Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

We are all cyborgs

Friday I picked up a new book by Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. (My wife had heard an interview on NPR with the author, and suggested it was something I should track down.) I generally take a skeptical attitude toward books written by scientists– so many of them look promising, but are boring and superficial– and so I was prepared for the worst.

But it turns out that this is the most stimulating book I’ve read since Howard Rheingold’s Smart Mobs. (For a sense of the argument, read this essay, published in Edge.) There’s a certain kind of book that is very rich in associations, and– if you come to it with the right baggage and previous reading– can spark all kinds of associations, even though the book’s basic premise is extremely simple. I wouldn’t put NBC in the same league as Kuhn’s Structure of Scientific Revolutions or Gombrich’s Art and Illusion, but those are good examples of books that had some pretty straightforward ideas, but generated all sorts of intellectual fission.

NBC’s key idea is this: we are all cyborgs, and– ironically– that’s what makes us human.

Let me unpack that a bit. First, our conventional images of “cyborgs”– of strange creatures like the Borg, Terminator, or Kevin Warwick, with machine implants in biological bodies– is misleading. You can put an ID chip in a cat or a dog (or if you’re really insistent, a human), and it doesn’t fundamentally change them: there’s no new cat-machine symbiosis that emerges from the combination. More generally, thinking of interesting human-machine combinations in terms of implants distracts us from what really matters:

What is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely their ability to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props, and aids. (5)

We already develop some very deep– indeed, transformative– relationships we develop ordinary technologies. Take the example of writing. For me, it’s a recording medium: the place where I store stuff so I won’t forget it. It’s an acid: when I try to write about something, I quickly find out what I do and don’t know, and expose the gaps in my knowledge. It’s even a mnemonic aid: paradoxically, taking notes on a book helps me think about and remember the book better (and I’ve got notes on it, should I forget). I don’t think about things and then write them down: I have a thought, I make a note of it. I barely think off the page.

My relationship with my notebook and pen is infinitely more intimate, and more important, than one I would have with all but the most powerful implanted device– a pacemaker, say, or an insulin pump. What matters, Clark argues, is not the fact that something is injected or implanted in the body, but the kind of relationship that develops between technologies and people. We’ve spent thousands of years with technologies that change our ability to think, remember, analyze, and understand. Humans have been cyborgs for a long time. In fact,

It is because our brains, more than those of any other animal on the planet, are primed to seek and consummate such intimate relations with nonbiological resources that we end up as bright and as capable of abstract thought as we are. It is because we are natural-born cyborgs, forever ready to merge our mental activities with the operations of pen, paper, and electronics, that we are able to understand the world as we do…. Minds like ours were made for mergers. (6-7)

In other words, being cyborgs is what makes us human. Or rather, the ability to develop these deep, powerful relationships with technologies (particularly information technologies) is what separates us from animals. Chimps and gorillas can do it a little; but we’re in a different league.

So we have to think about ourselves a little differently than we’re used to: not as bodies and minds whose boundaries are clearly demarcated, but as something rather more complex:

[H]uman thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding. (11)

More on the book as I read further.

Update: My discussion of Clark extends over several posts:

An interview
Information Revolutions and Natural Born Cyborgs
Word Spacing, Silent Reading, and Cyborgs
Malleability
Natural Born Cyborgs on the Internet
Natural Born Cyborgs and Drawing

2 Comments

  1. This is really interesting. I may have to add that book to my (growing) list of things I ought to read.

    You might also want to visit Naomi Chana’s blog Baraita and look at the comments posted to her piece on how to label and conceptualize cyberspace and “real” space; they seem to be touching on some similar issues.

  2. Check out the Edge article first; it’s a less structured version of the argument (and obviously has less evidence, since it’s an essay rather than a book) but it gives a decent sense of what Clark’s trying to do.

    I don’t know Baraita; I’ll look at it forthwith!
    —–
    PING:
    TITLE: Yet more Andy Clark
    URL: http://Blogger.iftf.org/Future/000776.html
    IP: 64.157.92.82
    BLOG NAME: IFTF’s Future Now
    DATE: 03/11/2005 03:25:37 PM
    At the risk of boring regular readers to tears, but catching some poor unexpecting soul who’s gotten here via Google, I’ll point to this Financial Times piece on rethinking cyborgs. Not surprisingly, a significant portion of the piece deals with Andy …

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