Mitchell puts forth the extreme idea of the possibility of full human dematerialization, and in doing so blurs the line between humanity and technology. It is a radical idea: to abandon the flesh that nature has fashioned for us and to dwell purely in the realm of electricity and magnetism, of copper and silicon. It is not an entirely frivolous idea, as the dematerialization of information and the development of increasingly instantaneous data transmission (thus suggesting omnipresence and omniscience) tempts humans to transcend the material realm and attempt to enter the ethereal divine. Humans have already connected to technology more closely than ever imagined, inseparably relying on expansive networks to thrive in this modern world. Are humans willing to cross the line?
What if we could go all the way with shaking ourselves loose, shuck the last few atoms from our souls, and simply live on server farms somewhere? The gonzo endpoint of these trajectories of dematerialization and hypermobilization is the suggestion that mental life is just an affair of bits in the brain; you might strip them from this squishy substrate (much as one rips a CD) and download yourself onto disk. You are, on this view, just software � and as device-independent as a Java applet. You don't have to run on a high-maintenance meat machine. You no longer have to be, as Yeats so famously lamented, "fastened to a dying animal." Like saints and shamans in ecstasies, you loosen, to the ultimate, the binding of your persona to materiality and place. . . .
We are at the endgame of a process that began when our distant ancestors started to clothe themselves with second skins stripped from other creatures, to extend and harden their hands with simple tools and weapons, and to record information by scratching marks on surfaces. It picked up speed when our more recent forebears began to wire up telegraph, telephone, and packet-switching networks, to place calls, to log in, and to download dematerialized information to wireless portable devices. It is repeated whenever a child learns to do these things; for the cyborg, ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny. It is not that we have become posthuman in the wireless network era; since Neanderthal early-adopters first picked up sticks and stones, we have never been human. (Me++, 167-168)
1. What, exactly, defines humanity? If Mitchell suggests that being "human" implies a total separation from any technology, even including "sticks and stones", then does that mean other tool using animals, such as gorillas and certain birds, have transcended the "natural" realm of existence, as well? Are woodpeckers cyborgs?
2. If the brain is essentially a piece of software, as Mitchell suggests, then is the casting off of the "high maintenance meat machine" a sort of liberation? Are we limited by the fragility of our fleshy prisons, or is materiality a valuable privilege and advantage?
3. What of the emotions associated with flesh? Would people be willing to give up experiences such as love and sensuality, or would they resort to simulating these stimulations digitally? How would reproduction work, anyway? How would interaction between people change? Would we actually be separate entities from each other, despite the literal, physical link?
4. Does the abandonment of the physical, 'real' body imply a total cut off from the corporeal world? Would technobrains still inhabit the real world via robotic appendages and senses, or would these brains endlessly amuse themselves in virtual reality? Would the ability to instantly perceive and manipulate this virtual world be akin to the sort of godlike omniscience and omnipotence that our current networking trends seem to strive for?
5. Does the conversion to the cyborg begin with the mere use and reliance on technology, or does it mean the literal, physical union between man and machine? Is the pure "software and hardware" person "more of a cyborg" than the 18th century telegrapher? Is this transition to the ultimate electrical habitation a steady and inevitable process, developing at an increasingly rapid rate?
Mitchell, William J. Me++: The Cyborg Self and the Networked City. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2003.
Last modified 11 September 2006