The Posthuman

"All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others." ~ George Orwell

The Social Network

The human is evolving. In their introduction to The Cyborg Handbook (which we’ll read from for next week), Chris Hables-Gray, Steven Mentor, and Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera write, “The story of cyborgs is not just a tale told around the glow of the televised fire.  There are many actual cyborgs among us in society.  Anyone with an artificial organ, limb or supplement (like a pacemaker), anyone reprogrammed to resist disease (immunized) or drugged to think/behave/feel better (psychopharmacology) is technically a cyborg.  The range of these intimate human-machine relationships is mind-boggling” (2). The authors begin by ironically describing their work as a “story of cyborgs” (my emphasis), only to cannibalize this first sentence with their second, in which the cyborg is not at all a fiction. By their account, we are all cyborgs. In 1995, when The Cyborg Handbook was written, this might have seemed a stretch, but over fifteen years later, our so-called “intimate” relationship with machines has become a true romance.

For me, the cell phone is the most poignant example.  Because of the cell phone, the human body now has the capacity to ring, to vibrate even.  This strikes me as a rather intimate, even sensual, interaction between man and machine.  The cell phone communicates through a subtle stimulation--a tickle of the skin that can’t be felt unless the phone is in direct physical contact with the body.  And already, the physicality of some of our most profoundly human moments is slipping away (being replaced by this other sort of mechanical intimacy).  I recently watched a woman sobbing into her cell phone, and I was struck by the fact that we do this--we have our most private, our most meaningful, our most emotionally wrenching, conversations with machines (on cell phones, in chat rooms, via IM).  I couldn’t hear the content of the conversation, but I wondered what it was about: the breakdown of a marriage, an accidental pregnancy, a death--spoken not to a person but into a machine--the woman’s tears transformed into binary code, shot through the air, and translated by a receiver on the other end.  There is something marvelous about this and also something vacant and sad.

Is the so called “cyborg society” we live in a site of imprisonment or a site of physical and spiritual liberation? Would you describe the dissolving distinction between humans and machines as progress?

In a recent article about the evolution of learning, I wrote that we are all “becoming compilations, amalgams, a concatenation of web sites.” We are the people in front of each other but also our “avatars in World of Warcraft and the profiles [we] create on FaceBook. [We] speak with mouths, but also with fingers tapping briskly at the keys of [our] smart phones. When [we] want to ‘reach out and touch someone,’ [we] use Skype and Twitter.” To what extent are we already transformed fundamentally by technology? What does The Social Network suggest about the changing nature of our identities and relationships? In what subtle (and not so subtle) ways does the film address these themes?

[Photo by Stuck in Customs]
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