On science, society, philosophy and literature by George Zarkadakis
Monday, April 27, 2009
Augmenting physical ability by making use of techno-prostheses is as instinctive to primates as the sticks that some chimpanzees use to extract termites from their nests. The whole edifice of technological civilization has been exactly that, to implement knowledge collected on natural processes in order to achieve supernatural ends. It should therefore not come as a surprise that a fusion of machine and body has become ever so prominent in the last few years. The difference is one of interface, or to be more succinct, of intimacy. It is one thing to sit in your car and drive at a hundred miles per hour and a completely different thing to be running at a hundred miles per hour using a pair cyber-legs – or is it? I would argue that although it may “feel” different it is basically one and the same. But I guess the real issue with cyborg technology is not adding a few degrees of extra functionality to our bodies. Simply by wearing a pair of glasses and correcting my shortsightedness I have already done so. The real issued emerges when the human brain is part of the interface, when the intimacy between body and machine reaches the level of our neurons. Deep brain stimulation works miracles with patients suffering with severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and yet the ethical repercussions of this “intrusion” send shivers up the backs of ordinary folk. Is this the dawn of a post-human era? Of creatures half-machine and half-human? Where the “self” is modulated by electrical currents and electrodes implanted in the brain? And what would that mean for Free Will? These are too many questions to ask at once, so let me try to unravel each one in turn, in the light of the New Narrative. A central thesis of the New Narrative is the deconstruction of Self. This is something that began in earnest with the introduction of psychoanalytic theory in the mainstream culture. The “discovery of the subconscious” blew the foundations of assumed rationality sky high. It is perhaps rather amazing that it took a century for economists to factor the human subconscious into their theories – but this is, I believe, a fine example of the permeability of the New Narrative, a subject that I shall return to. To return to my current analysis, the result of deconstructing the Self has been that cyber dreams are interpreted as horrors, in the same manner that a room of magic mirrors modulates our reflection to the extend that it becomes another “us” out-there. The rationalists would have no trouble realizing that cyborg technology does not alter a thing. But we are not rationalists, not any more. We are the heroes of a narrative that self-describes our existence using a new code of ethics based on deconstruction. According to this code, we are all post-human, in the sense that our biology has been enhanced by technology, chemically, electrically, mechanically, members of an interconnected hive called the Web, our “collective consciousness”. The questions we therefore ask are completely out of context. When we ask, for example, where is “Free Will” in the case of electrical brain modulation, we are directing the question to our past, not our present, and certainly not to our future. Thus, the question lingers on unanswered, for it is unanswerable. A better question might have been: can we modulate Free Will in order to achieve a more harmonious society?