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.”
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?