Technology and Human Responsibility

Issue #125                                               November 15, 2001
                 A Publication of The Nature Institute
           Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (

                  On the Web:
     You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.

Can we take responsibility for technology, or must we sleepwalk
in submission to its inevitabilities?  NetFuture is a voice for
responsibility.  It depends on the generosity of those who support
its goals.  To make a contribution, click here.


The Deceiving Virtues of Technology (Stephen L. Talbott)
   From the cave of the Cyclops to Silicon Valley

About this newsletter



                            Stephen L. Talbott

(Following is the text of an invited address I 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 loath 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 construction.

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

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 god.

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

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

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.


I have as yet made no arrangements for this address to appear in a print
venue.  If publication-connected readers have any suggestions, I would
welcome them.


Barfield, Owen (1981).  "The Nature of Meaning".  Seven, vol. 2,
pp. 32-43.

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.

Related articles:

** "Surfing Ancient Homeric Fields", a look at the discussion of
   "secondary orality" in electronic culture.

Goto table of contents


                          ABOUT THIS NEWSLETTER

Copyright 2001 by The Nature Institute.  You may redistribute this
newsletter for noncommercial purposes.  You may also redistribute
individual articles in their entirety, provided the NetFuture url and this
paragraph are attached.

NetFuture is supported by freely given reader contributions, and could not
survive without them.  For details and special offers, see .

Current and past issues of NetFuture are available on the Web:

To subscribe or unsubscribe to NetFuture:

Steve Talbott :: NetFuture #125 :: November 15, 2001

This issue of NetFuture:

Goto table of contents

Goto NetFuture main page