loop almost

guaranteeing one-sidedness in our intelligent functioning.  This one-

sidedness is nicely pictured in the lameness of Hephaestus, the craftsman



You can see, then, why it is not really such a great paradox to say, as I

have often told audiences, "technology is our hope if we can accept it as

our enemy, but as our friend, it will destroy us".  Of course technology

threatens us, and of course it calls for a certain resistance on our

part, since it expresses our dominant tendencies, our prevailing lameness

or one-sidedness.  The only way we can become entire, whole, and healthy

is to struggle against whatever reinforces our existing imbalance.  Our

primary task is to discover the potentials within ourselves that are not

merely mechanical, not merely automatic, not reducible to computation.

And the machine is a gift to us precisely because the peril in its siding

with our one-sidedness forces us to strengthen the opposite side -- at

least it does if we recognize the peril and accept its challenge.


Unfortunately, there does not seem to be much recognition yet.  In fact,

in many quarters there is nothing but an exhilarated embrace of one-

sidedness.  Where, for the Greeks, techne always had two complementary

but never completely separable aspects -- the increasingly self-aware

inner originating and the outer result -- our technology has become so

much gadgetry and wiring and abstract protocols and transistors in one

physical state or another.  We have forgotten the crafty inner origin and

essence of the techne that once served our ancestors so well.


And so we reconceive the interior space within which Odysseus hatched his

plots and secured his name, telling ourselves that it is merely filled

with mindless brain mechanisms, more gadgets, not coincidentally, exactly

like the external ones we are so adept at making.  In other words, the

techne that devises is being co-opted by its own devices.  Odysseus was

on his way to being a true contriver; we seem content to be mere



Compare Homer's man of many devices with Silicon Valley's man of many

gadgets, and you will immediately recognize a reversal of emphasis within

techne.  Where the individual's consciousness of self once became more

vivid through the experience of his own capacity to objectify his inner

contrivings in the outer world, today the objects as such have engulfed

us, threatening the originating self with oblivion.


Rousing Ourselves

All this suggests to me that if we are to escape the smothering

technological cocoon, our techne today must, in a sense, be directed

against itself.  Our trickery must be aimed at overcoming the constraints

imposed by our previous tricks.  What we must outwit is our own glib,

technical wit.


Or, putting it a little differently:  we are engaged in a continual

conversation between what you might call the frozen techne already

embodied in the vast array of our external devices, and the conscious,

living techne we can summon from within ourselves in the current moment.

It is always disastrous for the future of the self when we abdicate the

living half of this conversation, as when we yield ourselves uncritically

to what we consider the purely objective promise of technology.


In Odysseus' day, techne was a conscious resourcefulness that had

scarcely begun to project itself into the material apparatus of life.

What apparatus existed was an enticement for further creative expression

of the nascent human self.  While the technology of the Greeks may seem

hopelessly primitive to us, it is worth remembering that the balanced

awakening heralded by Homer culminated in a flowering of thought and art

that many believe has never been surpassed for profundity or beauty

anywhere on earth.


Today, that balance seems a thing of the past.  The powers of our minds

crystallize almost immediately, and before we are aware of them, into

gadgetry, without any mediating, self-possessed reflection, so that we

live within a kind of crystal palace that is sometimes hard to distinguish

from a prison.  The question is no longer whether we can use the

enticement of clever devices as a means to summon the energies of dawning

selfhood; rather, it is whether we can preserve what live energies we once

had, in the face of the deadening effect of the now inert cleverness bound

into the ubiquitous external machinery of our existence.


This machinery, this inert cleverness, is the greatest threat to our

future.  We require all our highest powers of contriving to overcome our

contrivances.  In the end, the contriving -- not the contrivance -- is the

only thing that counts.  There is a law of human development traditionally

stated this way:


   Whoever has, to him shall be given, and he shall have an abundance; but

   whoever does not have, even what he has shall be taken away from him.

   (Matt. 13:12)


It is a hard saying because it makes no sense in regard to our external

possessions, where it would be pure injustice.  But when you realize that

it is a natural law of our inner life, the meaning becomes clear: we

either grow and develop, reaping inner riches upon inner riches, or else

we lose whatever we started with.  For the self is a conscious power of

originating; there are no external gains for the self, and there is no

remaining in one place.  We cannot be static selves; the only life

available to us consists of self-realizings or self-abdicatings.  The

image of the semi-comatose, automatically responding figure in front of a

screen is the image of the self extinguishing itself -- and in some ways I

suppose it recalls the image of Nobody in the dark cave of the one-eyed

Cyclops.  Odysseus managed to rouse himself.  Our own choice is not yet



Reckoning with the Scoundrel


Before proceeding to a conclusion, I would like to make one matter fully

explicit.  To admire Odysseus for his self-arousal is not to deny that he

was, in many ways and by our lights, a scoundrel.  On their way home after

the fall of Troy, he and his men sacked the city of Ismarus simply because

it was there.  Likewise, as Helen Luke reminds us, they came to the land

of the Cyclopes seeking plunder, so it is hard to blame Polyphemus for

responding in the same spirit.  The Cyclopes themselves were a pastoral

folk who kept peaceably to themselves, and the crude Polyphemus was able

to speak quite tenderly to his sheep (Luke 1987, pp. 13-15; but compare

Dimock 1990, pp. 110-15).


Nothing requires us to repress our own judgments about Odysseus' behavior.

But it is always problematic when such judgments are not tempered by a

sense for historical and individual development.  None of us would like to

be judged solely by what we have been, as opposed to what we are becoming.

And all human becoming is marked by certain tragic necessities, partly

reflecting the progress of the race to date.


This is clear enough when we look at the developing child.  "Blessed are

the little children" -- profoundly true, for they have a wonderful

openness to everything that is noble, beautiful, healing.  But children

have also been characterized as beastly little devils, casually inflicting

horrible pain upon each other.  This, too, has its truth.  The point is

that neither judgment makes a lot of sense when taken in the way we would

assess the well-developed character of a fully self-conscious adult. The

child is only on the way to becoming an adult self, and much of what we

see in his early years is less the expression of the individual to come

than it is the raw material -- both noble and diabolical -- from which the

individual must eventually shape himself.


History Matters

In light of all I have said, perhaps you will not be surprised when I make

a fourth and final point, concerning history.  Today the computer gives us

the reigning image of the human mind, and it seems to me highly curious

that those researchers aiming to formalize this image and make it more

rigorous almost completely ignore the history of what they are trying to

understand.  One hundred and fifty years after Darwin, when we have

learned to explore almost everything from bacteria to galaxies in a

developmental context, how can we blithely set about explaining the human

mind -- and even trying to implement it in software -- without having made

the slightest effort to see what it is in historical terms?  Can we expect

to be any more successful than those biologists who sought to understand

what a species was without any sense for biological evolution?  (Barfield,



Look at it this way.  When we try to create an artificial mind, are we

trying to program an Odysseus or a Danny Hillis?  It makes a difference!

-- and, if I may say so, it is vastly easier to capture aspects of Hillis'

intelligence in a computer than it would be to capture much of Odysseus'

intelligence.  We have, after all, spent the last several hundred years

learning to think computationally, to formulate and obey rules, to

crystallize our thoughts into evident structures of logic.  It was on this

path that we felt compelled to develop computers in the first place, and

it is hardly surprising that these computers turn out to be well designed

for representing the kind of Hillisian thinking embodied in their design.

But to glory in this fact as if it were the solution of age-old puzzles

about the mind -- well, as many have recognized in recent years, this is a

bit premature.


History can help us to counter our preoccupation with external devices.

When Odysseus' heart laughed within him at the success of his cunning

device in beguiling the Cyclops, he was rejoicing first of all in the

developing awareness of his inner capacities as a centered and conscious

self.  He reveled in his devices because they arose from an intensifying

experience of his own powers, not because he saw in them a wholly

independent promise.


Our crisis today is a crisis of conviction about the primacy of our

conscious powers of devising.  What Odysseus was gaining, we are at risk

of giving up.  The evidence of our self-doubt is on every hand:


** Media gurus such as Ray Kurzweil and Hans Moravec are telling us flat

   out that our devices will soon render us obsolete by taking over all

   devising for us.


** The discipline of cognitive science, compulsively outward-oriented as

   it is toward devices rather than toward the self-aware potentials of

   the deviser, has all but declared the problem of consciousness to be

   intractable.  It seems easier to some simply to deny consciousness as a

   significant fact -- or, rather, as the stage upon which alone

   significant facts can manifest themselves -- than to accept that we are

   more than devices.


** Futurologists lead us in an orgy of prognostication about what sort of

   life our gadgets will bring us, instead of facilitating a societal

   conversation about what sort of future we might want to choose.  The

   human being as devising agent vanishes from the discussion.


** The corporations driving our future run more and more like machines

   merely calculating the bottom line.  Especially in high-tech, the next-

   generation product is cranked out based purely on technical and market

   feasibility.  Employees cannot comfortably ask the one question most

   urgently dictated by responsible selfhood:  Toward what end are we

   making this product?


** International capital flows are becoming mere data flows, so far as our

   participation in them is concerned.  The automatisms governing these

   flows -- which are the flip side of our abdication of selfhood and

   responsibility -- leave us little room to concern ourselves with the

   concrete effects of our capital upon the world's communities.


In sum, what the global picture reveals is a radical displacement of the

devising self by its own devices -- not because of any necessity, but

because the devising self has hesitated, become unsure of itself.  And at

this moment of crisis, the Cyclopes in their might and the Sirens with

their enticements confront us from every one-eyed screen, every newspaper,

magazine, and billboard, every mechanism for social transaction,

persuading us that we are powerless to affect the technological future and

inviting us to dull the pain of consciousness and responsibility by

partaking of the delights and wonders that await us.


We are, in other words, being asked to become Nobodies again.  But the

invitation toward self-dissolution is at the same time an opportunity to

seize ourselves at a higher level than ever before.  Everything depends

upon our response.  In contemplating our choices, it would not be a bad

idea to look back to the Greeks and to Odysseus, man of many devices, for

some wily insight into our current predicament.


Thank you.




Barfield, Owen (1981).  "The Nature of Meaning".  Seven, vol. 2, pp.



Borgmann, Albert (1984).  Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life: A Philosophical Inquiry.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


Dimock, George E. (1990).  The Unity of the Odyssey.  Amherst MA:

University of Massachusetts Press.


Holdrege, Craig (2001).  Personal communication.


Luke, Helen M. (1987).  Old Age: Journey into Simplicity.  New York:

Parabola Books.


Steve Talbott is the editor of NetFuture and author of The Future Does

Not Compute: Transcending the Machines in Our Midst.



Copyright 2001 by The Nature Institute.