Andy Clark’s Natural Born Cyborgs – and stuff…

So, if you haven’t noticed I have started talking about technology a lot lately and right now I am enthralled by thinking about  Andy Clark’s book,  Natural Born Cyborgs, and I’ve been walking around talking about it constantly because I am so interested in how limited our definition of the word technology has become and also because I am having a hard time denying his explanation of human beings as natural born as cyborgs. 

In particular, I am fascinated by Clark’s understanding of human existence as not only mind-body but also scaffolding – or rather technologies that are so integrated into our everyday practices that we hardly notice them. Clark points out that human beings are and always have been dependant on tools or rather technology, scaffolding,  and this dependence has enabled us to persist.

When I consider my own existence, I know that  there are daily interactions with  technologies that don’t conjure any fear of a cyborg coup and in fact make my life possible – for example – chairs, desks, marker boards or  overhead projectors. And unlike Clark,  I am able to see beyond his 2003 publication date to my iphone, which sometimes seems an extension of my hand. This device has already changed the dynamic of how and what I memorize. For example, as a child I had an address book for people’s addresses and knew all my friends’ phone numbers by heart. Now, I have all my friends, coworkers, acquaintances and others information in my pocket, stored on my iphone and I memorize no one’s phone number. Also, when watching TV who wonders where you know that actor from or what her name is when you have the internet in you pocket; it enables my brother and father – both doctors – to look at x-rays when they are hundreds of miles away from the office eating ice cream or playing golf.

As you can imagine – Natural Born Cyborgs isn’t perfect.  Clark really doesn’t entirely broach the subject of privacy infringement – neither bodily nor theoretically. He glosses over the possibility of ‘implanted’ devices without much notice  and seems to think that good will ultimately prevail in a battle with big brother. While he thinks he has a holistic sense of the mind-body continuum, he repeatedly refers to the body as the “skin bag” and favors the individual spirit of the liberal subject. Ultimately,  I think in some ways Clark is too flippant and in other ways too tentative. The word scaffolding seems to undermine the reality of our interdependence. These devices aren’t really scaffolding. Scaffolding is temporary; it’s the structure that enables the building to be built – it’s a support that is removed upon completion. While, our technologies may be interchangeable – this pen for that one, a new computer for an old one – they are not disposable. We cannot achieve our goals or keep pace with the current requirements of our lives without them. (My office/students e-mail at all hours of the day and expects a reply – Does yours?) What I’m getting at here is more than a question of overload or limitation or privacy infringement – all things that Clark mentions –  but rather a question of desire. What do we want from progress?

As I believe Donna  Haraway also argues, Clark is bringing our attention to the immediate truth – we are already melded – we are patched and stitched amalgams – but while we may be natural born cyborgs – or integrators – are we comfortable with the direction our technology is headed in? I keep thinking about the Bruce Willis film that came out a couple of years ago, Surrogates – are technological bodies are initially passed off as the same as real bodies.  At a cocktail party –  is it the same to have the internet implanted into your brain, so that when someone mentions  Franz Marc and the Blue Rider you can silently do an internal google search so that you don’t seem ignorant with regards to German Expressionism? Are you presenting a real you or is this some second self – ideal for interviews but not great for intimacy?

Let’s face it cyborgs freak me out. It’s not that I feel that technology is poised to take over the world but if you’ll allow me to generalize the image of the cyborg has repeatedly been used to forward phallocentric, militaristic, technological domination and flesh-less female subjugation. I mean have you seen this Svedka ad campaign:

Or how about She-3P0, which I was ranting about yesterday?

But that said – perhaps Natural Born Cyborgs premise – his general argument – gives us a way to rethink technology – to drag it back from the brink of ickiness and let it flourish in new directions.

Okay – one more thing – Clark has a new book, Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension. I’m gonna read it.  Are you?

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2 responses

    • I’m torn when it comes to Haraway. She is clearly writing in direct response to Spiritual Feminists – who look to the symbol of a Goddess to replace the current male dominance symbolic/mythic – and I’m not sure that we need to create purely technological mythic images. That said, she exposes the dualistic issue with dismissing technology in favor of nature – or the “natural.”

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