The ‘external soul’ in modern Dublin

The ‘external soul’ in modern Dublin
Mainly About Books by the books editor


Travelling round the city as I do, largely by bus and tram, and graced with the benefit of not carrying any kind of phone or tablet, I have the leisure to observe other people’s interaction with their media devices. I find it very suggestive, and believe that it ought to be of great interest to modern anthropologists.

Let me explain.

The ‘external soul’, or life token, was much discussed in the last decades of the 19th Century as a motif in many folk tales and legends. The life of a hero would be bound up with some object external to them, perhaps some token, a tree or a stone. If the life token was destroyed his life was at an end. To overcome an enemy the hero would have to search for and destroy his life token.

That, very roughly, was the notion, to which some long and elaborate books were devoted such as Sidney Hartland’s The Legend of Perseus (1894).

But what has this to do with the person absorbed in their phone sitting opposite me in the Luas?

It struck me that for many people the memory on their phone is their memory: what they have been doing, photographs of where they have been and those they love and may long to see again, their emerging plans for the future, all their life in digital form.

One can see how absorbed they are they are watching an epic in a way, the epic of their life, which for them is just absorbing as Sir Galahad’s quest for the Holy Grail.

But what if the phone is lost, stolen or destroyed? Like the people in the fairy tales and myths they are lost. Their life is gone. All that they retain is a shattered psyche which attempts to reconstruct their life and the record of its past, though its very nature may have vanished.


Perhaps this sounds an exaggeration, but to the observant anthropologist who, according the standards of his profession, merely watches a society and notes his observations, without making any moral judgement, their life of the modern city is of endless fascination.

But is this modern way the way people really want to live their lives? When we find children texting each other across the school playground rather than actually talking to each other we know that some very strange is happening, perhaps something very damaging.

The claim of modern communications since the middle of the last century is that it will bring us closer together.

But, as I write this, a new survey is reported that claims that social media has replaced religion seemingly in the lives of most people. One can imagine that many people might think that a good thing. Yet social media brings immediate harm through cyber bullying and the propagation of lies far worse than any priesthood might manage.

People tend today to think themselves in charge of technology. They are in command of their lives, external souls or not. Yet this may not be the case. The philosopher Samuel Butler, a seemingly godless person yet who claimed to belong to the advanced wing of the Anglican church, in an 1863 essay ‘Darwin among the Machines’ suggested that we are  not in command. It is actually the machines that are using us to promote their own evolution. A chilling idea in the 19th Century, it is positively frightening today.

Whatever about our souls and their fate, such an idea suggests that our machines are in fact making us less than human, that very slowly they are destroying us.

But enough of these fruitless musings. I have reached my stop on the Luas or the bus, and must leave the host of self-absorbed passengers. I have come home…home to my own little, self-absorbed world. But that at least is where my loved ones, my ‘little platoon’ are in all their human reality, and not as mere digital spooks of the social media jungle.

But next time you are on a tram or bus, close your own phone and look at the people, perhaps even speak to the person beside you. Human contact can be quite interesting.

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