How Do You Feel About Being a Cyborg?

September 2017

Thank you to the hundreds of readers who have told me how much they like my column. But I do have one friend who criticizes it. He says I'm not being a responsible journalist because I don't tell you my opinion.

What set him off most recently was my column about the algorithms in our lives and how wedded we are to our digital technology, especially our smartphones. I wrote that we've become cyborgs, defined as "a fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body."

He wanted to know my opinion regarding this. I told him, "I don't have an opinion." He said, "I think you do have an opinion, you just don't want to say what it is."

Okay, dear readers, here's the truth in black and white: I don't have an opinion.

How could I? It's an immensely complex issue that I've been thinking about for over 35 years. When I first started using computers in 1980, I realized something was different. I was convinced that this technology was revolutionary, that it would become ubiquitous, and that it would change our lives.

I wanted to understand that change, so I looked at history and realized it wasn't a new issue. Consider Plato's Phaedrus, a dialog that has Socrates discussing a revolutionary new technology called writing.

Socrates relates a mythical conversation in which the god Thamus argues, "[Writing] will create forgetfulness in the learners' souls, because they will not use their memories; they will trust to the external written characters and not remember of themselves. The specific which you have discovered is an aid not to memory but to reminiscence…."

He was right. Using highly developed mnemonic techniques, the preliterate Greeks could easily memorize huge amounts of material. I recall reading about individuals who had committed thousands of verses to memory and could, if asked, even recite them in reverse order.

In fact, all primarily oral cultures (cultures that don't have literacy) typically have a sort of cultural encyclopedia that comprises memorized verse, tales, proverbs, and the like. If people wanted to retain cultural norms and crucial knowledge, they had to remember it. They couldn't look it up in a book. Poetry and the great oral epics had rhyme and meter because that made it easier to remember.

That's gone. How many people today can recite a poem? And why would they want to?

In his book The Discoverers, Daniel Boorstin wrote, "Before the printed book, Memory ruled daily life and the occult learning, and fully deserved the name later applied to printing, the 'art preservative of all the arts' (Ars atrium omnium conservatrix). The Memory of individuals and of communities carried knowledge through time and space. For millennia personal Memory reigned over entertainment and information, over the perpetuation and perfection of the crafts, the practice of commerce, the conduct of professions…. Memory was an awesome faculty which everyone had to cultivate, in ways and for reasons we have long since forgotten."

What's my point? As humans we have a propensity to create tools, including tools that embody our intelligence and extend our perception. We have long been cyborgs. It's impossible to look at the extraordinary paintings in the caves of Lascaux, Altamira, and Chauvet that date back to as much as 32,000 BC and not appreciate this tendency of humans to project their intelligence onto the environment, to record, to create technologies of the mind.

Who am I to have an opinion? I don't judge whether smartphones or books or the written word or cave paintings are good or bad. Instead, I feel awe. I try to appreciate the trends over the past 100,000 years, and the feeling of wonder I experience is thrilling.

That's why I read books like Sapiens and Homo Deus by Yuval Harari; Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond; Nonzero by Robert Wright; and The Rational Optimist and The Evolution of Everything by Matt Ridley. I want to see the big picture.

Still, it's a bit scary, the speed at which we're hurtling into the future. We left behind foraging, we left behind subsistence agriculture, and we're even leaving behind industrial employment, as machines and robots and artificial intelligence take over just about every task that humans once performed.

The big question asked by Harari is what will humans do, once they're longer needed to produce food, perform services, manufacture goods, or fight wars?

These are complex issues. My goal isn't to give my opinion or tell you what to think. Instead, I present fascinating details about new technologies in the hope of sharing some of the pleasure I get from thinking about them.

© 2017 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

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