Dissolution into the Machine: Confronting the Uncanny Cyborg

‘One of the biggest flaws in the common conception of the future is that the future is something that happens to us, not something we create.’

Michael Anissimov (TSIN p299)

The exponential development of technology in the last fifty years has undoubtedly posed new opportunities and (often unforeseen) problems in equal measure to life as we know it. This can be evidenced quite clearly with the emergence of a new movement of thinkers, writers, inventors, and creators under the umbrella-term of trans-, or post-humanists (trans- referring ‘to an intermediary form between the human and the posthuman’) (Bostrom, N, 2003, p6). As the name suggests, post-humanism represents a progression from the theories and studies of humanism, and as such, they share certain views on various aspects of human life and philosophy. The most prevalent being the disposal of the age-old usage of faith in gods and deities to give reason for existence. Humanists, however, replaced these idols with humans as the eminent power of the universe. Post-humanists are aware of the limitations of human capabilities, and recognise the uncertainty of our place here, as the technology we create advances in sophistication and complexity faster than some care to fully acknowledge (Pepperell, R, 1995, p191).  Rather like a child left to fend for itself for the first time, the question weighing heavily in the air at this decisive moment in human existence is, stated simply, what will we do now?  The unknowable realms into which the human race now enters call for realistic, logical and thoroughly post-human planning for the future of the Earth and its inhabitants.

In his book, The Singularity is Near (2005) Ray Kurzweil, one of the most influential futurists of our times, examines the progression of technology so far and uses this evidence to support his law of accelerating returns, which applies exponential growth as a model for plotting the likely development of technology now and in the future (2001). This model points to the rapidly increasing rate of technological development, indicating that we are approaching a point where the intelligence and complexity of technology will overtake and far surpass that of our own minds. He shows that both the graph illustrating the evolution of our approach to technology, and that of the expanding capacity of information technology are reaching the ‘knee of the curve’ (p9), at which point the curve becomes a near-vertical line soaring upwards, depicting the monumental acceleration of technological capabilities. This marks the arrival of what Kurzweil calls the ‘Singularity’, ‘a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.’ (p7) His in-depth studies and predictions of the future prompt serious concerns in relation to the course of action humankind will take.

As we tread further into an era conceivable only by an amalgamation of models we have experienced in the realms of science-fiction, already-existing texts exploring the psychological response to technological revolution give vital insight into our deepening intimacy with technology.  ‘Cyberspace’, a term that has been accepted as referring to the ‘Virtual World’ – the figurative space existing inside computer chips; through the looking glass of the computer screen – was seized upon and explored by the science-fiction writer, William Gibson, when constructing his 1984 novel, Neuromancer.  Often labelled as the creator of the ‘Cyberpunk’ genre, Gibson’s writing breathed a vitality into this conceptual dead space with grounded realism that brought the idea of living in cyberspace to audiences beyond the relatively insular world of science-fiction.(McCaffrey, L. 1986)  By projecting his informed imaginings of an altogether new way of interacting with computers, and taking the nascent projects in Virtual Reality to fantastical ends, Gibson’s work had the effect of prompting a wider audience – beyond the computer scientists of the time – to more thoroughly consider the possibilities and opportunities (as well as potential problems) that were beginning to open up to the human race as a direct result of swiftly advancing computer technology.  Neuromancer deals with some of the most pertinent issues that have arisen from the developments in human-computer interfacing: identity, autonomy and the disastrous results of a hugely successful capitalist society.  The characters that inhabit Gibson’s writings stride and stumble right alongside classic noir-crime-drama tropes, yet the sharpened edges of their modified cybernetic body-parts remind us that we tread in unfamiliar territory.  The structure of Gibson’s novels, described as ‘jump-cut’ by Neil Spiller in his Cyber Reader, clearly reflects his subject, and indeed the influences of the information-rich environment that was ready to explode in the eighties, with the internet just on the cusp of breaking into the commercial sphere.

Society today is not at all unfamiliar with this ‘jump-cut’, fast-paced momentum of living.  The internet has developed in tandem with the predictions of Kurzweil in his 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, where an immeasurable wealth of information is not only available to every person with access to the internet, but indeed, it is rained upon each and every user in the form of pop-up ads and suggested WebPages from programmes that track one’s habits when online.  The intrusive nature of the advertising methods developed alongside the improvement in fluidity of digital manoeuvring has left media today with an overriding sense of sheer bombardment.  This motif of everyday modern life is intrinsic to many science fiction novels in the past century, particularly Pat Cadigan’s Synners, which takes place in a backdrop of a shifting, unspecified world.  In her article Feminism for the Incurably Informed, the literary critic Anne Balsamo notes the significance of Cadigan’s use of information as commodity, as ‘change for the machine’.  While the internet grew up around the noble ideal of information-sharing, providing access to all kinds of information at the click of a mouse, it has had a profound effect on how we place value in images and words.  In the nature of things, an abundance of one commodity seems to have lessened its perceived value greatly.

This idea of information-sharing is explored particularly impressively in E. M. Forster’s 1909 short, The Machine Stops.  The world Forster has dreamed is a barren dystopia on the surface of the Earth, a surface which our protagonists do not inhabit.  Instead, the hairless, toothless people of the world have retreated underground, to a beehive of ‘civilisation’.  Their only goal to ‘exchange ideas’, the people of Forster’s story have turned their backs on the natural world, living ‘through the Machine’ that provides and cares for them.  An hexagonal cell, complete with bed, desk, and a standard set of controls with which they may summon food and medicine, music and light, and speak with their fellow man through a glowing blue plate; this is what each individual lives by.  While architectural fashion today may not have yet fully embraced the efficient nature of the bee, Forster’s one-hundred-and-four-year-old story is radically pre-emptive of the issues in autonomy this generation is experiencing with the internet today.

Forster’s writing maintains a much calmer, ambient tone than the hyper-modern jargon of Gibson, yet the lessons to take from this insightful story are as much relevant to studies in our relationship with the internet as his grimy urban scenes.   This can be viewed as sign of the times in which Forster wrote The Machine Stops, but the differences between the two dystopias from these authors are very important to note.

Many of Gibson’s characters are themselves biologically augmented with computer technology.  Their human bodies have been operated on and added to in order to enhance certain abilities both in the physical world and cyberspace.  It becomes apparent within the first few pages of the novel that it is commonplace for its citizens to have carbon sockets implanted behind the ear, which allows them to be directly connected to their computer for ‘jacking in’ to the matrix of cyberspace.  The female protagonist, Molly, is described as having mirrored lenses ‘surgically inset, sealing her sockets’ (p36) which have alphanumeric display capabilities and allow her to see in the dark; ‘ten double-edged, four-centimetre scalpel blades’ – retractable – housed under her burgundy fingernails (p37); as well as a having her reflexes enhanced using cybernetics. These kinds of augmentation are no longer restrained to science fiction.  In the last year Google revealed its new product, ‘Google Glass’, a wearable HMD computer that is activated via voice command.   Although this computer is not surgically attached to the wearer, this product marks a new level in the deepening of human-computer involvement by its very accessible and consumer-friendly design.  The headset is, as yet, rather expensive for the average person, but it has been noted in the last quarter of a century that it is apt to apply Thorstein Veblen’s ‘trickle-down theory’ (1899) – originally pertaining to his studies of fashion as a phenomenon – to the development of and gradual loss of value in technology, meaning this technology is likely to become as affordable as the current average mobile telephone within the space of a few years.(Stevens, T. 2013)

While Google Glass is detachable and aimed at the broader spectrum of consumers, there have been remarkable advances in the literal fusion of similar technologies to the human body.  Professor Steve Mann has dedicated his life to exploring and refining the fusion of man and machine, not restricted to replacing limbs or senses that have been lost or damaged, but to the more ambitious goal of improving and enhancing our natural capabilities.  For more than thirty years, Mann has been working on his wearable computer technology, and as his work has developed in sophistication, his dedication to wearing his headsets all day every day has only strengthened (My ‘Augmented’ Life, 2013). In 2012 Mann was subject to what some are calling the world’s first ‘cybernetic hate crime’, when the ‘Digital Eye Glass’ he has been developing since the 1980s provoked suspicion and alarm when he wore it into a Parisian branch of McDonalds.  The employees of the fast-food restaurant were unnerved by the appearance of Mann’s mechanical eye, and since the laws addressing image capture in public spaces have shifted into obscurity in this age of constant surveillance, their immediate reaction was to remove the device and forcibly eject him from the establishment.  In his report, Mann describes how his explanations (accompanied with several documents including doctor’s notes) were met with aggression:

‘He angrily grabbed my eyeglass, and tried to pull it off my head. The eyeglass is permanently attached and does not come off my skull without special tools.’

When Mann reported this incident to the police he was met with more indifference, as though the attack was beyond the interests of today’s law-enforcement (Dvorsky. G, 2013).  This occurrence exemplifies the popular consensus on the concept of cyborg: that it is outside or not worthy of society’s jurisdiction.  Mann is one of the few humans alive who can say honestly that the majority of his life has been recorded and logged digitally from his own ‘point of eye’, as he calls it, and fully condones this as a kind of equalising measure taken in response to the surveillance that is ubiquitous in the world today.  In this way, Mann is taking an active post-human role.  He has taken this research and development on as a truly personal project, and as a result retains some semblance of independence and autonomy while also seizing upon the opportunities of advanced technology.

Returning to The Machine Stops, one might regard the humans living in Forster’s dystopia as an exemplary fictional counterpoint to this active role.  Yet when considering the vastly powerful influence of large corporations in today’s non-fiction-world, some strong parallels may be drawn between the passive lives of these characters and humans today.  The protagonist, Vashti, voices the popular consensus of her world when her son, Kuno, confronts her on her absolute dependence on the Machine.  He accuses her of regarding the Machine as divine:

‘At this she grew angry. “I worship nothing!” she cried. “I am most advanced.” ’ (P.11)

This denial of humanity’s pitiful state resonates strongly when considering the patterns we follow today.  The discomfort this brings about begs the question of independence in modern society, of control, and in particular, the identity of the controller.  The Machine of Forster’s story remains faceless, and entirely inhuman in this respect, prompting an unnerving reading of Kurzweil’s ‘Singularity’ theory, long before it was ever proposed.  Though the origin of the machines of today can often be taken for granted – most of the people alive today have grown up alongside them – it is vital to remember that whatever form of technology we engage with, it is likely to have been designed and approved by a company involved in mass-production and for financial profit.  These remarkably faceless conglomerates have a great bearing on their consumers’ minds, and more often than not, not a great sense of responsibility for this.  Capitalism thrives on accumulation of commodity, not so much the progression of humanity, and with society’s growing dependence on technology, it is worth considering the interests of the vendors we depend on for providing our technology.

This being said, the technology existing today has given rise to a new generation of computer hackers – people with refined skills in manipulating their machines to bend to their own wants and needs.  Often these people are working under the radar and outside of huge corporations, exploring the greater possibilities of technology today.  It may be that this is what Donna Haraway is alluding to when she wrote:

‘The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism.  But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins.  Their fathers, after all, are inessential.’

(The Haraway Reader, P.10)

Understanding our relationship with computer technology is key in our ability to advance beyond the commonly-held squeamishness from looking full into the face of cybernetics and artificial intelligence (A.I.), especially when considering the publications of Donna Haraway, including her Cyborg Manifesto of 1985. Haraway’s bold claim that ‘we are [all] cyborgs’ (P.8) came after almost two centuries of dramatic change and re-adjustment to life during and post-industrial revolution, and an evolving relationship with technology that constantly called for the re-evaluation of everything the Western world had come to understand as ‘existence’. In Bruce Grenville’s 2001 essay, The Uncanny: Experiments in Cyborg Culture, he calls upon Freud’s concept of the Uncanny (1919) to relate the unsettling familiarity brought about by the introduction of cyborgs (cybernetic organisms) to the conscious mind.

‘I argue that the representation of the uncanny cyborg allows for a return of the repressed in a controlled medium, within an imaginary form that permits us to safely disregard its real presence.’

(Grenville, B, 2001)

This mental distancing from the reality of that which has been unquestionably growing nearer to the human race is unhealthy and dangerous. It may be that the main cause for this shirking of responsibility stems from our already intimate relationship with the digital world and VR (virtual reality). The capabilities of computers to create highly realistic three-dimensional environments which we can experience as if in a conscious dream has made real the possibility of living out one’s fantasies in a world where mortal security and traditional conceptions of human responsibility are no longer relevant. The concept of the cyborg is banished to the realms of science-fiction in day-to-day usage, while the reality of our fusion with digital technology often goes unchecked.

Though this paradigm of thought has been addressed countless times in every facet of culture – and increasingly so following the industrial revolution – it still seems to be viewed through this alienating lens; as Haraway puts it, ‘the boundary between science fiction and social reality is an optical illusion.’ (1985) This lens acts as a stumbling block in the pathway to taking post-human philosophy seriously.

These science-fiction texts serve as a modern response to the implications of our developing relationship with technology and the digital world. In Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 cyberpunk anime, Ghost in the Shell, the foreboding message carried by the disembodied torso-and-head of the ‘Puppet Master’ (a sentient computer program, first written for the purposes of information espionage, but eventually accumulated enough knowledge to attain self-awareness) poses a challenge to the government officials who question its right to political asylum, and to a larger extent, a challenge to all of mankind:

‘…man is an individual only because of his intangible memory… and memory cannot be defined, but it defines mankind. The advent of computers, and the subsequent accumulation of incalculable data has given rise to a new system of memory and thought parallel to your own. Humanity has underestimated the consequences of computerization.’

This challenge, from the pseudo-lips of a fictional Artificial Intelligence, undermines much of what forms the traditional Western concepts of the human mind. Duality plays a major part in popular psychoanalysis: Freud speculated that at some point in a child’s early development, it discovers that it is itself, different and separate to the world it has so far experienced. In the Post Human Manifesto, Pepperell recalls Chomsky’s theory that ‘animals and small children live in a world of “states” and not of objects’. It is argued by most modern popular psychoanalysis that at the moment this apparent illusion is broken, the child achieves self-awareness. This is challenged by post-human theory, which aligns itself much more closely with Eastern philosophy, especially the beliefs of Taoism and Buddhism, where the individual cannot be logically separated from its environment as it is in a constant flux. In its simplest form: to live, we must consume and expel food and air. The human is never truly separate from its environment, and so in this respect it is argued by post-human thinkers that it would not be unnatural for the human race to expand on the development of cybernetics and a more defined fusion with machines (Pepperell, R.), after all, we are children of the digital age.

There is an urgent need in the present day for sincere recognition of the technological capabilities we possess.  Until the sense of taboo surrounding the ‘uncanny cyborg’ is lifted, the next chapters of humanity’s story are likely to resemble more and more the dystopian worlds of writers like Forster and Gibson.  The daunting responsibility for the future of our species should not in this age be left to a scant few – when the huge bank of knowledge that we have cultured since the beginning of time rests paradoxically in cyberspace; existing and accessible, yet often without physical presence, the responsibility would ideally be shared throughout the world.  To confront the ‘fear of direct experience’ (described in The Machine Stops) may help to ensure that we do not passively allow our planet to slip into a barren wasteland as we turn our backs on all that is traditionally considered natural.  Now the ‘natural’ has changed, but what existed in the past is not gone.  To return to the message of the opening quote from Michael Anissimov, cited by Ray Kurzweil in The Singularity is Near, an active engagement with the course of our future must be taken up, which means starting now as we mean to go on.


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