The Augmented Human
“Is it not absurd for men to be involuntarily altered in their inmost lives by some mere technological extension of our inner senses?”
Marshall McLuhan in Philosophy Now (Benson, 2011)
Videodrome – David Chronnenburg
The augmented human is a popular trope in science fiction and beyond. From ideas of virtual reality to enhanced senses, the media and popular culture constructs a narrative of the future where technology will create the human cyborg, a utopian being that will live enhanced and fulfilled lives. But are we not already human cyborgs? One does not need to appeal to a fantastical future in order to be live an augmented reality. As I am writing this essay I am staring into a screen with digital music passing through my headphones that negates the ambience of my ‘actual’ surroundings. My landscape is a horizon-less ‘virtual’ A4 page which I navigate through the internalised logic of touch typing. When my email client receives an email from a friend in china the noise it makes creates a rush of dopamine my brain normally reserves for social interactions. Franco Berardi highlights that in the carrying around of cell phones, workers give every possible second of their labour time to the employer. They, as it were, “prepare their nervous systems as an active receiving terminal for as much time as possible.” Our nervous systems, neurological pathways and logical systems are intermeshed with technology. Slouched with the right hand reaching out to the mousewhile wearing an impassive stare is the new human posture of choice. We are already cyborgs and have been ever since an ape picked up a stick. The anthropological study of technology has led us to understand technology as not a reified commodity but an all-pervasive system embedded in the membrane of sociality. It has given us new metaphors to understand culture and ethnography and it has created a post-humanist turn in which discourse on agency has gained a new symmetry, or found a lost symmetry.
But firstly Marcell Mauss lectures the Society of French Psychology on how to swim,
“Here our generation has witnessed a complete change in technique: we have seen the breaststroke with the head out of the water replaced by different sorts of crawl. Moreover, the habit of swallowing water and spitting it out again has gone. In my day swimmers thought of themselves as a kind of steamboat. It was stupid, but in fact I still do this: I cannot get rid of my technique… Here then we have a specific technique of the body.”
(Mauss, 2009, p. 79)
This anecdote neatly introduces the Maussean concept of ‘Techniques of the body’. Implied is how techniques are reified and internalised but also how different cultures (and indeed people) use the same technologies in different ways so what changes across cultures must be in the techniques one enacts with their body, which explains the numerous variations there are for the comparatively simple act of swimming. Essentially the first technology we learned how to use was the human body. And when the human body is the first technology we learn to use, is then an assemblage of human bodies not a machine? American Historian Lewis Mumford points out that the machine phenomena has existed for centuries,
“The slaves and peasants who hauled the stones for the pyramids, pulling in rhythm to the crack of the whip, the slaves working in the roman galley, each man chained to his seat andunable to perform any other motion than the limited mechanical one, the order and march and system of attack of the Macedonian phalanx- these were all machine phenomena”
(Mumford, 1947, p. 41)
It was the articulation of human bodies into production lines that allowed the wonders of the classical world to be built with only the inclined plane and lever. What we know as mechanical machines were constructed with a mechanistic logic developed using far olde rman-machines. In a sense the parameters for the concept of technology have been expanded in either direction. On one end of the spectrum, it has been shrunk to something present even when tools are not, or localised to certain parts of the human body/mind. On the other end we see it expanded to machine-assemblages of people and tools, or a technological complex, that acts as a blueprint for even greater technologies and networks. If one cannot distinguish between the technology and the human, when technology is a matrix of materiality and sociality, have we then not entered the realm of post-human studies? In Basile Doganis’s study of Japanese performance culture ‘Body Thinking’, he establishes man and technology as a material assemblage. When tools are introduced to the human body they effectively become an extension of it,
“A surprising experience is the relatively fast development of the ability to exercise the sense of touch with a sword’s extremity, to feel through this extremity. As Alain Berthoz says:“The tool extends the body. We feel the object not from the edge of the tool, but rather from the edge of an ensemble constituted by the hand and the tool as if, suddenly, the tool became a part of our body, just like the hand had been extended…””
Technology acts to extend the body beyond its own limitations, it means the body no longer “stop[s] with the surface of the skin: it can include, appropriate exterior elements and to project itself in themselves, or feel through them and interact with the world.” (Lambert, 2013). One technology that is intimately associated with the national ideologies of the western world, and that transcends the body’s limits of both time and space is the car. The car also connects the user into a technological matrix. Communication is enacted with this new exterior skin through lights and horns. Crashes and bumps travel through the frame and cause the user to flinch as if their own person had been affected and in a way it has.
Jean Baudrillard’s reading of ‘Crash’ (Baudrillard, 1994), the novel by J. G. Ballard that describes a small group’s unity through a collective and progressive sexualisation of the car crash, sees this Ballardian vision of the car crash as a new eroticism, a new societal order. The violence of the sexual act is transferred to the deformation and penetration of the two automobile’s skins, a merging of two private habitats into one intimate space. This is a technological extension of the body leading to new pathways of sexuality.
Crash – David Cronnenburg
Henri Lefebvre is quoted by Paul Graves-Brown as saying “motorised traffic enables people and objects to congregate and mix without meeting thus constituting a striking example of simultaneity without exchange, each element remaining within its own compartment” (Graves-Brown, 2000, p. 157). And in such a cubicalisation of social space is the alienation often ascribed to urban living and (as Graves-Brown points out) cyberspace. In both the car habitat and cyberspace there is collective thought without it’s composite social encounter as Graves-Brown suggests in quoting Kevin Robbins, “What we have is the preservation through stimulation of the old forms of solidarity and community. In the end not an alternative society but an alternative to society” (Graves-Brown, 2000, p. 162). In this case technology reduces the social body’s potential into new forms of sociality. To the point wherethe word social itself becomes problematic. This is technology acting as procrustean bed, torturing the body into post-human forms of being and sociality. But what of the human actors who have been assimilated into the totalising machine assemblage? Are they still free to enact there will upon the world? Do they still have agency?
Tim Ingold also highlights the material agency in the construction of culture. In his essay “Making Culture and Weaving the World” (Ingold, 2000) he proposes that we do not design things but instead facilitate their growth. He borrows from biology the term morphogenetic field in which the interplay between the growing body and the environment creates the body not the genes, the genes merely provide a framework for such an interplay. He uses this term to describe how the physical restraints of a basket can affect the way in which a human can make it. The form of the basket is held together by the forces and stress of interlaced reeds. The reeds are not an infinitely malleable, amorphous material with which a human can enact it’s will, but instead a material with a continuously articulating and interconnected set of restraints. As Ingold suggests, the material itself, the technology, has agency. Similar points have been made by other theorists such as Bruno Latour and Andrew Pickering. Latour argues for a greater symmetry in the social sciences, described by Pickering as conceiving of agents as “moving around, changing places with one another, and so on.” He goes on, “It is important that their status can easily make the transit between being real entities and social constructs, and back again.” (Pickering, 1993, p. 563). This approach to the sociology of technology, and sociology in general is crystallised in what is essentially a how-to book, Latour’s ‘Reassembling the Social’.
In brief Bruno Latour’s Actor Network theory takes the view that objects have equal agency to humans and three ways in which these objects with agency are made visible are watching innovations (a laboratory), taking distance ( a distance in time would be an archaeologicalsite), viewing disruptions (the Columbia shuttle crash in which a tiny object’s malfunction caused a major tragedy) (Latour, 2007, pp. 80-81). In this situation we can see intermediaries (in Latour’s terminology an actor that transports meaning or force without transformation) (Latour, 2007, p. 39) are held visible as mediators (an actor that “transforms translates, distorts and modifies the meaning or the elements they are supposed to carry”) (Latour, 2007, p. 39) long enough for the theorist to see the agency within objects. There nod being made here to Heidegger where tools are generally seen to be Zuhandenheit (ready-at-hand or as I am arguing intermediaries) and “they work their magic upon reality without entering our awareness. Equipment is forever in action constructing in each moment the sustaining habitat where our explicit awareness is on the move” and Vorhandenheit (present-at-hand or in Latourian terminology mediators) where the tool is taken out of the totalising assemblages for the theorist to become aware of and study. A hammer hammering a nail is Zuhandenheit until it breaks and the user starts to theorise how and why it works or doesn’t , then it becomes Vorhandenheit.
Andrew Pickering in his article “the Mangle of Practice” in which he studies the sociology of science argues for a slightly less symmetrical view in which humans still have a degree of agency over the material factors. Humans have intentionality where materials do not and thus can act in ways on a network that other actors cannot. He’ uses a mangle to describe how “the contours of material agency are mangled in practice, meaning emergently transformed and delineated in the dialectic of resistance and accommodation” (Pickering, 1993, p. 567). This is Pickering’s way of describing Ingold’s similar Morphogenetic field.
There is a certain irony for Pickering to use as a metaphor the mangle, a piece of technology that people of the 21 st century first world will probably never use and will only ever see in Tom and Jerry Cartoons. It is after all a rather confused metaphor. The wet rags get passed through the mangle to squeeze out the water. There is no resistance and accommodation, it is not a dialectical process. But technology theorists like their confused metaphors. There is a sustained utilisation of science fiction’s rich mythology in order to describe our world (Donna Harraway’s Cyborgs, Bruno Latour’s Black Box, Pickering’s Mangle and general discourse on virtuality) but in such metaphors is the potential to describe and re-evaluate what it is too practice anthropology and the purpose of ethnography.
Riffing off of Donna Harraway’s seminal manifesto, Stefan Helmreich studies the crew of the Alvin Submersible in terms of people who have augmented their bodies in order to make sense of their immersion in the ocean. In using transductive technologies they can convert sounds in the water into audible sounds in air and create a soundscape of the aqueous environment. This technological mediation not only creates a most extreme dualism between habitable and non-habitable, nature and culture but it also intertwines man and technology. As Helmreich describes,
“The assemblage of the sub and its encapsulated scientists is clearly a cyborg, a combination of the organic and technical kept in tune and on track through the self-correcting dynamics of visual, audio and tactile feedback… Our bodies are threaded into a media ecology of communication and control.”
(Helmreich, 2007, p. 622).
Helmreich goes on to make the argument if ‘immersion’ is also used as a cliché to describe ones time surrounded by another language of culture, then maybe this cyborgian transduction can also be worked into the extended metaphor? He argues that “Transduction can be used as a device for recognising the hidden conditions of immersion. The metaphor of transduction can tune one in to textures of disjuncture, to the corporeal character of transferring signals” (Helmreich, 2007, p. 631). Anthropologists do not just soak up culture through immersion but have to use the techniques and methodologies of Ethnography in order to ‘transduce’ a comprehensible landscape out of the culture. The anthropologist does not observe, but creates the ethnoscape via transduction. Helmreich uses the study of technology to not only betterunderstand the human as a cybernetic organism but he renders from the study a way of thinking that breaks down the metaphorical construction of immersion, and rebuild into it the metaphor of transduction. This teaches the anthropologist that we are not just passive immersed subjects but people active in the construction of ethnographic information and “bound up in the knowledge that gets made” (Helmreich, 2007, p. 631).
The study of technology has allowed us to see technology as a far broader analytical category than before. It is no longer reified and fetishesised commodity of the future but an integral part of what it is to be as a human. It has created a post humanist turn in anthropology in which we are able to see the agency of materials with similar importance to human agency. It has given us metaphors for understanding culture and technology such as concepts of Immersion and Transduction that appear in Helmreich’s article. But could we really not conclude with a reflexive turn, that the implicit purpose of Helmreich’s article is to enable us to see ethnography as a technology in itself?
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Ingold, T., 2000. Making Culture and Weaving the World. In: P. Graves-Brown, ed. Matter, Materiality and Modern Culture. London: Routledge, pp. 50-71.
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