TANGENT: CYBORG CONSCIOUSNESS
It is interesting to apply biogenetic structural theory to the question about where human technics is taking us. One direction I have spent some time thinking about is the development of the cyborg -- that is, the merger of the naturally evolved conscious brain with machine intelligence. Over a decade ago, Donna Haraway published a paper entitled "A Manifesto for Cyborgs" in a 1985 issue of the Socialist Review (see Haraway 1985, 1991). This paper set me to thinking hard about the matter. Of course, her perspective was different than mine. Her's was a social feminist essay that used the concept of the cyborg (short for "cybernetic organism") in a theoretically insightful way. And her work inspired a number of critical essays that have come to be known recently as "cyborg anthropology." But I have found most of the papers written subsequent to her's to be undisciplined, metaphorical applications of the cyborg concept in the interests of so called postmodern criticism. As a consequence of the theoretical and empirical naivete of many of these writers, the significance of the real cyborg, as opposed to the metaphorical use of the concept, has been missed.
The concept of the cyborg emerged out of the field of cybernetics. Cybernetics, a field of research and theory first defined by Norbert Wiener in 1948 (see Wiener 1962), is the study of the control and regulatory properties of complex systems. Wiener was clear from the beginning that cybernetics applied equally to both machines and living systems. Although he did address the social implications of cybernetics in his early work, he did not discuss the actual physical merger of machines and organisms. It took another decade before two NASA scientists named Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline (1960) to coin the term "cyborg," and to suggest some of the advantages for space travel of altering the human body with machines.
NATURE OF THE CYBORG
My analysis of the cyborg began by accepting Clynes and Kline's earlier non-metaphorical meaning of the cyborg, and is grounded in biogenetic structural theory, instead of postmodern social criticism. As should be no surprise to you if you are working your way through this tutorial, I make the fundamental assumption that human consciousness and culture are functions of the nervous system. This perspective requires us to pay particular attention to the physiology and engineering of the cyborg, and to watch carefully the impact of technology upon the structure and function of the mind and the body. For instance, there cannot be a cyborg without solving the direct brain-machine interface problem. Interfacing is difficult enough when dealing with the replacement of limbs with prosthetic devices, but it becomes exceedingly complicated when it involves direct brain to computer interfacing. Cyborg consciousness is not now, nor will it ever be, a simple matter of "downloading" human consciousness out of a brain and into a machine.
CONSCIOUSNESS IS NON-LINEAR
Donna Haraway is right. Technoculture is our nature, and has been for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of years. We are a conscious animal that has developed a technological mode of adaptation, and that transforms his/her very nature in the process. And the reason why we are transformed by our technologies, as we attempt to transform the world around us, is that consciousness is a nonlinear phenomenon. We are raised to think that if we want to change the world, we need only develop the appropriate machines, do the job and that's the end of it. This is a linear way of thinking: A causes B causes C. Linear thinking leads us to the mistaken notion that all we need in order to predict what consciousness will do is to stipulate all the external conditions correctly.
But actually consciousness is a complex system engaged in (and evolved to engage in) innumerable feedback relations with the environment. Thus when we act to change the world, we change ourselves into the bargain. Nonlinear understanding requires that we treat the entire system, including consciousness itself and its myriad activities, as a system of superpositions . That is, adding or subtracting initial conditions does not merely have an additive or subtractive effect upon the system, but rather may cause radical, unpredictable, even chaotic transformations of the entire system -- in the present case, transformations incorporating consciousness, its actions and its proximal environment.
LAW OF BIDIRECTIONAL PENETRATION
Because of the essential nonlinearity of consciousness, I would argue that the process of technical extension of the body into the world is lawfully complemented by an opposite process of technical penetration of the body by the world. I call this process the law of bidirectional penetration. I say "law" because my claim is that the reciprocal causation involved is "wired-into" our natures and is thus inescapable. We in the West may think of ourselves as "alloplastic" in Mary Douglas' (1978) sense -- that we change our environment to suit ourselves. But actually, to the extent that we develop cybernetic technologies to control the world (e.g., computer systems to control power plants, life support systems to fly us to the moon, or to explore the bottom of the oceans, etc.), we also produce technologies to control our physical and mental being (e.g., electronic sensors, pacemakers, prostheses, etc.). Whereas it is easy for us to see that the industrial revolution replaced human labor with technologies (i.e., muscle and bone replaced by machines) and the cybernetic revolution replaced human controllers with technologies (i.e., brains replaced by computers; a "smarthouse" replaces a traditional "housewife" or "housekeeper"), it is not so easy for us to see that the same processes reciprocally penetrate into the body and consciousness (e.g., servomotors, biochemical taps, artificial limbs, voice boxes and senses, and eventually microchips in the brain) -- that indeed the cyborg is an inevitable consequence of human technics.
I suggest that the cyborg process results in an inevitable transformation of the human body itself, and eventually the neurophysiological organization of the body's consciousness. Eventually, in order for me to gain access to a broader range of experiences than the limits provided by my natural body, I may have to technically alter my nervous system. In a sense, the endogenous systems come to replicate the exogenous, technologically altered patterns in the world.
The law of bidirectional penetration is inextricably leading humanity to the development of a direct brain-machine interface that will both eliminate the necessity of behavioral- sensory interaction with machines, and dissolve the phenomenological distinction between body and machine even more than the normal "withdrawal" experienced with machines today. The machine will be experienced as part of me, just as my arm is now part of me. People are quite aware these days of the human chess master vs. chess software competitions, and that computer software will one day best even the brightest chess masters. But few of us are aware of the inevitable development of the cyborg chess master -- human and machine directly interfaced to produce a being capable of beating any pre-cyborg chess master.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE CYBORG
It's obvious that the process of technical penetration of consciousness is inseparable from the development of the cyborg, and involves the replacement, augmentation and integration of parts of the human body with machines. And this process has obvious evolutionary implications and may be simplified and schematized in a model of four stages, as follows:
Stage I cyborg is equivalent to the external extension of the hands with a hammer, knife or other primitive tool. It essentially replaces or augments the skeletal physiology of the limbs. Thus the wooden leg and hook as prosthetic devices represent the more primitive innovations leading to the process of cyborg transformation. Portions of the nervous system have been eliminated along with the amputated appendage.
Stage II cyborg sees the technical replacement or augmentation of both skeletal and motor systems in the body. This stage is equivalent to the external replacement of muscles with engines. The hand is replaced with a movable machine, perhaps manipulated by servomechanisms that are triggered by movements of particular muscle groups. The diseased heart valve is replaced by a mechanical valve. The lens of the eye is replaced by a synthetic lens, and so on. Such mechanisms depend upon intact neuro-muscular systems for their control.
At Stage III cyborg, technical penetration reaches the nervous system and replaces or augments neural structures in the peripheral, autonomic or endocrinal systems involved in the regulation and control of internal states. This stage is equivalent to simple regulatory systems in the external world, such as the thermostat controlling the temperature of a heater. Clynes and Kline addressed their original cyborg paper to problems in space exploration that might be solved by Stage III cyborg measures. The "bionic" arms and legs of the Six Million Dollar Man are fictional examples of Stage III developments, as is the more realistic contemporary heart pacemaker.
Finally, Stage IV cyborg produces the replacement or augmentation of structures in the central nervous system. This stage is equivalent to the replacement of human brain power with computers in industry. This stage involves structures mediating the cognitive aspects of emotion (for example, Manfred Clynes' "sentics" ideas in 1977 are cyborgian at this level). It also involves structures mediating imagination, intuition, perception, rational thought, language, etc. Contemporary examples of developments at this stage are technologies such as the miniature video camera "eyes" wired to an electrode array implanted in the visual cortex of certain blind people. And rumor has it that the United States Air Force is interested in developing technologies that would allow direct brain to aircraft interfacing for fighter pilots.
The point to emphasize in all of this is that the emergence of the cyborg is a process of progressive technological penetration into the body, eventually replacing or augmenting the structures that mediate the various physical and mental attributes that we normally consider "natural" to human beings, including emotion, natural sensory modes, properties of imagination and rational thought, the organization of intentional acts, etc. Clearly then, progressive penetration into the cortex of the brain will inevitably result in the technical alteration of human consciousness.
If you have followed my line of reasoning so far, then there are a number of implications and applications of this model for possible features of future cyborg evolution.
THE "GURU" PROGRAM
For one thing, the complexity of neurocognitive processing will likely be augmented. In a Piagetian sense, the complexity of each individual's cognitive processing is limited by the extent of that individual's neurobiological development. Cyborg augmentation may well increase the limits of maximal complexity of cognition of which the amalgamated brain-machine system may be capable. This complexity may increase the number of parallel processes integrated within any intentional act and manifested in an increase in the complexity and amount of information being processed. Enhanced complexity may well be beyond what even the most developed natural human brain is now capable.
Among other things, this will mean that the organization of the self-concept or "ego" of the cyborg may be substantially different than the natural human's self-concept. Indeed, the Stage IV cyborg may be routinely capable of the kind of ego- transcendence that seems to be characteristic only of those with the most advanced consciousness today. Moreover, the merger of brain and machine opens the possibility of what may be called a "guru program," a software that brings the neurobiological portions of the cyborg system to optimal cognitive development through a series of alternating experiences and interpretive exercises.
Few people have thought through the cultural implications of the cyborg. Yet the development of cyborg consciousness has important implications for our understanding of the nature and evolution of culture. In the first place, I do not wish to leave the impression that I am advocating either a utopian (Six Million Dollar Man as culture hero) or a dystopian (William Gibson's cyberpunk vision, or a "Bladerunner" schizm) cyborg scenario. We must be clear on this issue, for, as Leo Marx (1990) has shown in his seminal work, The Machine in the Garden, there exists an inherent tension between humans and their machines. This tension continues to be revealed in much of the current cyborg anthropology polemic (see e.g., some of the articles in Chris Hables Gray's 1993 book, The Cyborg Handbook), for, unlike Donna Haraway, many of these folk use the cyborg to represent all that is evil and inhumane bout technological development. Actually, all technologies are ambiguous with respect to value. Just as a Palaeolithic handax could be used either to feed the family or clobber an obnoxious relative, the value of the cyborg will depend upon the intentions and perceptions of the culture in which it emerges.
Of course, it is typical of our Euroamerican culture that most of the attention paid to cyborgs has to do with military applications. But the cultural implications are far greater than the production of cyborg soldiers, sailors, airmen and astronauts. Culture is a word we use to label the system of meaning, communication and habitual activity shared by members of a society. Now, we have already seen that the range and complexity of meaning for Stage IV cyborgs may transcend that of which humans are now capable. Moreover, communication may well render traditional language obsolete because cyborgs will certainly be capable of direct data links via cyberspace with other cyborgs, independent of natural language or physical proximity. Imagine if you will that by a mere act of will, a cyborg's brain may become linked through telemetry with an Internet-like cyberspace in which his thoughts, imaginations, intuitions, wishes, etc., can be electronically shared with other cyborgs.
What I have done here is tightened the concept of cyborg so that a scientific model may be constructed that allows us to focus on an essential process of human technics leading to future cyborg consciousness. Cyborg consciousness will eventually emerge, possibly (as envisioned by Clynes and Kline) in the context of the exploration and colonization of interplanetary space. Considering the inevitability and cultural multistability of the cyborg, it would behoove anthropologists to think deeply about such a vital a process that is evolving in our very midst as we speak.
Clynes, Manfred. 1977. Sentics: The Touch of Emotions. New York: Doubleday.
Clynes, Manfred and Nathan S. Kline. 1960. Cyborgs and Space. Astronautics, September issue, Pp. 26-27, 74-75.
Douglas, Mary. 1978. Purity and Danger. London: Kegan and Paul.
Gray, Chris Hables. 1995. The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge.
Haraway, Donna. 1985. Manifesto for Cyborgs: Science, Technology, and Social Feminism in the 1980s. Socialist Review 80:65-108.
_____. 1991. Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: A Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge.
Marx, Leo. 1990. The Machine in the Garden. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wiener, Norbert. 1962 . Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.