July 15th, 2010

S.C. Hickman

Are we Cyborgs already? - The Posthuman Dilemna

     "Here, at the inaugural moment of the computer age, the erasure of embodiment is performed so that "intelligence" becomes a property of the formal manipulation of symbols rather than enaction in the human lifeworld."
         - N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics

Can machines think? Will humanity disappear one day into the machines they have created, merging our minds in some cyborgian nightmare of steel and electrical impulse? Shall we erase our organic embodiment in favor of some silicon semblance of life? Many of us spend hours everyday using technological tools to interact with others without realizing exactly what this mediation is doing to our very way of being in the world.

N. Katherine Hayles explores this process of technological mediation and its consequences. Instead of the 'earsure of embodiment' she sees that "embodiment makes clear that thought is a much broader cognitive function depending for its specificities on the embodied form enacting it. This realization, with all its exfoliation implications, is so broad in its effects and so deep in its consequences that it is transforming the liberal subject, regarded as the model of the human since the Enlightenment, into the posthuman." No matter what we might envision of the identity of embodied subjects beyond the computer screen that we interact with we deal with them through a distributed cognitive system in which "represented bodies are joined with enacted bodies through mutating and flexible machine interfaces." Because of this we have already entered the post-human age.

Do we have an essence? Are we only information: the sum of our thoughts, feelings, etc.? Are are we much more than that, are we not our physical embodiment with all its animal pains and sufferings?  Hayles says that her search for an answer began with the nightmare vision of a science fiction scenario: the ability of scientists to be able to download consciousness into a machine. She tells us there are three interrelated stories in her narrative: the first (1) centers on how "information lost its body, that is, how it came to be conceptualized as an entity separate from the material forms in which it is thought to be embedded"; the second (2) concerns how the "cyborg was created as a technological artifact and cultural icon" in the years following World War II; and, third, (3) concerns the "unfolding story of how historically specific construction called the human is giving way to a different construction called the posthuman.

She sees the post-human as characterized by the following assumptions: (1) the posthuman view privileges informational pattern over material instantiation, so that embodiment in a biological substrate is seen as an accident of history rather than an inevitability of life; (2) the posthuman considers consciousness, regarded as the seat of human identity in the Western tradition... as an epiphenomena, as an evolutionary upstart trying to claim that it is the whole show when it is actually a minor sideshow; (3) the posthuman view thinks of the body as a prosthetic assemblage, one that can be made obsolete and replaced; and, (4) in the posthuman view humans and intelligent machines share no definable difference or "absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism, robot teleology and human goals."

The idea of the liberal "natural" self is done away with within this posthuman view. In this view the posthuman subject no longer owns his self as property, but is owned by corporate entities who control his biogenetic material that was formerly a natural property right. If one's body is machine based and owned by corporate entities then what is freedom? Instead of asking this question she tells us that even biologically unaltered humans count as posthuman within this new commodfied economy of posthumanism. As she states it the "defining characteristics involve the construction of subjectivity, not the presence of nonbiological components."

Hayles doesn't bewail the passing of the liberal subject, rather she views "the present moment as a critical juncture when interventions might be made to keep disembodiment from being rewritten, once again, into prevailing concepts of subjectivity." This deconstruction of the liberal humanist tradition provides an "opportunity to put back into the picture the flesh that continues to be erased in contemporary discussion about cybernetic subjects." As she says:

"If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is aversion of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend for our continued survival." 
S.C. Hickman

To Grok or not to grok, that is the question... but what's the answer?

Heinlein in his famous novel, Stranger in a Strange Land coined the term 'grok'. In a recent series of posts concerning the religious/atheist viewpoints I was amazed at the eloquence of our entanglement in these divisive issues. The issue of liberty and tolerance seem to be at the heart of the problem/solution. I agree that the idea of a little more 'grokking' could help. By 'grok' Heinlein means to understand so thoroughly that the observer becomes a part of the observed—to merge, blend, intermarry, lose identity in group experience. It means almost everything that we mean by religion, philosophy, and science—and it means as little to us (because of our Earthly assumptions) as color means to a blind man.

What's interesting is that Heinlein is using the scientific idea espoused within the 'uncertainty principle': the idea that there is no archimedian point outside of the system from which we might all judge the system in question, therefore the Observer as observer must always be a part of the equation, and that there is always a physical (mental?) limit to our knowledge of any system.

Of course Heinlein in his book used the Martian as metaphor. According to the book, drinking is a central focus on Mars where water is scarce. Martians use the merging of their bodies with water as a simple example or symbol of how two entities can combine to create a new reality greater than the sum of its parts. The water becomes part of the drinker, and the drinker part of the water. Both grok each other. Things that once had separate realities become entangled in the same experiences, goals, history, and purpose.

Entanglement is the key in the above passage. In quantum theory, certain physical systems can become “entangled,” meaning that their states are directly related to the state of another object somewhere else. In ethical terms rather than scientific terms we can grok each others religious or atheistic stance, become entangled with each other for a time without collapsing our distinct viewpoints into some amorphous soup. Instead we become acquainted with the other's viewpoint, measuring it against our own, seeing both the agreements/disagreements, and forming some middle ground of judgment and respect, tolerance, for our shared paths without impinging upon the rights and liberties of each others life choice.

The entanglement comes from our need of each other. For atheism and religious perspectives define themselves against each other. Without difference, without opposing viewpoints how would humans ever define themselves? Wouldn't we always be embedded in a mindless sea of sameness if we didn't have these binary rules of entanglement? Even our language is built up from this oppositional binary code. Linguists have argued for a hundred years about this, now we have the great battles between evolutionists/creationists battling it out over grand scenarios. Will it ever end? I doubt it... that is what makes us human. Conflict seems to be at the heart of our creativity and our freedom. Freedom is freedom for and against... something. We need oppositional thinking to grow... that's criticism, thinking-for-oneself.

As for my own personal choice: I am neither atheist, nor religious; yet, I affirm another way, that of the Romantic poet, John Keats: NEGATIVE CAPABILITY, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason...

Reason seems to be the bugaboo in all this: once we try to prove or disprove something that is beyond reason using 'Reason's' tools we, as humans, always seem to fall into the traps of irrationality. Isn't this at the heart of the atheist/religious debates? The idea that one could prove an impossible thought using the tools of reasoning is about as absurd as using a simple, slippery word such as 'grok' to explain the mystery of existence to an idiot. Let as all grok that mystery. :)