Our Cyborg Reality Part 2: The Extension of Mind

Cyborg RealityIn Part 1, I considered our evolution and our development of tools as extensions of the physical self, but said very little about the mental augmentations we see in the digital age that contribute to our increasingly cyborg-like disposition. To reiterate, cyborgs, as defined by cyborg anthropologist Amber Chase, are “organisms to which exogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments.” Let’s begin by looking at how human beings, throughout history, have sought to improve their mental faculties by exogenous means.

The mind is limited, at least the conscious mind. Much like a computer, there is a sense of maximum capacity to it. We cannot remember everything about our lives, and for good cause; that amount of information would surely render us insane. There is information, however, that is important, information that we couldn’t –or shouldn’t –do without. Being limited by what our mind can retain, we are forced to find a space where we can hold onto it, a space where our offspring can look at it, see it, and learn from it. The earliest paintings in caves tapped into such a space. The artwork retained a sense of meaning externally from the artist. The hunt, for example, and narratives surrounding it, could survive, even if the memory was lost. What you start to get from such a metaphysical system of storage, is the ability to better develop collective paradigms and systems of thought over long periods of time (I say start because I understand that the development of these things requires far more than paintings on the wall of a cave). It becomes, in some ways, a common space for information. From paintings in caves we moved forward to more complex systems of language. With spoken words to describe the phenomena in the world, more could be retained, more could be remembered, more could be conveyed. This development of an invisible space expanded exponentially with the innovation of the written word. With this, the person becomes obsolete. Entire lifetimes could be preserved. Farming schedules could be noted and revised to create a body of knowledge allowing agricultural societies to flourish. Monetary arrangements could be recorded and stored for future reflection. The mind can only do so much to get us through our lives, but with the invisible spaces of art and the written word, we were suddenly less burdened by the necessity to remember. In the digital age, this invisible space is everywhere, and every human being with a computer is tapped into it regularly.

Think about what you have on your computer. Photos. Writing. Contacts. Archives upon archives of your past, of things so detailed, that there is no way you could otherwise recall them from your mind. Even if you can recall some of them, could you recall them in as much detail as say, a picture? A journal entry? With our ability to double-click, however, we do not need to rely on our minds to recall something like what we ate for Christmas dinner six years ago. Our literal capacity to remember has been extended by technology, and we take full advantage of it.

The ability to communicate is enhanced in obvious ways. By a mere touching or pressing of numbers, we could speak instantly to a person on the other side of the planet. Our voices can be heard around the world through the press of a single ‘publish’ button such as the one on the side of my page right now. Our range of influence is not just local, but global.

The modern age simultaneously created an environment that required adaptation, and provided the tools necessary for that adaptation to take place. One might argue that these augmentations are taking place entirely outside of the body, and therefore do not constitute a valid argument for a new ‘cyborg reality,’ but I disagree. We have added on to our minds in a very real and direct way. If for whatever reason your computer was destroyed, the information lost would be very much like suffering a blow to the head. It is gone. Christmas dinner six years ago, a past experience among many that define you, is gone. We are accustomed to being unburdened by our need to remember by the comfort of knowing the memories are stored somewhere. Some of us, sadly, are accustomed to not having to learn anything because they feel the information at their fingertips is enough. Take these things away, and people lose a great sense of themselves. They lose memory, intelligence, and even, in many cases, identity. This relationship we have to our technology is no longer a mere augmentation. It verges now, on necessity. The modern environment that technology has created, requires the use of said technology to navigate it. It is an intangible, invisible space, but it contains within it more than we could imagine. It is as if we have become a single enormous neural network with synapses firing constantly, new connections made daily –like a superorganism increasingly dependent on its summative parts. The world is changing. We are changing. Our bodies themselves may not be, but the more we see fit to augment them, the more dependent we will become. Somewhere there is a threshold, perhaps only one available in retrospect, that once crossed will redefine what it means to be human.