Saturday, September 4, 2010

Technomysticism, Chapter 3 - We are all Cyborgs

This is the continuation of my last posts which featured the first and second chapters of my book "Technomysticism". The next few chapters will arrive in the next few weeks.

Stanely Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey, begins with a sequence called “The Dawn of Man”. It is a somewhat peculiar segment of the film, which tells the story of two rival ape groups competing over control of some water puddle in the middle of prehistoric wilderness. Our story reaches its peak when sometime during the primate skirmish, one of the fighting apes grabs a bone and thrashes the leader of the second group of apes using it. The external organ gives the tool-using ape a insurmountable advantage and he drives away the rival apes. This, according to Kubrick, is the Dawn of Man.

But not only according to Kubrick. Different thinkers from Benjamin Franklin to Karl Marx, have defined Man as a Homo Faber, the one who uses tools. The study of evolution also refers to Homo Habilis, a name which literally means “Handy Man” as the first type of hominid. This, after all, is what separates human beings from animals, according to many. As Kubrick showed us, the ape becomes a human being only after he takes an object in his hand and starts using it. The appearance of Man is thus identical to the appearance of technology, non-biological technology. The vision of man, as presented here, is of man as a cyborg.

When Man became Machine

The world cyborg is an abbreviation of the words “cybernetic organism”, or simply put, a combination of organic living being and technology. The term was first coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline as they tried to imagine humanity’s future in space as an integrated composition of man and machine.

The image of cyborg has become widely known in today’s popular culture, owing first and foremost to its popularity in science fiction. For example, Steve Austin, star of the 1970’s TV show “The Six Million Dollar Man”, was an astronaut who had been badly hit in an aerial accident and whose body had to be technologically rebuilt. Austin is given new artificial limbs which enable him to run at 60 Mph and bionic eyes which allow him to see him the world using infra-red vision and to magnify objects by a factor of 20.

Ten years after Steve Austin, we met Robocop, a cop who was badly hurt during his work, and was re-engineered by scientists who wired his body with computers and pieces of metal. As a cyborg, he becomes the ultimate policing machine and the nightmare of Detroit’s criminal underground. Popular culture is filled with other images of cyborgs: From Geordy la Forge, the blind helmsman of the USS Enterprise in the “Star-Trek – The New Generation” series, to Motoko Kusanagi from the Japenese manga and animation classic “Ghost in the Shell” to Darth Vedar of “Star Wars”. Being a cyborg, however, is not something wholly confined to science fiction. Today’s world encompasses a wide variety of people with artificial limbs, eyes or ears. These are clear exemplars of the collision of body and technology, but they are not the only cyborgs in existence.

Marshall McLuhan was the first thinker who claimed that machines are extensions of our bodily organs. Machines, according to McLuhan, extend our organs: and so the wheel is an extension of our legs, the hammer an extension of the hand, clothing or housing, an extension of our skin and the world of electronic media is, according to McLuhan, an extension of our the nervous system. In fact, any person using a cell phone, a car or shoes is a cyborg, since these are technological organs which enable us to move beyond the limits of the human organism. At this stage of our discussion, however, many will undoubtedly raise an opposition against my line of argument. It is not intuitive to grasp how deep and far reaching our relation to the technological world is. “My mobile is not an organ, it is external to me and my body” one often says. “I can turn it off, or just not carry it with me. Hence it can’t be an organ.”

I Cyborg

In order to understand how a mobile phone can be an organ, one must first realize what an organ is, and here we must get back to our definition of technology as multiplicity, and as unity’s way of coping with it’s becoming many.

Let us first begin by noting that our felt experience of living in the world is that of being a single entity: Someone who is a whole. However, despite being whole, it is evident that we are also complex. It is difficult, essentially impossible, to isolate the source of the unity which is in us and to find the basis of our experience of a self. For example, when I visit the lavatory and eject pieces of myself, or when I go to the hair salon and segments of my hair fall down, I do not, even for one moment, question the fact that I am still myself, although portions which were an integral part of my body a moment ago have now been made external and no longer belong to me. If you take away my legs or hands I will probably still insist that I am still me. I would persist in claiming my identity even if you would take my sense of seeing. But what happens if motor ability were to be impaired? And if my speech center would stop functioning? Or if my emotional centers would go out of order? When would I stop being myself? Where does that self exist? Where is the place where the self is focused? It seems quite evident that in a situation in which my motor, intellectual, emotional and spiritual capacities were all taken away from me, I would not really be myself. But where does one draw the line? Where do “I” start where do “I” end?

One possible answer is that this self is everywhere and nowhere. The inside and the outside are an illusion, since everything is both internal and external. All is unity and all is multiplicity. Many philosophical and spiritual traditions have pointed to the fact that our consciousness is composed from a flowing and ever changing stream of fragmental content. When I look at a tree, the image of that tree fills my experience of the world and in a certain way I am then that tree. Masters of meditation can dissociate themselves from certain organs in their body. Some of these masters describe the process of meditation as a process of moving your consciousness through different parts of your body or the world, being everywhere and being nowhere. This is also the process which we go through when we feel immersed in a movie, learn something new or forget some detail from our past.

The self has no beginning and no end. You exist as a network of impressions, which is part of a system of networks. You are a net composed of countless components, some of which add up with the time, while others fall off. There is no place where being begins and there is no place where it ends; there is no place to point at and say: “this is who I am”, and there is no place to point at and say “here I do not exist”.

If we are having difficulty realizing that the mobile phone is a part of our identity, we should remind ourselves that our leg is also not part of our identity, and even not the neurons and synapses shooting in our brains. All these indeed make us into who we are, but at the same time, they are not who we are. They assemble our identity, but our existence also transcends them.

You are a unity, but you are also composed of a wide variety of multiplicities. This pertains to the technologies around you and to the people which surround you. They are part of your conscious life, and hence they automatically become part of who you are. And yet, they are not a precondition to your existence. You will continue to be you (though somewhat different) even when they will cease to be part of you. Some call this model “Complexity”. Complexity creates consciousness: the sheer multitude of things creates relationships between them, and out of the complexity of these relationships emerges consciousness, constituted by a myriad of impressions received by countless organs.

So I am not my sense of sight, and if you took it away from me, I will still be me. And yet, I am my sense of sight and if you take it away from me, I might still be me, but I would also be somewhat different, in about the same way that my mobile phone is not a part of who I am, and yet it is also a part of me.

The aim of this thought exercise is that we, as a culture, stop repressing technology as the “other”. We tend to see ourselves as a distinct being, facing a technological world, but what we must grasp that technology is not external to who we are. We must accept technology as part of the self, and understand that the cyborg is not a different entity, opposed to man.

Cyborg existence, an amalgam of the human experience of being unite with the realities of machine multiplicity, is the essence of our being. This is what Kurzweil means when he says that man is to be defined as that who constantly strives to be what he is not, to transcend what he is, to become something new. A cyborg is a being in a continued state of evolution. A being constantly becoming more complex through interaction with the world. The ultimate cyborg is God.

The will to evolve from a unified being into new forms, to merge with the future, create and become something new, is the divine will. It is the will to become one with the other, to allow the unity of God to surprise itself again and again through becoming one with multiplicity.

No comments: