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How Technology Got Under Our Skin

Two arms, two legs, a head, a heart, and a smartphone = Human?

Thomas McMullan
Apr 26, 2018 · 10 min read

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So this is mankind at the turn of the anthropocene, much the same as we have ever been: two arms, two legs, a head, and a heart. Like the circle-bound symmetry of Leonardo Da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, the meat and bones of the human race are the same in 2018 as they were in 1490. Some of us have gotten taller, some of us have gotten fatter, and there may be a lot more of us, but strip us down to our bare essentials and the same proportions are there.

And yet, we are different. The world around us has been reconfigured by the black rectangle of the smartphone in our hands. The way we think about ourselves is different from that Renaissance figure—our minds and our bodies, our connections and limitations. We can communicate at near-instantaneous speeds across the globe; we have access to an unimaginable repository of information within a few swipes; we are mapped, profiled, and indexed at scales never before possible by nebulous social networks and by the sensors in our pockets, on our wrists, in our kitchens, cars, bedrooms.

All of these things ripple into our way of thinking about the world. There’s been increasing attention to how the power structures of the internet are redrawing social order, but the roots of these questions run deeper than our Facebook profiles, right to our own bodies. Have networked machines gotten under our skin, changing what we think it means to be human?

“Humans are a tool-making species, and smartphones and the digital platforms they employ are the grandest tools we have right now,” Michael Patrick Lynch, writer and professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut, tells me. “Our tool making has always affected how we see ourselves in body and in mind.”

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Credit: Vaara via iStock / Getty Images Plus

Technology has a long-standing habit of shifting the tablecloth under our dinner. The world was a bigger place before the railroad came. The ground was harder before the invention of the shovel. Society was changed by the creation of the musket, the shoe, the radio, the atom bomb, and it has been changed by the computer, as it has by the smartphone.

“But it is more radical than that,” Lynch says. “The digital revolution is more like the revolution brought on by the written word. Just as the written word allowed us to time-travel — to record our thoughts for others, including ourselves, to read in the future — so the internet has allowed for a kind of tele-transportation , breaking down barriers of space and physical limitation and connecting us across the globe in ways we now take for granted, as we do the written word.”

Lynch has powerfully articulated our relationships with smartphones and the “extended mind” theory: that our mind views external cognitive aids as part of our own brains. Our mind, then, views our smartphone as part of ourselves, because we have become so reliant on it for everything from memory storage to social relationships. It explains our compulsion to reach for our phone when we are driving, even though we rationally know that is wrong — because our mind feels that our phone is part of ourselves.

But how far does this sensation go, and where will it end up?

Counting Bodies

Alongside the growth of data harvesting by governments and private companies has been an explosion in the number of sensors that let people monitor and chart different aspects of their own bodies. From heart rate to fertility to diet (via tooth-mounted detectors), we can keep tabs on ourselves like never before. Some go so far as to claim a new psycho-awareness of their body as a result; a kind of “sixth sense” being brought on by repeated use of health trackers. In the book Self-Tracking, authors Gina Neff, a sociology professor at Oxford University, and Dawn Nafus, a research scientist at Intel, describe this phenomenon as a shuffling between physical signs and observed recordings: “The data becomes a ‘prosthetic of feeling,’ something to help us sense our bodies or the world around us. These senses can become uncannily reliable.”

Neff and Nafus relay a story, told by the sociologist Whitney Boesel, of a woman who came to develop a strong sense of when she was ovulating through repeated use of ovulation monitors: “Strong enough, in fact, that she got better at predicting her ovulation cycle than certain kinds of tests.”

Advocates of this “prosthetic of feeling” argue that self-tracking can train people to recognize their own body signals, tuning the senses to allow for a greater grasp of biological rhythms. It encourages a way of thinking about ourselves where the body is framed as a tamable entity—a set of systems that can, with help from wearable sensors, be listened to, interpreted, perhaps even mastered.

There’s a liberation to this way of thinking. For those who feel weighed down by their body’s demands, the chance to map its rhythms can be deeply empowering. But is there a flip side? Does thinking about our flesh and blood in this way reduce us too easily into data points to be wrangled?

Imagine what this feeling of an intimate relationship with technology can do for surveillance and what it would do to our minds. It’s a fast track to a dystopian vision of the future, one that has the potential to be much more insidious than smartphones being used to eavesdrop on our calls, NSA-style. If we feel ourselves integrated with the interconnected devices in our hands, encouraged to view our bodies as systems to be charted in the promise that they can be improved upon or our personalities as sets of likes and preferences to be served targeted ads, then are we helping to frame ourselves as objects to be scrutinized, analyzed, manipulated?

“One issue that philosophers have always worried about is that our tool making can sometimes cause us to see the world around us as just one more tool — in other words, an object of manipulation,” Lynch says. “So what happens when we extend our tools to the point that they become embedded into our life, when they become extensions of our bodies and minds? One concern is that it encourages us to start seeing ourselves in the same way — as objects to be exploited. As tools.”

The real question may be this: Who uses the tool? An individual may be perfectly suited to wield their own quantified self, but what if the body-as-data is exploited by the state, or by an insurance company that can predict when you’ll get diabetes, or a data analytics firm that can use it to help sway elections? The Chinese government is going so far as to plan a social credit score for its citizens by 2020, giving each of the country’s 1.3 billion residents a reputation number based on economic and social status. If we see our bodies as controllable systems, we need to ask ourselves who’s in control.

What is particularly subtle about all this is that, like a scientific épistémè, our way of thinking is perhaps unconsciously guided by the configurations of knowledge these new technologies allow. We don’t question it. In the age of the smartphone, we think in a way that smartphones enable — networked, multitasked, less couched by our physical place in time and space. There are manifold ways this translates to our everyday lives.

“Sense of place is something that is constructed out of social relations between people and between people and environments, and there is no universal effect that something like GPS will have on this,” says Hannah Knox, a lecturer in digital anthropology and material culture at UCL. “For an Inuit hunter, GPS may make landscapes visible in new ways—changing, perhaps, a sense of where animals are located, with both pragmatic and political consequences; for a teenager playing Pokémon Go, on the other hand, the effects may be more about the remaking of public space.”

Computational machines are “shaping what we expect it means to be a human”, Knox wrote for the Corsham Institute’s Observatory for a Connected Society. “Industrial manufacturing led to people becoming reimagined as units of productive labour. Now algorithms are leading to a rethinking of identity as a composition of experiences and preferences.”

In the wake of the Cambridge Analytica revelations and ongoing questions about the power technology companies amass from our data, the value of those preferences is starting to make itself clear.

Outsourced Memory

In Samuel Beckett’s 1958 play, Krapp’s Last Tape, an old man listens to tape recordings he has made each year throughout his life. He reviews a spool from his 39th birthday, hearing a younger version of himself talk about a lover, his mother’s death, at one point commenting on what it was like to listen to a tape made when he was 20: “Hard to believe I was ever that young whelp. The voice! Jesus! And the aspirations!”

We have become Krapp in the recorded minutiae of our lives, the past habitually brought back to life through the machines that surround us. But the spools aren’t in our bedroom. Facebook goads us to remember past moments on a daily basis, the stacked boxes of tape in Beckett’s play replaced with stacks of servers in remote data centers in northern Sweden.

It’s not only old lives that are kept in the cloud. Over the past couple decades, we’ve gotten into the habit of keeping almost everything online: our bank details, our work documents, our love letters, slotted only a few swipes from encyclopedias, shops, and search engines. With a smartphone in hand, our minds are spread over vast distances, ready to recall at a moment’s notice from centers run by Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Microsoft.

Whether or not the internet’s distributed pools of information have rewired our brains is a subject of much investigation. One 2016 study, published in the journal Memory, explored how people became primed to use the internet for “cognitive offloading” and found that those who used Google to answer questions were more likely to use it for following questions, even if those questions got easier. Another study, published in the Journal of the Association for Consumer Research in 2017, suggests that even the mere presence of a smartphone can affect a person’s cognitive capacity.

“There is reasonable evidence that [the internet] has reduced our internal memory ability,” says Phil Reed, a professor of psychology at Swansea University. “Of course, it serves as a sort of external memory, if used properly. There is more evidence that it has reduced our ability to control our cognitive and behavioral processes. It does swell the hippocampus, which might impact cognitive mapping — we don’t know — but, more probably, it affects our self-confidence and self-esteem.”

Not all studies suggest such a negative effect on our memory. Moderate tech use correlated with positive mental health, according to a paper published in Psychological Science by Andrew Przybylski of Oxford and Netta Weinstein at Cardiff University, who surveyed 120,000 British 15-year-olds. It’s also worth remembering that new technologies have historically tended to develop alongside concerns about mental effects. Even Plato wrote of Socrates’ fear that the advent of the written word would “introduce forgetfulness into the soul of those who learn it.”

All the same, writing did go on to fundamentally change the course of human thought, and there is scope for networked technologies to do this again, if they haven’t done so already. Again, the crucial question is one of control. If our way of thinking is changed by our intimacy with these technologies, then is this process being directed by individuals, or the ledgers of private companies, or governments keen on surveilling their citizens? If we conceive of these systems as extensions of our own brains, what happens if they collapse?

“Imagine your smartphone was miniaturized and hooked right into your brain,” Lynch says. “If you had this implant, you’d be able to upload and download to the internet at the speed of thought. Accessing Wikipedia and social media would feel from the inside a lot like consulting your memory. It would be as easy — and as intimate — as thinking.

“Suppose we possessed implants like this for generations, and then, one day, the technology supporting them went down. I suspect that would be like losing a sense — like going suddenly blind. We would learn that we had been over-relying on one way of accessing information at the expense of other ways. And of course something like this is already happening to us right now. We already carry around a world of information in our pockets.”

Brain-Machine Interfaces

Lynch’s hypothetical implant might not be as far-fetched as it sounds. Brain-machine interfaces (BMI) are coming in leaps and bounds, with companies like Neuralink and CTRL-Labs in the United States exploring both surgical and noninvasive processes that allow computers to be controlled directly by signals from the brain. It’s a field that involves fundamentally changing the relationship between our minds, bodies, and machines.

Kevin Warwick, emeritus professor at Coventry University and a pioneer in implant technology, sees direct brain-to-machine interface as the next “obvious” step in wearable sensors.

“Brain signals are electrical — well, electrochemical, anyway — and phone signals are electrical,” he explains. “Converting to mechanical — sound or movement — signals is ridiculous, as these have such a low bandwidth and are terribly slow. Brain-computer interfaces open up exciting opportunities of a much closer connection.”

Warwick notes the effectiveness of deep brain stimulation for the treatment of Parkinson’s disease as an example of how brain-machine interfaces already exist in the world. Granted, there’s quite a wide gulf between the electrical-pulse generator used to control a deep brain stimulator and a device that could link our gray matter to a laptop, but Warwick believes it’s only a matter of time before we’re able to operate technology directly from our minds: “This means that in the future, our brain/mind and our body will not need to be in the same place — our body can be whatever we want it to be, technologically, and as long as there is a network connection with the nervous system, it can be wherever there is a network connection.”

What that would do to the way we think about our minds and our bodies makes current shifts in self-understanding seem modest by comparison. We probably won’t have much time to worry about who has control over our body of data when our literal body may be owned by a technology company.

For now, however, the shifts remain subtle, rippling under the surface into our consciousness, our politics, our way of understanding the world and our place within it. The tools we use affect how we think about ourselves, even if mankind is the same as we have ever been: Two arms, two legs, a head, and a heart.

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