Natural-Born Cyborgs

Andy Clark‘s Natural-Born Cyborgs is an excellent discussion of what new information technologies mean for us as embodied, intelligent beings. Clark argues, rightly, that fears about “unnatural” cyborgization are unfounded. Human beings have always – as long as we have been human – used prosthetic devices to extend our intelligence. Language is the first and most important such prosthetic device; writing is a second, momentously important one. The list goes on, to include all the “media” (in Marshall McLuhan’s sense) that are woven into the texture of our lives. The point is that such technologies are not mere “tools” in contrast to ourselves as conscious minds who merely “use” those tools. Much of our conscious experience, from the way we “use” our hands and feet to the way we remember things that are not directly present to consciousness until we willfully recall them, is in fact based on “distributed systems” without clear boundaries. Through writing, for instance, we can do mathematical calculations, and create narratives and reasoned arguments, that would be impossible to articulate without pen and paper. The best way to explain this is to say that my intelligence is a distributed system that includes the marks on the sheet of paper (and the hands that make those marks, and the eyes that read them back) as well as the flashings across synapses. The result is that we can master a greater body of material than is literally storable in short-term memory. But this can be extended; looking at my wristwatch in order to know the time is no different, and neither is using software to access knowledge that isn’t always implanted in my physical brain, or using a telephone to talk to somebody thousands of miles away. There is simply no sensible way to draw the line between what we do “naturally” and what we only can do with technological prostheses. If anything, what defines human beings as a species is our “natural” ability to extend our bodies and intelligences – by using “technology”, and by exploiting the extreme “neural plasticity” of our minds to adapt culturally, rather than waiting for genetics, to new circumstances and new ways of being – in ways that other animals cannot. I think that Clark is entirely right in his arguments; it’s ridiculous to say that computers and mobile phones and future developments in virtual reality are “denaturing” and “alienating” us any more than using fire, or speech, or drawing marks in the sand has done. So Natural-Born Cyborgs is a smart and useful book; it is also admirably written by an academic philosopher in a readily accessible style (as is all too rarely the case). At times, the book seems a little thin, because the argument has been drawn out for more pages than is really necessary; but this is only a minor quibble, in light of the book’s many virtues. (Also, it’s nice to see a cognitive philosopher who’s savvy enough to cite William Burroughs and J G Ballard and Warren Ellis).

One Response to “Natural-Born Cyborgs”

  1. [...] Natural-Born Cyborgs – Andy Clark. I’ve been interested in this book since reading about it on Steve’s blog. Technologies. The body. Citations of Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan. Dang. That sounds good to me! Since summer brings on academic funk (not the thang of the James Brown funk but the dreariness of being in a funk), this might re-spark my intellectual drive; it might push me into a new space where I can – outside of or in addition to my project on Detroit – offer a vision of the media-being – as opposed to any of the other “student” images projected into and from composition studies: Shor’s liberated student, Berlin’s aware student, Graff’s conflict-oriented and engaged student, and so on). [...]