Human being not quite thinking

We live at a time when the characteristics that set mankind apart as ‘human’, seem relatively easy to describe and not to be in doubt for most. Yet the vision of the future drawn in films such as Impostor (Gary Fleder's) or The Island (Michael Bay's) strikes us with the premise that we are heading towards a world in which advanced technology will challenge our perception of humanity or in other words the fact that we are homo sapiens will cease to be taken for granted. The human paradigm will merge into the cybernetic one. Features once denoting humanity such as love, hatred or memories will not be solely characteristics of the human race any more.

As an example the main character in the film Impostor presents us with the figure of Sam who is determined to prove his authenticity as a human being. The way he strives to do so, putting his life into danger, makes the viewer have no shadow of a doubt that he is not an impostor. Frightening however is not the fact that we are taken in, but that the “posthuman creature” strongly believes in its humanity and is even ready to die to validate his credence. Furthermore, there are numerous examples of human activity endeavouring to create mecha-people to be replacements for their dead relatives (Steven Spielberg's Artificial Intelligence) or body organs in the event of some illness (The Island). The dubiousness of such interdependence is two fold. First of all a human being, here a creator, cannot accept that a machine could function like a man – a mother who agrees to adopt a mecha-son being a replacement for her dead child, cannot love him knowing that he is a robot, even though in terms of physical appearance he is his lookalike. On the other hand a machine desires either to become a homo sapien and longs for his mother's love or fights against being objecivised and simply wants to be treated on equal terms with people.

This conflict of perceptions gives rise to a number of questions. For example, is such co-existence plausible? and what is it that we really want in striving to cyborgize reality? Multi-faced cyborgization meaning, as Donna Haraway calls it, a process in which: “A cyborg is [becomes] a cybernetic organism a hybrid of machine and organism a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression and so of possibility. The cyborg is a matter of fiction and lived experience that changes.” What stands behind these words is that cyborgization does not necessarily indicate a human being with the supernatural powers of a machine, but quite the opposite a machine with implemented human features. Katherine Hayles in her How we became posthuman points out that the complexity of cyborgization gives rise to a problem that “... there are no essential differences or absolute demarcations between bodily existence and computer simulation, cybernetic mechanism and biological organism”. Is therefore a cyborg a simulacrum of a human being or yet another form of life? Objectification of the body is not a phenomenon exclusively of cybernetics interest. Feminist literature deals with it in breadth – Angela Carter's Bloody Chamber or Murial Spark's The Driver's Seat are just two out of numerous examples. Representatives of carnal art such as Orlan, a French artist, believe that “body is just a sack for the soul and the soul can choose to have a new sack without being destroyed”. Orlan carefully planned a number of plastic surgeries treating her body as a material that is to be a means of expressing art. Sculptors use a piece of wood for that purpose. Orlan is in a way such piece of wood, carved by plastic surgeons. The artist realises that when the work is completed she will need a new name for herself as it won't be her, Orlan, but a completely new person. So she wonders and starts to have doubts if giving a soul a new sack or transferring it to another platform has no effect on the soul.

How far can we go in defining or rather narrowing the essence of a human being? Can we accept Alan Mathison Turing's assumption, which put an equals mark between a set of informational processes and a homo sapiens. In his experiment, known as the Turing's Test, the British mathematician assumed that if during a talk between a man (a judge) and entities (both men and machines), the judge cannot state if their interlocutor is a machine or a human being, such machine passes the test and at the same time it is accepted that it thinks. If it thinks it means that it possesses the attribute of intelligence. Turing's Test is an object of scientific researches in such prestigious academic circles as Reading University in Great Britain, where since 1991 there has been an annual competition aimed at designing a machine or a programme that would pass Turning's Test. Nobody has won the first prize so far, but according to professor Kevin Warvick of cybernetic department at Reading University it is just a matter of time and he gives an example of a ground-breaking event in 1997 when Garry Kasparov the chess world champion for many years, was beaten by an IBM computer. The best machines can already beguile judges for long hours with a surprising sense of humour and wit that we human beings could easily be jealous of.

Being, therefore, as Hayleys sees it “an ultimate Platonic Form” we could free ourselves from the restraints of our own body and transfer this essence of humanity into another more durable platform. Mark Slouka in his War of the Worlds – cyberspace and the high-tech assault on reality supports the idea of the divorcing of minds from bodies as just a matter of time. Sooner or later we will face a dilemma if physical presence is indispensable for our existence. Interestingly enough, post-modern literature is a mine of examples of cyborgization of culture, which amplifies our mindset that cyborgization is not scientific gibberish but an impending future.

Let's take Lanark by Alasdair Gray as a representative. The city ‘Unthank,’ (a parallel to Glasgow) is one of the focal points of the book.. Unreal as the city and its inhabitants may seem it is hard to pinpoint axiomatic examples of cyborgs, which only proves the complexity of their nature.
“Show her your profile.” Lanark stared at him and heard another click. Miss Maheen slid two fingers inside a pocket of her crisp white blouse above her left breast and drew out a plastic strip. She handed it to Lanark.” ..... “She's a reliable piece,” said Gilchrist patting Miss Maheen's bottom as she returned to her table. “She issues credit cards, makes coffee, types, looks pretty and her hobby is oriental martial arts. She's a Quantum-Cortexim product.”

One could argue that Miss Maheen is nothing but an android a machine with a humanoid shape. But keeping in mind the reciprocal character of cyborgization and a conundrum in defining human essence and “the demarcation line” between what is a human what starts to be artificial artefact and the other way round, we draw the conclusion that Miss Maheen may not be a cyborg in its purest form, but she is definitely an example of the cyborgization process. The way she is addressed also curiously implies the author's intention to show that she is more than a machine. She is Miss Maheen. Analyzing this cluster - Miss Machine - not married machine according to Chomky's theory (in which if a certain attribute is true for the condition that we set gets + if not -) we get the following attributes of a human being:
not married + human feature,
machine – human feature.
In Chomsky's theory such a cluster would be regarded as semantically incorrect. Even for cognitivists it would be hard to accept, unless a new cognitive map was applied, a map of cyborgized reality. Reality of the Institute in which people get dematerialized and become energy needed both to keep other members of the human race warm and to feed them or turn them into cyborgs.
“Is it you Gloopy?” The lift said, “No, only part of me.” “Which part?” “The voice, and feelings and sense of responsibility. I don't know what they've done with the rest.” ... “I am sorry!” “Why? People need me now. I am never alone and I hear all kinds of interesting things. You would be amazed at what happens in a lift between floors.”

Gloopy is a clear example of a mind freed from its body, whose existence is encapsulated in a lift being a platform for the mind, feelings and sense of responsibility. The only inconsistency with the theory presented above is that Gloopy did not have a choice to continue his life as a human being. Disembodiment and as a result cyborgization was decided for him. The clear implication is that he did not become immortal, but was made immortal. Gloopy's case points out that cyborgization doesn't necessarily mean adding limbs, organs or supernatural powers, but can as well denote reducing features regarded as useless. Take for example Alex from Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, implicated in an experiment aimed at eliminating aggression; or Orwell's novel 1984 in which by ruthless indoctrination it was possible to get rid of a highly unwanted feature like genuine love to another person. Reading Alasdair Gray we come to the conclusion that a New Age will offer us a reality in which a human being will be incapacitated, deprived of their freedom of choice to die and not to become a cyborg.

The problem of democracy and the freedom of people and animals is taken up by Nick Lampert in his unconventional collages presenting hybrid creatures, being a combination of small animals and insects with very precise and highly advanced electrical appliances. Putting nature and technology together is to provoke us into thinking what progress means to us. “Is it a means of gaining dominance over nature by creating and implementing new technological inventions? Or should it rather be measured by our ability to co-exist on equal terms with nature?”

There is also an open question if and to what extent an average person will have influence on deciding which technological invention will be rejected and which will permeate everyday life. Analyzing the skeleton of the mecha-person by Lambert it seems that there is a certain importance attached to the presence of monkeys in the same collage. As if a human being got lost in the process of evolution; or is it to remind us of our roots. People came into being from monkeys and they stood first in the food chain. We live with a deep conviction that none of the existing species will ever be able to endanger this position. But these are monkeys that seem to be better adapted to survive whilst a human being is a somewhat undefined creature - on the one hand perfect but on the other missing something as if the process of evolution has not finished yet. But where is the denouement of this process and when, if at all, we will witness its breakdown. Albert Einstein once said “I don't know what weapons will be used in the third world war, but in the forth world war people will use stick and stones” Whom or what will we be then? Is it possible that in the process of evolution a human being will become a cyborg? Or will we rather go back to the form of monkeys? It is possible that omnipresent technology will not only do physical work for us, but will also free us from thinking. We could easily come up with examples of pauperisation of our intelligence caused by innocent usage of technology such as spell check. No need to think if you have got spell check in your computer. But using spell check can only result in dyslexia while mindless dependence on a Car Navigation System can end up in hospital, if we are lucky.

We could draw here a certain analogy to Laputa Island from Guliver's Travels, a kingdom of musicians and mathematicians. Its inhabitants were capable of calculating the most advanced formulas, turn back the river or even preserve beams of the sun in a bottle. They were so much focused on thinking that they couldn't do basic life activities. They hired servants who followed them everywhere and smacked them delicately on the ear when they were to listen or on their mouth to make them speak or on the shoulder to warn them about the pole standing in their way. We are far from this state, but year by year we start to resemble Laputans the only difference being that our servants are not people but technology that helps us in our everyday life. The average person is for now restricted due to economic reasons, but the well-off ones who can afford to have an intelligent house are reminded to buy milk by their fridge. We like to believe that we have influence on everything that we have everything under control, but the truth is that we involuntarily get enslaved by technology. We do not, however, think about the possible consequences and that there won't be a way back. The dream miracles of technology may turn into a nightmare against which we have been warned for a long time by directors of films in which robots take control over the world of people. The same gloomy premise is visible in works of a Japanese artist Tetsua Ishida, whose paintings for some portray a futuristic vision of the world but for him were illustrations of life in contemporary Japan.

I believe that we are not yet ready to embrace and accept “the new map” of cyborgized culture, it is still too abstract. But the fact that we are in the process of transformation cannot be denied and because it is a process, there will not be any breaking point that will allow us to state definitely that we have entered the New Era. Artificial breasts, cybersex, hearing-aids, ironman legs or electronic music do not surprise anyone and are just a few examples to show marching cyborgization. It will not take long until we exchange digital photos of our lovely mecha-pets or reprimand our mecha-nannies for letting our children play wii sports when they should have spent some time outdoors. Still, we will restrain ourselves from thinking that the next step is “a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal”, people but not homo sapiens.

Author: Monika Izbaner

Haraway, D. A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century in Simians, Cyborg and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York Routlege, 1991, p. 149

Hayles, N. K. How we became posthuman: virtual bodies in cybernetics literature and informatics. University of Chicago Press, 1999, p 3