It is not that we have become postmodern in the wireless network era; since Neanderthal early-adopters first picked up sticks and stones, we have never been human. [Me++ 168]

Mitchell makes the bold statement that we are not human in an attempt to show that the "human" that we consider ourselves is more similar to a "cyborg" because of man's not so new, as is claimed, relation to things in the world.

But what does it mean to no longer be human? At first this looks absurd. What are we if we are not human? Although Mitchell doesn't seem to believe we should shed the category of homo-sapians for something new and more accurate, his assertion that somehow we have not been human since man first discovered tools does still carry a lot of weight. We have to ask the question of how the outside world determines what we are as an autonomous species. Or more pointedly, what is to be said about human freedom, or the Nomadic Lifestyle of the Digital World?

This seems to be a contentious claim. As Peter Peng asks, if mankind is becoming less human, it implies that man is becoming progressively inhuman, so do we replace our relationship to our organic "humanness" with the superficiality, artificiality, or cybernetic qualities of our "inhumanness"? Frankly this seems absurd in many ways. For example: there are certain fish that live in the ocean, pilot fish and sucker fish, that follow sharks, sometimes attaching themselves to the outside of the shark, in order to eat the scraps of food the shark misses while it is feeding. These fish are essentially symbiotic and depend on the actions of the shark for their food production. According to Mitchell, since he seems to imply that any organism that appropriates something other than itself to essentially do work to satisfy its needs is necessarily becoming other than itself, or its natural characteristics. This would make the pilot fish less "pilot fish", and if we take the cyborg metaphor to its full extension, it must also be part shark! Some people have had the opposite conclusion, such as Frederick Allen, who claimed in American Heritage Magazine that "our technologies, like our artistic creations, are and always have been nothing more or less than plain expressions of our human nature."

Now, I do not mean to reject the idea that technology and networked society have an effect on man, but I do not believe the notion that man is less human for engaging in a networked behavior, or appropriating things in the world to suit his needs. A more proper claim may be that man is alienated in certain ways from humanity as a whole by uses of certain technology. For instance, many people have noted that communication through networked infrastructure can have new effects on the way communication is conducted. Instead of the center square of ancient times where people met to discuss what was happening in the world around them, routinely now we communicate without ever having a real-time connection with the person with whom we are communicating. In a way this can be alienating by pulling man away from the face-to-face encounters that he had previously used to understand himself in society. More and more society is becoming a place where our fellow humans are voices in a box, or words on an electronic screen. So we can then ask the question, is this new form of communication with the interaction between man and man mediated by machine, where the direct link in the communication is from man to machine, essentially an "inhuman" communication? This claim, although weaker than Mitchell's, seems to stir up interesting connections.

Researchers and psychologist like Richard DeGrandpre have attempted to reject the position that technology suits our basic needs. In his book, Digitopia, he argues that we have created technology for economic reasons without fully asking the important questions of whether or not we are doing ourselves any good. He describes a climate where the vast majority of people in our society assume that there are no significant side effects of "building and inhabiting a digital world" (Digitopia, 75). With a general disinclination to pursue in-depth psychological and sociological investigations of the possible adverse effects of technology on man, we will never fully understand where it is we are heading and whether or not we should keep moving as we currently are. DeGrandpre hypothesizes that the explosion of mood disorders and other environmentally created/aggravated psychological disorders may actually be getting worse with the advent of the "digitopia". Our technology may be forcing us into sickness.

Mitchell avoids the question of what the networked society does to the psychology of the individual. He approaches the questions of cybernetics with apprehensive optimism. For him, the gradual dehumanizing of man into non-man is an advancement over the pre-historical predecessors of man. If it indeed were true that technology is hurting man, psychologically or socially, Mitchell's cyborg-man may one day be a faint memory (although I highly doubt it would happen, even if we were to discover that electromagnetic rays were causing us indelible harm). Perhaps we should, instead of looking at the whole of the historical progression of man becoming more and more interconnected to his world, we should look at specific instances and specific categories of progress and how they interrelate to each other. For instance, refrigerators seem like a vast technological improvement, but when we look at the production of electricity and possible environmental and health side-effects, the waters are somewhat murkier. This approach would also do away with the categorical claim that we are better off now as a species than we were 5,000 years ago. It would allow us to see certain technologies as advancements, and others as possible hindrances.

We may finally want to remark on Mitchell's remarkably optimistic views on the possibility of a "postbiological future". Like Gregory Halenda asks, "Is it reasonable to compare the modern technology user to someone downloaded to disk and separated from a body?" Although this may work into Mitchell's notion of freedom, the implications of what this would do to humanity as whole seems to beg the question of non-biological humans and the deep philosophical connection between mind and body. Although a provocative idea, at the current time, digitalized human consciousness is an idea reserved for science fiction, and is a contentious claim in philosophy of mind discussions.

It would put land use and transportation planners out of work; real estate requirements would now be measured in megabytes rather than square feet, mobility in terms of bits per second rather than miles per hour, and accessibility in terms of wireless network coverage. But the result is not disembodiment, in the sense of complete erasure of materiality. Nor is it reincarnation in humanoid avatar form. It is a more complex, spatially distributed, fluid, hybrid form of embodiment enacted with new hardware-one in which silicon, copper, and magnetic subsystems play a vastly increased role, while carbon-based subsystems play a diminished and no longer so privileged one. Mortality reappears as a server crash. (There are some work-arounds, perhaps; you could implement reincarnation as restoration from backup, and transmigration of the soul as a hardware replacement strategy.) So, why bother with the messy and problematic brain operation? By other means, anyway, we are already asymptotically approaching that networked cyborg state. Why insist on taking the carbon completely to zero? [Me++, 167-168]

Related Materials


DeGrandpre, Richard Digitopia. New York: Books, 2001.

Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.

Course Website cyborg Body & Self Me++

Last modified 3 February 2005