Our Cyborg Reality Part 1: A Gentle Extinction

Grenoble Kim NelsonAs you have no doubt heard from all the Chicken Little’s of our generation, the environment we live in is showing signs of becoming an environment that we cannot live in. Our impact on it has been harmful, and someday we may find that it is no longer the place for us. So, in my mind we are left with three options.

1.) Change it to something we can live in.

2.) Change ourselves to beings that can live in it .

3.) Leave the planet entirely.

I will address the first two in this post, and leave the third for an exciting, later time.

Option number one, to me, seems very hard, very foolish, and very vain. The degradation we are bearing witness to is at the whim of forces that are so great that it is literally the handiwork of “God” or something like him. As humans, we are a natural force. What we do to the planet is as unstoppable and final as erosion. To step up and say we can reverse it is silly. Yes, perhaps in the short-term we can reap the short-term benefits of living ‘green.’ The fact of the matter is, though, Earth will not always be the place for us. It’s math. We are infinite, the Earth is not. Adam Smith told us, we listened, so why haven’t we accepted it? Probably because the only feasible way to reduce our impact is to limit it by limiting our numbers, but that either involves mass murder or mass birth-control, both of which are things that violate very innate and primal forces that drive us all. So let’s look at the more feasible option.

Although option number 2 might seem ludicrous to you, humans have always altered themselves in order to live in new environments. What does this look like? Well, it looks like scuba divers swimming around underwater where there is no oxygen. It looks like space men floating around the solar system in enormous suits without which some very painful, very disgusting things would happen to their bodies. It looks like me right now as I am staring at a computer screen with glasses hanging on my ears. It looks like your farming grandfather who seems to have more metal in his joints than bone. Pacemakers. Prosthetic limbs. All of these things make us better, they make us superhuman. They make us cyborgs.

Cyborgs, short for cybernetic organisms, are organisms with both organic and cybernetic parts (Wikipedia). In a TED talk, Amber Case, a cyborg anthropologist, defined cyborgs as “organisms to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.” When we say cyborg we think of The Terminator or Alien –organisms with a physical and mental ability far beyond our own, superhuman qualities. The word superhuman, however, simply means that it surpasses what is naturally human. When you accept that being superhuman does not necessarily mean that you have x-ray vision and can lift entire trains above your head, you find that many of us, maybe even most, are in fact superhuman.  There are times when, whether it is because of injury or the desire to explore, the human body is deemed incapable of navigating its target environment supported solely by its own mechanics. So, we augment it. And as time goes on, we are finding more and more ways to augment it.

From 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrick

Since we have been pitted against the world, we have always found ways to stay death a little longer. Life expectancy is now far higher than it ever has been, at least in our privileged nation. This trend will likely continue. At the core of our progress is a drive to not only live more comfortably, but to live longer. Disease is a fact of the world. We have vaccines for some of these, like Polio, that change our bodies into machines that can resist them. Environmental factors are perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome in staying death, but early humans found caves. Modern humans found sunscreen, sunglasses, space blankets, and so on. Clothing itself is not natural to our bodies, but it helps keep the deadly sun off of our shoulders and keeps the biting cold at bay. The history of human technology is marked by the invention and usage of tools, the constant augmentation of the physical self. If you have not seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, then go watch it. That moment when the ape discovers the added strength of striking at objects with a bone rather than his own limb (which even if you haven’t seen the film, you would probably recognize) is a moment that truly defines progress to this date. Our tools now are far more advanced than this, of course, but they do all increase our ‘striking power,’ as it were, in some way or another. When applied to the ancient past like this the notion of us all being ‘cyborgs’ may seem more like a semantic reality than a shocking one, but look at the world we live in now. Look at the augmentations to our bodies that you see every single time you leave the door.

Photo Credit: From scienceblogs.com

Surely we can alter our bodies so that we can survive, for however long, in environments otherwise intolerable. How will we then, as human beings, continue to live on a planet that won’t have us? Well, when the air becomes unbreathable, perhaps we will have synthetic lungs that can breathe it, which we place in our children at birth so that they do not die. When the water becomes undrinkable with disease, perhaps we will have vaccines that allow us to resist or filtration systems we can incorporate into our body’s processing organs. Who really knows? But, the trend of adaptation shows that we will find a way until we don’t. When we find this way, however, will we still be human? When our bodies no longer support us on this world and we rely on the cybernetic modifications of technology to keep us alive, can we call ourselves homo sapiens? We usually think of extinction events as quick, violent, and dramatic. But what about the Neanderthals? Their demise is still in debate, but some of the viable theories include a very slow extinction, an assimilation into the next level of hominids, overcome by the physically and mentally more capable modern man. Well what is next? Surely homo sapiens are not the final step in our ongoing course of evolution. Perhaps it is the cyborg, and perhaps it is already happening. With our bodies becoming increasingly augmented by technology, it is not so far out to think that in the distant future these augmentations will become necessities; that our bodies will either weaken in the random course of evolution, or that (more likely) the environment will force our hand by becoming more harmful to us. Changes on this scale are slow and hard to perceive in the moment. But perhaps when cyborg archaeologists look at our remains thousands of years from now they will say, so this is where it began, this is where we come from. Just as man finds his roots in the jungle, someone or something different will eventually find their roots in us. It  may be that the rapid progress of technology does harm to our environment, but it might simultaneously be giving us the tools to undergo a gentle extinction wherefrom a new kind of man is born.