Truth Against the World

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Cyborg Anthropology and the Cyberutopians

The above picture is actually a picture of the world wide web...the net.  I ran across this picture while watching a TED talk featuring a self proclaimed "Cyborg Anthropologist" by the name of Amber Case.  In her presentation she introduced me to several new ideas.  Ideas like we are a new form of Homo Sapiens due to all of the technology that have become permanent fixtures in our lives, like the fact that we have a second self that we have to service on the net (an avatar), that we now have two adolescences that we must go through.  Ideas like the internet is actually functioning as an extension of our mental selfs.  New phrases such as "ambient intimacy" meaning that we can connect to any of our contacts/friends any where and at any time.  Her talk was a fascinating talk.

I don't agree with everything she has to say.  I've always been skeptical about technology and especially communication technology.  There seems to be a split between those who embrace it entirely and those who remain skeptical.  I have noticed that those of us who are skeptical about it are rapidly disappearing.  Her basic optimism revolves around the idea that the machines utilizing the internet are actual helping us become more human by increasing our connections to one another.  During the above linked presentation she states:

The most successful technologies get out of our way and help us live our lives.

I tend to not agree with this statement.  Every time I see somebody driving down the interstate with their head down, not looking at the road, texting, I think to myself "how reckless."  Every time I have a conversation interrupted by a cell phone call, every time somebody picks up their cell phone to check a text or something on line during the middle of a conversation, I wonder to myself how is this increasing our humanity?  I realize there are actual people on the other end of that digital information, but they are not physically here.  How much is a physical presence worth now?  It seems that the worth of a physical presence becomes less and less as the months and years click by in my life.  Believe me when I say that I live mostly in my head.  This new digital arrangement is very convenient when applied to the space in my head.  I can communicate much better via the written word than I can speaking in person, and so communicating via text, FB, Blogger, or any other internet medium is very easy for me.

I resisted FB, Blogger, and Smart phones for several years.  The Blackberry was the final stand for me, and I lost (however I have never tweeted possibly because I find the name to be ridiculous and I still have a little fight left in me).  In my own life I can say that I have a handful of people I met online whom I have never met in person.  I value their interaction with my digital self, which according to Case is actually an extension of my mental self.  She is right about that.  In many ways I connect with these people on a more profound level than I do with the people I interact with on a daily basis.  This level of interaction, however, is all mental, and that is where the problem lies.  This is where the bulk of my skepticism comes in.  In order to say that these machines increase our humanness we have to be willing to give up on a lot of what it means to be human.  It's almost a contradiction.  After all, the first thing Case says in her presentation is that we are all Cyborgs.  She is right about that as well, for the majority at least.

My generation was the first generation to be raised alongside computers.  I can remember around 1986 being in grade school and playing "Oregon Trail" on a black and green screened Apple computer.  This was an actual class and personal computers were new.  I was a new human being.  However, I was not born a cyborg and I have resisted becoming one as much as possible.  There are signs on my horizon that this resistance is indeed futile.  For instance, it is rapidly becoming mandatory for me to have a smart phone for my job.  Mandatory in the same way that the steel toed boots I have to wear are mandatory.  Mandatory as in I have to pay for them myself.  They are required for me to provide for myself before I show up to work.  The reason they are able to get away with making me pay a cell phone bill as a condition of my job is because everybody already has cell phones.  Not only do they have cell phones, they have smart phones, and it is convenient for the newer generations to use their personal smart phones at work because they can't imagine not having them to begin with.  For them, not having a smart phone is simply not an option and they have never even entertained the thought before.  Factor into all of this the rate at which new technology is emerging in the world.

So what is it that we are giving up to become cyborgs?  I think we are mainly giving up a slow and reflective pace of life.  We are no longer smelling any roses.  I think the main tragedy in all of this is that we are giving up on the natural world.  After all, what does a machine care about the natural world.  We can merge with machines in a mental fashion, and that is the only fashion.  Todays 20 year olds are rapidly turning in their humanity for cyborgity.  They have never stuck their hands in the soil, tended to a food producing plant, sat under a tree for hours on end reflecting on their humanity, or spent nights in the wilderness.  They have no need for any of that because they have become largely foreign to it.  I don't know how spirituality translates digitally either.  I have a suspicion that it cannot translate, not in any human way.  I have that suspicion simply because spirituality is much more than a mental state, at least in my belief.

I think the main concern I have for humanity is a concern for freedom from tyranny.  Cyberutopians believe that a western style democracy is inescapable with the internet.  They think that digitally connecting the world is somehow going to translate into democracy.  Indeed they could use the current MENA countries (middle east and north african) as evidence to support their case.  The MENA revolutions are certainly made possible by these social medium that the internet provides.  Yet the other side of this story can look more Orwellian if one were to drop the perpetual optimism.  Sure, these regimes go away, but what are they going to be replaced with?  Dictators are already using the web to ferret out dissidents and digital renegades.

The above linked video sheds a lot of light on, what I believe to be, the more realistic outcome of government relationship to the internet.  It's easy to think that you can control who sees your second self, your digital self, your avatar.  It's easy to think that you control your Avatar.  I suppose if you believe that democracy is real, they actually count your votes, and that this is not a global corportocracy than these optimistic delusions work well for you as fact.  I like to concern myself with the truth in all things.  The internet has played a pivotal role in my life where new ideas are concerned.  It has taken a lot of mystery away from the different cultures of the world.  Basically the internet has made humanity very transparent to itself and I think that's a good thing.

I want to point out here that I'm not demonizing the internet.  I love the Godlike access to whatever information strikes me.  I can learn about anything I want to for free (well, pretty much for free).  It is a virtual library of all things human knowledge.  The internet is one of the most amazing things in existence today where technology is concerned.  It should remain a useful tool that is used to enrich our young, and us.  Having said that, it's more important to me for us to regain some skepticism.  I'm enough of a realist to realize that this skepticism I'm advocating is a non-starter.  Essentially these technologies are already mandatory for mainstream life.  In ten years from now...I honestly can say, I am afraid for the emerging future.  I'm mainly afraid for my son, and these problems are making it difficult for my wife and I to navigate raising him.  I'm also afraid for the day when a smart chip will become mandatory to be implanted in my brain so that I can be controlled while at work to limit any corporate liabilities.  Just like how the flu shot and cell phones have become mandatory.  The skepticism I speak of is rooted in fear of government control.

The nature of man seems to be that of rich and poor.  The richest of the rich get tired of being just rich.  When you have so much money in your bank account that it regenerates at a rate that you can never spend, than power becomes the new drug for you.  Control is power.  The corportocracy is drunk with power and now technology.  She's right...we are mostly cyborgs, and one day soon we will all be cyborgs.  Well at least those of us who still play the game.  You can quit your job and turn in your house, cell phone, credit, and debit card and live on the fringe.  You can do that comfortably if you are already rich.  If you're not...and you have a family to support...well...they're coming for your delusions of freedom.

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