Maybe the question isn't as straightforward as it sounds: how much of our selfhood, our social, cultural, political, personal, and subjective selves are created and uncreated by the influx of technology? At first, being the skeptic I can sometimes be, my response was, "No way, no how. Sure I use technology, sometimes admit to being 'plugged-in', or whatever technical lingo is being used these days, but come on, I am just as autonomous and self-sufficient as my caveman predecessors - probably even more so." This seems to be the gut reaction of most people, trying somehow to preserve the autonomy of his fully organic self in the face of the ever-expanding crutch of digital infrastructure around him.
Then the thought starts to click in. The small pieces of your life that are most obviously a part of the larger "networked city" or "networked culture" or "networked reality" begin to become apparent. The cells phones and instant messages, the highways and mass transit, the computers that seem to have infiltrated every facet of our lives. And then it hits. For an instant you are speechless, your mind goes blank, and those former reassurances that you have full control over who you are and what you do start to whither away as you realize that you are a cyborg self.
This is the realization that it seems William Mitchell is working for in his book Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. The book, a insightful but sometimes hauntingly real examination, is in many ways a calculated addendum to the work of Guglielmo Marconi, the first man to send a wireless signal across the Atlantic. Written one hundred years after Marconi's first wireless telegraph message did the unthinkable and changed the way we communicate not only to each other, but to our creations themselves, Mitchell sees the implications of what a single concept, sending information through the air, can do to the progress of an entire civilization.
The two parts of Marconi's system had evolved in opposite directions. The network had scaled up. The single wireless link had expanded into a dense, global web of wireless infrastructure; if you counted all of its terrestrial, satellite, and spacecraft linkages, it was now humankind's most extensive single construction. Simultaneously, though, the transmission and reception apparatus had dramatically scaled down; it had reduced from landscape element to fashion accessory. [Me++, 2]
What follows from this radial center is not in any way an answer because I do not have them. While reading I was prompted less by the details on the page than I was by valuation judgments of our technological advancement. Mitchell's most valuable asset is the lack of a firm ethical voice in his diatribe through the networks of our time. Although hardly is the book unbiased, it still presents the reader with the facts to make his own decision, to form his own valuation. In the end, it comes down to the following questions:
- Where is the self in a networked society?
- What is outside the self in a networked society?
- Cyborg Freedom?
- The self, or something that looks like it.
Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Last modified 3 February 2005