Human, All Too Cyborg

Human, All Too Cyborg

Humano, demasiado cyborg

Chris Hables Gray

It is impossible to stay current on the cyborgization of the human. Increasingly intimate machinic-biological interfaces and interventions are transforming us every day. A constant cycle of technological and scientifi c breakthroughs in informatics, genetics, prosthetics, neurosciences, human-machine interface design, bioinformatics, genetic engineering, psychopharmacology and many other areas, is transforming us in a perpetual and permanent technoscientific revolution. There are more scientists and engineers alive right now than in all the rest of human existence combined. And they have better technology.

Just this year, scientists have continued to perfect infecting people with new inheritable genes, drone/human systems became a key weapon system in the war against Al Queda, new vaccines were created to reprogram our immune systems (especially against the inevitable pandemic our recent biological success portends), DARPA launched yet another revolution in prosthetics (wars are always good for artifi cial limb research), the web spread, computers (as links to the net, as photo and text systems, as access to mass media) became even more intercompatible and ubiquitious and tiny, nanotechnology advanced as did neurotechnoscience in its quest for perfect lie detectors, and eventually, mind reading, and mind control technologies, and on and on.

There is now talk of saving the planet from ourselves by cyborging Gaia. The hope is that directly intervening in massive climate change consciously, instead of doing it unconsciously with our wastes and our lusts as we have for the last 200,000 years, will turn out better. We shall see. Certainly, this will make the whole mutilation- prosthetic dance of using tech to cure the problems of tech an integral part of our biosphere. Technoscience produces a “mutilation” on “nature” so it is called on to craft a new prosthesis which is a further mutilation, which then needs new fixes.

We are attaching ourselves to a succession of smaller, more powerful, and more seductive music/ communication/calculation/memorialization technologies. These devices and our cars and our houses and our network software takes over large parts of our daily mental work, making mundane cyborgs: i–cyborg.

Can this process be stopped? Not short of apocalypse. Are humans uncyborgable? Obviously not. Are parts of us uncyborgable? Absolutely, or it is a robot. Should cyborgization be resisted? Yes, often. Not always.

Why? It begins with asking, “Who are we?” What is this animal called human? Homo sapiens sapiens. Wise? So wise we need to say it twice? Hardly. True Homo sapiens is yet to come, let alone sapiens sapiens. Homo ludens? Playful humans? Sometimes, but no more than we are wise. Marx’s Homo faber? That makes some sense; humans are indeed makers. And it starts with making stories, making culture, making sense of the world, or at least enough to manipulate it, to foster fi re, to kill at a distance, to notice the powers of the moon and sun. From there, from planning the hunt and the barbecue, it is just a hop, skip, and a jump to selling insurance, going to the store, and barbecue. Of course, now there are 9 billion of us, and many of us have really nice caves and there’s the car thing and the war machines and television and satellites and vaccines and prosthetics and genetics and…

So where did we come from? We evolved.

Evolution is a process that is too complicated to explain in one coherent narrative. Evolution is a process that is evolving. Evolution manifested us and we perpetuate it. Still, what is evolution? There is something. It reproduces and adapts. There is selection. Repeat infinitely. Seems simple enough, but in the details of this simple process there is incredible complexity.

Darwin identified two forms of selection: natural and artificial. Natural selection is the synthesis of chance and necessity generating increasing complexity out of oneness/nothingness/energy. Matter to particles to atoms to molecules to compounds to stars to planets and solar systems and, sometimes, life. Life, a tangled bank through time that fills the Earth.

Artifi cial selection is human action on other organisms. 20,000 years ago a wolf lurked by the fire and

was lured in by warmth, food, and interaction. Now we have Mexican chihuahuas and English mastiffs. We have corn and roses and kittens and lemon basil. We have patiently worked on nature to make of the tangled bank our garden.

We now see that there is also self-selection. It is obvious with germ line genetic engineering, but it should have been discernible already in our own mating choices, no matter how bizarre. For they have fueled an incredible rate of biological evolution over the last 10,000 years, in the human brain.

But evolution is not just biological. The same forces of chance/reproduction and necessity/selection work on nonliving matter and, with stranger feedbacks, on culture. It isn’t a simple dialectic, it is a cyborg epistemology of thesis, antithesis, prosthesis, synthesis, in different progressions. Evolution’s complexity is beyond any explanation we can have for it because, among other things, evolution is evolving. The clearest, and most important way this is happening is through human ingenuity, the integration of organic (evolved, alive) and inorganic (invented, machinic) systems: cybernetic organisms, cyborgs. Among the most interesting of these cyborgs are us.

By modeling the world we can plan not just to deal what will come, but to shape the future by modifying ourselves and the world. This modeling, this theorizing about the world and explaining it and trying to control it, started with each other. We are social animals and our success has been because of that. Once we evolved culture, tamed fire, and invented tools (the first prosthesis) we were on our way to today.

And today, where are we on our way to? Well, maybe apocalypse (climate change, weapons of mass destruction, pandemic), but maybe on to Homo cyborg. Or more likely, many types of genetically engineered cyborgs: for the sea, for space (the original excuse for inventing the word), for fun. The posthuman is not just a literary or a cultural studies trope, it is a biological reality in the making.

To be effective in the world, we need models of the world and we need to act on them. Unfortunately, as indeterminate as the world is (see the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, Godel’s Incompleteness Paradox, the Church-Turing thesis, the Baysian Paradox, Socrates, Spinoza, Nietzche and feminist epistemology) we tend to believe absolutely. Cyborgization runs head on into many old belief systems but of particular interest are the belief systems it spawns.

The Extropians are on one extreme of a spectrum of faith in science. Their central sacrament is that the Singularity (when computer intelligence becomes selfaware) will soon come and artificial intelligence will become so powerful that we could live forever with its help, although it probably will exterminate us; but maybe, just maybe, it’ll keep us around as pets.

The other end of this rainbow isn’t the Luddites, it is the neo-primitives. These “entropians” aren’t just the green anarchists and animals-over-people groups, but also all fundamentalists who believe the rapture (or some other end) is nigh, for they also see a quick end to civilization and a massive die off of humanity. It is the left neoprimitivists vision except for the 144,000 people flying to Heaven, and they don’t worry about the Earth left behind.

Instead of waiting for the rapture of the Singularity or the Apocalypse, we have to evolve a sustainable existence. The Luddites weren’t against technology, for the tech they had mastered and that framed their social relations was what they were defending. They were master craftsmen of the handloom, once the pinnacle of technological sophistication. Independent contractors, they brought wool that their children processed into fibers, that the women spun into thread, which they wove into cloth.

Some capitalists realized that with semi-automated weaving machines run by women and children (whose nimble little fingers were particularly helpful in keeping the machines running) would produce cheaper cloth. Yes, it destroyed families, shattered communities, unemployed men and was dependent on child labor, but those costs did not show on the bottom line. The weavers smashed some of the new “frames”, this was made a capital crime, and capitalism marched on. But the perspective of the Luddites survives. Everywhere, people resist technological change in favor of sophisticated technological systems with different social relationships. The activists who pull up genetically modified potatoes and who march and petition and sue to resist GM foods are likely to practice biodynamic gardening, which is based on a wide body of empirical, often scientific, research and practices.

So, our cyborgization is overdetermined, even Luddites can be cyborged. It isn’t just the desire to be well and live longer through cyborg medicine, but to master war with human-machine weapon systems, to maximize productive potential with better interfaces and integrations, to live in the sea or in space, to fulfill our wildest fantasies. Or to exercise dominion over others.

The issue isn’t if we’ll be cyborged, but how and who will decide. As Donna Haraway proclaimed a quarter of a century ago–we must take responsibility for our cyborgization. We must take responsibility for our evolution. Otherwise, somebody else will. The Borg of the Star Trek universe are a good warning. If it isn’t participatory evolution with cyborg family values, it will not be the blind hand of chance, but the vulgar fist of governments, corporations and other systems of power- over that for their short term ends will warp us into nightmares. But here the Borg are wrong. Resistance isn’t futile, it is fertile. Evolution is a series of revolutions. It is evolve, or die…off.

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