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.
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.
The Man of Many Devices
We come back, then, to Odysseus, the trickster par excellence, introduced in the first line of the Odyssey as “craftyshifty”—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! Stanley Lombardo ”
These traits, as any psychologist will point out, 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 reliving 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 and unified 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.
“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 preoccupation with the sweetly sung promises of salvation through digital information, 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. 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.
Reckoning with the Scoundrel
Before considering our own predicament in this historical light, I would like to make one matter fully explicit. To admire Odysseus for his self-awakening 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.
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.
Triumph 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.
All this can be summarized by saying, “Technology is our hope if we can accept it as our enemy, but as our friend, it will destroy us.” Of course its friendly approach 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 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 contrivances.
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.
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 merely inert and automatic 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.
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 through a radical displacement of the devising self by its own devices. This is 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 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.
The image of the semicomatose, 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 Odysseus in the dark cave of the one-eyed Cyclops. We are being asked to become Nobodies again—not as a ruse devised by our awakening selves, but as a denial of ourselves. Nevertheless, the invitation toward self-dissolution is always at the same time an opportunity to seize ourselves at a higher level than ever before, just as Odysseus did in the cave. Everything depends upon our response. Odysseus managed to rouse himself. Our own choice is not yet clear.
[*] Quotations are from the A. T. Murray translation (Harvard Loeb edition, 1919), unless otherwise indicated. I have changed “Noman” to “Nobody” in the text that follows.