Cyborg Smorgasboard

 

             

 

                We had fed our hearts on fantasies, The heart’s grown brutal from the fare.  — Yeats

                Midnight shakes the memory as a madman shakes a dead geranium.  — Eliot

 

 

If fingers were akin to screwdrivers, humans would have scant need of screwdrivers. If our brains would calculate like an abacus, digital computation technologies would be a superfluous luxury. Our tools are thus specialized extensions of our generalized bodies. Hammers are not fists. A thought is not a numerical string of zeros and ones.

These specialized extensions, or tools and their techniques, distinguish us from the rest of the natural sphere. In terms of the human time scale, such tools are ancient…emergent more or less with consciousness itself. So far, so good. In the past three or four generations, however, we have stumbled upon the maniacal idea of making real the fantasy of the Cyborg (loosely defined, is the result of a chemical, metal, and/or silicon-like implant into sentient meat...an overtly designed fusion of pharmacological and / or digital controlling means with the flesh of a specific body)…Its specter — the yawn and stretch of a crazed provocateur — is haunting your world. Given its grasp, it would sunder past from future, while committing human selves to a high frontier of submission to internalized extensions, no more, certainly no less. 

Thus it appears crystalline that one gung-ho aim of the Cyborgian project, in all its various and devious guises, is to incorporate these specialized, rewired, and evolving extensions into the body. The body and its self….And self is the central issue in this rant.

A self is herein intended to mean a subjective and contingent entity isomorphic with a particular, perhaps unique, body in all its glory fading into decrepitude. Will the Cyborgian agenda, when impoverished of mere extensions and seduced by power, invent and then insinuate the body with explicit circuits of command and control? Once perfected, will its future-forward bias collide with the flesh of natural evolution?

Such a prospect is enough to jiggle one’s liver. Flesh, self, natural evolution, up against the rabid zeal and technological savvy of those forces impelling humanity toward a fractured, daunting future. How shall we cope…we, those delicate, insular, perhaps even resilient selves?

 

According to Sholem Aleichem "Life is a dream for the wise, a game for the fool, a comedy for the rich, a tragedy for the poor." What of the future Cyborg? What will it "think" life is?

 

As a pronominal adjective, the venerable OED defines self as "…to indicate emphatically that the reference is the person or thing mentioned and not, or not merely, to some other. "Opening Pandora’s Box," …the having of sensations, emotions, feelings, thoughts. Consciousness is not the same as wakefulness. Nor is it the same as self-awareness." [Colin McGinn, 1999]. "Conscious states are qualitative in the sense that for each conscious state there is a certain way that it feels, there is a certain qualitative character to it…conscious states are subjective in the sense that they are always experienced by a human or animal subject. Conscious states…have what we might call a ‘first-person ontology’…they exist only from the point of view of some agent or organism or animal or self that has them. "[John Searle, 1998]. "…a sense of self [is] an indispensable part of the conscious mind…the organism, as represented inside its own brain, is a likely biological forerunner for what eventually becomes the elusive sense of self…[and] Imagine that, in a future that may not be too distant, [a] scanner allows you to scan my brain in unprecedented depth…" [Antonio Damasio, 1999]. Now, imagine that you have a plug-in jack implanted just below your occipital lobe that permits access to Damasio’s scanner. Your "first-person ontology" is lobotomized. You now "share" the existential privacy of your own experiences and thoughts with an autonomous monitor. Those attributes associated with the self as agency (with the self as a sacrosanct domain) are now under the command of a monitoring sovereign. The cartography of your brain (with its self) is reduced to a singular nodal point in a vast and deaf network of intersecting junctures in a thick data-smog.  Welcome to the gang, you are now a certified Cyborg.

 

As such, and in addition, kiss off all nuances mingling with distinctions such as gender, body type, innate intelligence, ethnic origin, religious affiliation, political commitment and, not least, ideational and/or aesthetic preference. These are anachronistic diversions, simple mischief, best dismissed for the "I believe you are expecting me" arrival of cyber-control…mind- steering control. Think Blade Runner.

 

Q: Selenotropic Cyborgs verses heliocentric Cyborgetts? The self as an epiphenomenal buzz or screech? Circulating to-and- fro from the flesh into a complex variety of implanted insertions? Impervious to pain and doubt? And if a particular Cyborg, with exclusively tailored implants, arrives at a unified self- awareness, so what, who should care? 

 

A: Take the implant. By such I mean not dentures or a hearing aid, or even a pacemaker. These are prosthetic replacements. By implant, it is meant that an additive extension, insertion (generally sub-dermal), which infiltrates and integrates with the body’s governing systems…Including the notion of self and self-awareness (re: Gibson’s Neuromancer).

 

Impervious to pain and doubt? Cognito ergo sum…reverberating, loitering. Consider the potential software. In all likelihood, it will eventually include a governing neural-net circuit that inhibits and evermore precludes the flesh from resisting its particular array of implants. This is a flat-out totalitarian condition; what is not compulsory is prohibited.

 

In any case, Cyborgian selves, such as they are, remain blatant and invasive confections. Simply, such a Cyborg-self usurps the presence of consciousness, displacing it with a sullen, abject, depraved, synthetic attentiveness that multiplies geometrically. Who could not care less about this sulfurous swindle?

 

The gist embedded in that last self-serving arch question is at the collective heart of all the matters in question. For those who resist the future-perfect plot are, or will become, marginalized, penalized, unwillingly sodomized, even. In point of dicey fact, the issue of their fate is already here and now. The Ur Cyborg is amidst us in its chemical versions. Suppositories and pills of every description to suppress and alter nasty moods, opinions, and behavior are overwhelmingly present in virtually every advanced & "civilized" culture….And those who resist joining the herd are branded weird, obliquely obtuse, and reactionary. Proactive solutions to the presumed conundrums of day-by- day life are, by the dim lights of the controlling apparatus, necessary for a conforming consensus. Dissent equals aberration, simple as that.

 

From this cesspool of rotting monstrosities, arises yet another flood of brusque questions: who or what is raking in the cash from these massive, ubiquitous doings? Who or what circumscribes those fleeting conditions that determine membership in to the ruling club? Which reluctant cultures will be singled out

for an out-of- whack example, and then tormented and crushed? Which snarling apparatchik’s dream will result in involuntary embryonic, transgenic, inter-species cloning? Say what?

 

These queries are precursors for a once-and- future Cyborgian ex cathedra. By drawing a distinction. between an Ur Cyborg (pharmacological, neurochemical) and the projected Cyborg (electro-chemical, hard-wired circuitry), the ferocious complications and their implications unfold…Beginning with mere mind-altering pills and culminating with servo-control of the organism by way of micro-chips implanted throughout the body, resulting in the subsequent dissolution of its original self.

 

So, where angels with necessary and sufficient reason fear to tread, we fools rush in, confident in our techno-magic’s ineffable superiority (to angels, no less). Immune to challenge, this is a fool’s errand indeed. With its omnivorous shadow of self-regard; with its proclaimed articles of faith invested in an unrestrained commitment to immutable "progress" with its belching dismissal of any critique as just so much of an exhaustion gazing backwards; with its triumphalist hegemony encircling all other possible futures. Be afraid…be very afraid. 

But even a blind squirrel discovers an acorn every now and then. Samuel Butler’s Erewhon, published in 1872, envisions a state in which machines develop to such a level that they determine and achieve their own goals, whether or not to humanity’s benefit. Neurological management is just a beginning, a launching pad for such "machines." Although the Frankenstein analogy is numb from overuse, nonetheless it is apt. Consider, for easy example, the crushing mallet of natural selection: Cyborgs evolve on their own terms, competing with and out witting their unfit lessers. Then, without a trace of consciousness, spiral on and on toward their denouement…And , much to do with Dr. Frankenstein’s sutured cadaver, turn on and devour their makers. No pain, no gain.

 

Clearing the deck, a very brief review of the introduction of the term and discipline Cybernetics, and from it the "infinitely" protean prefix cyber, is to the point. Norbert Wiener introduced it in 1948, from the Greek kubernetes (steersman, as in the Heraclitian fragment "all things are steered through all things"). Weiner at the time remarked: "What recommended the term cybernetics to me was that it was the best word I could find to express the art and science of control over the whole range of fields in which this notion is applicable." Thus the unifying theory of feedback systems (self-regulating systems in nature and machines) did enter the rarified air of pivotal ideas…and from this noble perch we descend into the plethora of cyber-this and cyber-that categories of description…and manipulation.

 

With the arrival of its putative objet de desir, the vile Cyborg and its swaggering tentacles, control becomes the key transformative feature of this decent. Not unlike lunatics in command of the asylum who think they are spinning gold out of dross, the engineers of this recoiling enterprise presume nature to be hopelessly inadequate, while they (the apparatus) are hell-bent to improve upon it. The thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to are dismissed as just abstruse folderol, to be replaced with their clean slate. The whims of caprice and luck, plus the pluck of trial and error, which provide distinctive shape to a given individual life and its self, will be relegated to history’s bursting dustbin, and then reprogrammed for guidance from those entities in charge of the future’s controlled direction. The coil and moil of embodied existence will henceforth be reconfigured by the smooth application and blinding arrogance of a grave new order. 

 

The incapacity (or blithe unwillingness) of sentient humans to recognize and identify this conspicuous balled-faced threat to their integrity of-the-self by these pronounced and seemingly impervious forces is mystifying — tantamount to self-abnegation if not suicidal obliteration.

 

Tumescent with expectation, those environs of the apparatus devoted to Cyborgian success anticipate gradual acquiescence to their rather bracing schemes. This is no small point. There is in the midst of all this an active critical mix of prior political and emotional response. Selected versions of that prior response are then smoothly converted into a standard, a salient measure of inverse merit. Over and again the toxic effluvia inherited from the recent past (coagulating like oily pond scum in the corner of a ditch) presents itself as sheer and demonstrable proof of turning a blind eye. Self-defined Homo Sapiens have bought into their own press release. A complicitous silence and/or mumbling assent is required, and expected. It doesn’t take a Spinoza to realize that this affliction is essential to the backdrop of any future-Cyborg’s emboldened arrival. 

 

Abject effort and its trailing misery has been and continues to be the Hobbesian lot of most (four out of six billion, two-thirds of humanity)…and this smirking fact is, without admitting to a trace of nuance, crucial to the submission to and subsequent entrapment by the claw-and-maw...poised and eager to recruit. 

 

Desperate human entities become available resource units for everything — from extracted kidneys to cloned genes to uteruses for sale to the highest bidder. Body parts and functions have been rendered fungible goods. The sanctity, integrity, and unity of an embodied self with all its idiosyncrasies and unique demeanor are up for auction. And all of this peril is the fertile breeding ground for the once and future Cyborgs.

Now, in the fire of the world’s current and mushrooming calamities, all of this dire speculation, little doubt, appears to be very premature at best…like that madman shaking a dead geranium. This is hardly a clear and present danger. It is instead an ambiguous and future threat, cast in aspic. However, consider the fleeting character of this once, intractable, existential moment. It appears engulfed by a surfeit of plangent, undulating, possible futures spreading out, bleeding into every direction. It encompasses polyphonies of probable outcomes as well, each of which is more or less equally likely to become manifest. The crux is this: Are these present remarks an anticipation of a probable or of a merely possible, near to far flung future? 

"Truth is contrary to our nature, not so error, and this for a very simple reason: truth demands that we should recognize ourselves as limited" (Goethe), error flatters such that, one way or another, we are unlimited.

 

The lurch and thrust of the Cyborgian plot appears determined, one way or another, to prove Goethe is incorrect. Its hubris would have us accept that God-given limits imposed on fleshy existence can and will be cancelled out by man-made ways and means. But a steel-clad law of unintended consequences is the nemesis of such hubris. Over and over again, humanity, and the authentically innocent remainder of the world, has reluctantly absorbed the consequences of malevolent schemes, preposterous impudence, ecocidal intrusion, daily destruction of entire species, imperial contagion, inquisitorial madness on and on, ad nauseam. Have we now true the grit to take on the full-tilt absurd grandiosity of a Cyborgian future? Hope, as usual, triumphs over past experience…But the worm of doubt grows long and fat.  

 

Considering the dubious way we humans have swallowed those not so trifling insults of the past and present, it remains highly questionable that any and all resistance will succeed. In the clogged sclerotic swamp of our current cultural circumambience of victim-centric, solipsistic navel-gazing and crude self-aggrandizement, the likelihood of successful resistance is quite turbid and grim indeed. Infested with this dry rot of precedence and abetted by the manufacture of consent, an entire stretch of potential response to the enclosing pincer of Cyborgian ambition is hamstrung, neutralized, and otherwise castrated. It’s enough to make a misanthrope’s heart melt.

To paraphrase Gregory Bateson: the way we think and the way the mind of nature works are opposed, out of joint. Hence, the industrializing past, with its impudent disregard for nature’s mind, is prologue…a lingering tempest remaining very much with us…while its entrenched thought patterns, with their infectious practical manifestations, subvert nascent strategies informing a response to its grip. A phase-shift is well under way. 

 

At this once and present moment the "Cyborgian threat" seems ridiculous, deceptively simple, wildly irrational, beyond the pale, a willful amnesia. Especially when butted up against the more chilling and obvious self-evident threats of ecocide, global terrorism, psychotic and reactionary fundamentalists of every stripe, the splenetic propaganda of corrosive ideologies, genocide, transgenic-mutative contamination, and gangster capitalism. Nevertheless, from the blurry perspective of the fringe, history is the shockwave of eschatology and those hazards initiated by neurochemical manipulation will blossom and serve as an irresistible goad for the eventual emergence of the real Cyborg in all its morbid fascination. We will grow brutal from the fare. 

 

 

Frank Gillette

 

January 2002 / New York / Los Angeles