Devices of the Soul: Battling for Our Selves in an Age of Machines

by Steve Talbott

O’Reilly, 281 pages, $22

.99

As Francis Crick (he of Watson and Crick) put it, “You’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” According to Rodney Brooks, a robotics researcher at MIT, “We, all of us, overanthropomorphize humans, who are after all mere machines.” “Man has to understand that he is a mere accident,” said Jacques Monod, the Nobel-laureate biologist.

These sentiments are far from unusual among scientists, and, as Steve Talbott points out in Devices of the Soul , “such assaultive reductionist assertions” have crept into ­ordinary life. In fact, Talbott’s book is a sharp criticism of, and a needed ­corrective to, this way of thought.

Much of Devices of the Soul explores the impact on human beings”sometimes unintended and often overlooked”of modern digital technology. Talbott mocks the folly and failures of ­artificial-intelligence researchers; berates the practice of putting computers in the classroom; and heaps scorn on the aspirations of those who would usher in an age of “ubiquitous computing””ceding creativity, authority, and responsibility to automations, and drawing the daily pattern of our lives into an “ever more ­closely woven web of programmed logic.”

In many ways, the reductionist agenda is felt most acutely in the world of the disabled. The heart of Talbott’s book is a triptych of essays exploring how advances in technology will affect their lives”and, more important, how what we learn from the disabled ought to affect our approach to technological advancement. Through the lens of three “extraordinary lives,” Talbott looks at the hopes and hindrances brought to this community by various approaches to coping with limitations, and he comes out swinging hard for those individuals who do not meet our society’s idea of ­wholeness.

The first of these essays discusses And There Was Light , the luminous autobiography of Jacques Lus­seyran, a teenage leader in the French Resistance. In 1941, Lusseyran recruited dozens, and eventually hundreds, to the Resistance. His group provided false papers, helped repatriate downed British airmen, and published and distributed the underground newsletter Défense de la France . In 1943, Lusseyran was caught and sent to Buchenwald. There he led a different sort of resistance movement”one against despair. Attending carefully to the official German newscasts, he listened between the lines to deduce the Allies’ progress and then walked from block to block in the concentration camp, delivering his version of the news. “It was not facts, names, or figures that all these men wanted. It was certainties, the kind of realities that went straight to the heart. Only a man standing before them could give them that. They needed his calm and his voice, and it was I who had become the voice.”

What is most astonishing about his story is that, since the age of seven, Lusseyran had been completely blind. Through it all, he was guided by an inner light, one that had come to him almost as soon as he lost his vision, bringing with it another kind of sight”“a radiance emanating from a place I knew nothing about.” By this light, Lusseyran mysteriously learned, in his own way, to “see.” He identified his loved ones by their “colors,” his surroundings by their “pressure,” all coming to life for him on an “inner canvas.” “Still, the ­colors were only a game, while light was my whole reason for being. I let it rise in me like water in a well, and I rejoiced.”

Talbott sees in Lusseyran’s tale an important lesson about how we ought to think about physical handicaps. “Today we are strongly inclined to technologize every disability,” he writes, “conceiving it as wholly defined by a specific malfunction of a piece of machinery, and immediately setting about the task of ‘fixing’ the malfunction, as if that were the whole story.” The biological “malfunction,” Talbott writes, may indeed be the least important part of the story. “By restricting our notion of ‘seeing’ to the narrowest of mechanisms”the eyeball understood as a camera”we close ourselves off to many of life’s richest possibilities.” True light, wrote Lusseyran, “does not come to us from without. Light is in us, even if we have no eyes.”

Talbott next turns to Expecting Adam , Martha Beck’s autobiographical account of mercy, magic, angels (visible and otherwise), and how a couple of bright young grad students barreling down the fast track at ­Harvard were derailed by the arrival of a son with Down syndrome. Destiny, Talbott writes, is a notion that has receded to the edges of common understanding. The idea of purpose is not readily accessible to the disciplined and formulaic science we increasingly turn to for reliable explanations of the world.

“In the face of this science,” he writes, “it is difficult to hold onto any conviction that we bring a resolve or task or destiny with us to earth and that we converse with this destiny through all the ­circumstances of our lives.”

As Beck struggles with her unexpected pregnancy, she confronts a series of uncanny messages, seemingly fated encounters, and a whopping dose of weird experiences that instill in her inklings of faith; but the deeper sense of destiny emerges in the way the Becks’ uninvited, ­drastically “inconvenient” child brings joy and healing to this couple who had a vague idea that they were miserable but did not realize they were broken.

When Beck first finds out that her baby has Down syndrome, however, she is pressured on all sides”by professors, colleagues, doctors, and at times even her husband”to have an abortion. Having no idea why, and though pro-choice in principle, she cannot bring herself to do it: “‘I don’t know,’ I mumbled [to an aggressive obstetrician]. ‘I guess I just . . . I just can’t reject him.’ It was a miserably inadequate statement. My real feeling, the one I couldn’t articulate yet, was that my entire life hinged on knowing that there were people who would continue to love me unconditionally, even if I were damaged, even if I were sick. Such love was the only thing that had sustained me during the turmoil of the past months. If I eliminated my child because of his disability, if I put him out of my life, I would be violating the only thing that was keeping me alive. I’d be ­ripping the rug out from under my own feet.”

Her hard-won wisdom on this point is conspicuously absent from prenatal care today, as shown by the staggering abortion rate of fetuses diagnosed with disabilities. (For those with Down syndrome, the rate is upward of 90 percent.) Unsatisfied with this statistic, the American ­College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has recently issued several recommendations strongly encouraging broader screening for Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, and more. One mother of a child with Down syndrome, speaking to the New York Times of the dwindling Down syndrome community, described the effect as “faces disappearing.” It is far from clear how we will begin to turn back this ghastly trend.

Talbott does not proffer any ambitious social strategies but does make the following fine suggestion: “If you want a guideline for dealing with the defects of others, your best bet is to consider how you respond to the defects of those you love most deeply. This won’t immediately answer all the hard questions. But it’s a good place to begin asking them. As Martha Beck writes, ‘Whoever said that love is blind was dead wrong. Love is the only thing on earth that lets us see each other with the remotest accuracy.’”

In the same spirit, Talbott’s third essay on disability describes his visits to a Camphill village, a community for adults with mental handicaps. Camphill villages are “remarkable sites of healing and inspiration exactly where the surrounding society would be least inclined to look for anything of much importance,” he writes. The Camphill movement is motivated by “a strong sense that people with special needs bring special gifts to the planet”perhaps exactly the needful gifts in our time. These folks can teach us the virtues our culture has largely disregarded.”

That the people whom our culture disregards would be the ones to stand guard over the virtues we are losing sight of is a humbling demonstration of the grace implicit in the strains of destiny and purpose Talbott points to, recognizable to a Christian as Providence. Although he does not hang his hat on a particular religious credo, Talbott’s account of these “extraordinary lives” invites us to join him in awe before the mystery of having souls ”a mystery nowhere more evident than in the contrast between a physically incapacitated body and the unmistakable person inside. A science that sees man as “nothing but a pack of neurons” stands blind before this wonder. If we allow this blindness to infect us, the greatest casualties will be collected from the people who are probably our best hope for a truly human future. It is not only to our shame but among our gravest perils that we stand by while these faces disappear.

Caitrin Nicol is assistant editor of the New Atlantis.