Chapter 1. The Deceiving Virtues of Technology
In this chapter I wish 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 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 stratagem: "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.
1.1. 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 and to a ship or aircraft, but a "crafty" person is adept at deceiving others.
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," 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.