1.5. Reversals

During the past several hundred years of scientific and technological revolution, we have indeed been shaping ourselves and "growing up." This is why, 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 aggressions.

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" 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 (1985) and other works, today it is technology that cocoons us and promises us endless entertainment, distraction, and freedom from cares. There is scarcely a need to elaborate this point. 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.

Devices of the Soul. Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines
ISBN: 0596526806
EAN: 2147483647
Year: 2007
Pages: 122
Authors: Steve Talbott

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