Sunday, January 3, 2010

We Are Legion

I firmly believe that the human race are cyborgs. It happened years ago, and because we were looking for a specific vision of our sci-fi future we didn't notice that it had already arrived, only in a different form. I think maybe we were waiting for literal biological implants, because that assumption seems to underly a lot of the fiction that deals with this concept. But why would you undergo invasive surgery if you didn't have to? All it does is make it more difficult and dangerous if you want to repair or upgrade something. So instead we have a softer, gentler cyborg. Instead of implants for data storage and access, we have pervasive access to the network; instead of implants for telepathic communication, we have cell phones.

The two necessary features of this state of existence, in my mind, are the capacity of machines to augment human physical prowess, and to add new senses to the human experience. As I've mentioned before, technologically augmented physical prowess is obvious, in the form of functionally expanded brain capacity through the cloud -- or for a low(er) tech version, super-human speed through mechanical transportation. Somewhat less obvious are the addition of new senses, but without loosening the definition too much I believe that requirement is met as well.

One we've had for millenia -- a compass, one of the simplest tools around, lets us sense magnetic fields. More recently, the construction of the GPS system essentially fabricated a new sense for the entire species, letting us sense our physical location with amazing precision on a global scale. Infra-red goggles allow us to see more parts of the electromagnetic spectrum; cellular phones allow us to selectively hear anyone in the world from anywhere; rapid access to a network containing public commentary lets us almost instinctively know whether an experience (movie, restaurant, etc) we are contemplating will be enjoyable.

You're probably saying that this is nonsense, and at the very least is stretching the definition way past any reasonable point. And it probably is, but I believe there's something valuable in this view. Yes, the interfaces are clunky, and the level of integration into our experience is pretty poor since all of these new "senses" are accessed through a three inch screen. But a lot of these augmentations are still in their infancy, and accessing them through a cell phone, while clunky, also allows new experiences to be added very rapidly, and for the entire system to be replaced with no hassle when something better comes along.

So now I think I've worked my way back to the mini-thesis that I've been dancing around so far. This is where sci-fi and a lot of our expectations got it wrong. Cyborgs and neural implants and large, impressive-but-invasive technology are not the shape of the future. Why would I undergo surgery to augment brain capacity and add senses when I can effectively already do so through a $200 screen that I can stick in my pocket?

It's not just a question of invasive surgery; we can augment our memory capacity and our senses all we want, but apart from some highly experimental drugs in a lab somewhere we haven't been able to do a damn thing in terms of making the human brain on its own any smarter. The brain stays the same, and we augment it and ourselves by making more and more external additions available to it, which means that there are an increasing number of information sources to manage. They compete with each other and our own built in memory for attention, because there's always some cost to retrieving data into short term memory.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that the technology that succeeds, and that you're still going to see around in ten years is the stuff that is fast, easy to use, and then gets the hell out of the way the second you're done with it. The feeling that I think is missing from a lot of our expectations, and certainly from mine, is how fundamentally human the information revolution has been and will continue to be.

It's unexpected, I know. For my own part I've often let the feeling of technology become an overwhelming concept. There are so many new things being created every day, and so much new information, that it seems like a natural reaction to close off from it a bit. And this is certainly reinforced by numerous factions in our society; news programs will, with some frequency, air reports about how texting culture is destroying the writing ability of the next generation, or how Internet addiction is reaching more and more people. Even among friends who work at major technology companies, we comment about the difficulty of going without the network for multiple days, and at least to me it feels as if there's a subtext of, "this is unfortunate, that I am so connected to this thing that is external to me."

Instead, embrace it. I say this as much to myself as anybody; embrace the fact that you have internalized these senses and the ever-present background hum of the network. We went down a dark path for a decade or two, where being connected meant spending more time in the basement than outside; where your cyborg additions were inextricably connected to a thirty pound box full of circuits. But that was just a phase, and it's passed. The attitudes we formed in those first fitful decades were based more on the temporary form than on what that form enabled, and they don't apply anymore.

We're an inquisitive species by nature. We love discovery, and mastering new skills. Why would we choose to demonize one of the most reliable tools for achieving those goals? It's going to take time; even as I write this, I know that I still have an innate prejudice that wants to find fault with these statements. At the same time, taking a moment to stop and really feel the implication of this idea -- of the capacity that I have as a human with access to these tools -- is almost dizzying in its intensity.


  1. Very interesting food for thought - think I'll keep reading. Thank you for writing :-)

  2. I appreciate the feedback. Please post again if you like what you see :-)