9 Sep 2009

I, for one, welcome our new cyborg overlords.

September 9, 2009 501A 3 Comments

The link between humans and technology is becoming ever-blurred, as technological advancements more closely mimic and record interaction, and humans depend on technology for their own records of self. Our links to and interaction with and through technology have shaped our actions as humans, leading to a new conception of what human means in a technological society.

Synthesizing the body electric

In Vannevar Bush’s 1945 piece “As We May Think,” he describes a new technological age in which people will be “active participants in an ongoing process, bringing something to it through our interaction with it, and not simply receiving something from it by our connection to it.”

That age is here, but — to borrow Locard’s principle from forensic science —  every contact leaves a trace. As humans developed technology to their own ends, how does the supersession of linear mechanism by relational or associative organization in technology also transform us, as humans?

Picture an undergraduate student or a corporate CEO, each with an iPhone or Blackberry: texting, sending email, searching contacts, mapping meeting places, looking up data, evaluating information, satisfying curiosity. It’s technology as explicit extension and record of the self.

The trail enscribed upon these memexes (after Bush) or OLIVERs (after Licklider) is a personal code within a common, digital language: an individual recorded, searchable history.

Cyborg by association

As J.C.R. Licklider states in his 1968 piece “The Computer as Communication Device,” when discussing mechanical, linear mechanisms of indexing: “the human mind does not work that way. It operates by association.”

The associative tendencies of the human mind — jumping from one related idea to another — are reflected in our technological tools. Hypertext links replace footnotes.

Bush accurately predicted the need for this sort of associative indexing: “the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.”

As the tools have evolved to fit our needs, we become reliant on those tools to recognize and aid our thoughts, reorganize and reorder our own intellectual paths and patterns — as well as the more prosaic aspects of daily life. The technology becomes transformative. To quote Donna Haraway:

“Communications sciences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred: mind, body and tool are on very intimate terms.” (A Cyborg Manifesto, 1985.)

Who knows you better than your Google search history?

Rachel in utero

So as an extended self, it’s easy to conceptualize technology in terms of human association: “… [W]e find ourselves to be cyborgs, hybrids, mosaics, chimeras. Biological organisms have become biotic systems, communications devices like others. There is no fundamental, onotological separation in our formal knowledge of machine and organism, of technical and organic,” Haraway states.

Who are you, separated from your iPhone?

The technological march progresses. As Bush stated, “all forms of intelligence whether of sound or sight, have been reduced to the form of varying currents in an electric circuit in order that they may be transmitted. Inside the human frame exactly the same sort of process occurs. Must we always transform to mechanical movements in order to proceed from one electrical phenomenon to another?”

His question has already been answered, arguably first by Doug Engelbart in “The Mother of All Demos.” As his hands type and point, his thoughts are rendered and communicated digitally, and finally preserved. His thought process and active engagement with technology are still being incorporated and reinterpreted by others, over 40 years later — the regenerative, associative process in action.

The inverse of Bush’s final question has also been answered: BEAM robotics mimics biological neural pathways, hard-wiring behaviors into circuitry, electrical impulses to purposed mechanical motion.

We’re ever-closer to Spider Jerusalem’s phone trait. We continue our journey, no longer fully human, our gadgets more than digital, toward a new transhuman future.

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3 Responses to “I, for one, welcome our new cyborg overlords.”

  1. Alex H. says:

    Spider Jerusalem ref FTW. :)

  2. [...] if you you are adopting an existing thesis (see, for example, Twunked’s argument that we are all now cyborgs), being very clear about what it is, and then using the [...]