Left To Our Own Devices

I have been reflecting on the multiple levels of meaning that lie in the word ‘device’ and that are unconsciously invoked every time we speak of our devices, of our phones and tablets and computers, though we usually intend only the dominant meaning of a contrivance or an invention, especially a machine.

The first of these unconscious meanings, or the first constellation of meanings to be more accurate, has to with device as technique, where a device is a plan or a scheme or a means to an end, most often with the implication that the end is not entirely savory. This sense of the word also relates to a more archaic sense where a device is the power, state, or act of devising. In both senses, a device is the means or the power, usually sinister, to bring about a particular end.

The second of constellation of meanings circulate around ideas of signification, where a device is a decorative design (especially in embroidery or manuscript illumination),  a graphic symbol or motto (especially in heraldry), or a literary contrivance (such as parallelism or personification), used to achieve a particular effect.  In each of these senses, a device occupies a symbolic or imagistic role, functioning variously to illustrate, to represent identity, or to deepen and clarify the words of a text.

All this symbolic subtext relates in interesting ways to the devices on which we increasingly rely.  While we keep telling each other that our devices are merely technological, merely inventions and machines, they are also quite obviously the technique or the means through which we arrive at our ends, and if these end are not necessarily malign, our use of the word ‘device’ perhaps implies a certain amount of concern about the kinds of ends that are being achieved through our technologies.  This ambiguously malign character that is invoked when we refer to our devices is all the more interesting as our gadgets come to represent us more and more, come to be the dominant symbols and images through which we produce our identities.  It is as though our very language is suspicious of how our technologies are recreating us, how they are recreating our ways of being and understanding, how they are leaving us to our own devices.

  1. Curtis said:

    Very interesting, Luke. A brief question on the second use of the meaning, what keeps separate or disinguishes a device from an over all theme, how to they work together, esp in literature?

    A second train of thought/question: The first section you mention in meanings, that of power, or a means, seems to denote alot of utilitrarianism, almost mere functionality of a thing; it seems to conjure up thoughts about Jean Baudrillard’s ‘Obsolescence of the Human’; thoughts on the social strata in ‘A Brave New World’, Authoritarianism etc. And also got me thinking about how we refer to our videogaming systems most often as ‘consoles’. Any exposition or clarity you could offer to those implications? I may be wrong but they feel very linked.

  2. Curtis,

    In literature, a device is a technique used to produce an effect (a metaphor, allusion, parallelism, contrast, simile, etcetera). A theme is an idea that forma central or sustained part of the work (mortality, parenthood, growing up, etcetera). They work together in the sense that a writer would use many devices in creating a theme.

    There may be something interesting in the idea of the console. You could do a little research and see what the word’s meanings are.

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