Sunday, 15 September 2013

When Technology Melts Away

Here's a copy of the talk I gave at this year's Marginalised Mainstreams conference at Senate House. I'm working through some ideas about transhumanism and our attitudes towards objects. Sorry for the weird layout, these are the notes I use as I talk so the paragraphs are pretty short so I can keep my place!

When Technology Melts Away:
The Representation of Friction-Free Tools and the New Human Aspiration

Today, I want to talk about how popular culture affects our reception of new technologies, and how essential, if inevitable, pop cultural forms are likely to be to the continued development of enhancements to the body and to cognition.
I want to be clear about what I’m trying to claim, so the simple idea is this: that popular culture prepares us for the future; it doesn’t just reflect our ideologies and prejudices and faiths and hopes, it can drive them. This isn’t that new an idea, but I think it can often be forgotten.
What I’d like to emphasise though, is that by paying specific attention to the role of technological artefacts in mainstream discourse we can get a greater sense of what people’s attitudes are liable to be, and for the radically new technologies that will start to alter human somatic and cognitive abilities at speeds eclipsing the iterations of evolution, we need to become increasingly sensitive to the values that people are establishing, and how those values might also be manipulated.

I’m not going to be arguing that any technology is good or bad, simply taking for granted that technological change will continue to occur, probably, perceptually at least, more rapidly, and almost certainly under the aegis of a dominant Whig-historical faith in progress.
And I’ll talk a bit about Sherlock Holmes and John Luther and Iron Man.

At the moment I’m at that weird stage of research where it feels like I’m between two projects, but actually I’m deeply into both.
I’m writing my first book, but it’s based on the last 6 years of my research so it feels done in my head, even though I’m still deep into working out its final shape.
And then there’s the second book, which I haven’t started at all, and yet it’s what I’m thinking about most of the time. So that’s kind of being written and not being written.
And what I want to say today comes out of that in-between space, out of the two projects overlapping.

So the first project, the project being written, is about technology, about what technology is, and what it does to us.
I’m really interested in how we conform to our tools at the same time as we shape them with our use.
We see the changing shapes of things over time, cars say, or computers, or stereos, knives, or kettles, and in that change there’s this combination of the improving state of the art and the mobile state of aesthetics, and this combination is a real writing of our knowledge and our tastes and our commitments onto the bodies of these things that we surround ourselves with.
But then there’s also how much our lives, our bodies, our ways of thinking, have been changed, moulded, by the presence of phenomena like driving; computation; the changing formats of music; cheap, mass produced blades; and quickly boiling water.
Things push back.
In part, what the bodies of our artefacts code, what is written into their shapes, is how much importance we place on them and the tasks that they help us to achieve, they code how much they’ve become valued.
But if things push back, do our bodies also have that same or similar encoding?
Foucault, and Foucauldians, talk about the “docile body,” the body taking its place and being shaped in the structures and strictures of society, that’s familiar enough, but there’s far less work on our mundane domestication by our things.
And there’s a real worry about this, I think. A worry that we can read about and hear repeated over and over, but it’s often being best captured in lay and amateur media forms, and that’s part of what I write about.
The case study I keep coming back to is e-reading.
Around the time of the first Kindle e-readers you couldn’t go a week without seeing an article called “The Death of Books?”
And always with this dumb, implicitly redundant question mark that’s meant to stand in for all of your concerns with the state of the modern world.
What will happen to our children when they read off screens rather than paper?
What will happen to the novels?
What will happen to us?
What’s happening? And why is it happening so fast?
Just think what it must all be doing…
I hate that question mark, it’s far more insidious than a bold declarative you can interrogate.
Anyway I wanted to try and understand where these kinds of resistant discourses come from, to see if there’s a common thread running through them.
Technologies have been resisted for a long time, and I’m fascinated by the popular discussion, which can sometimes be very nuanced, very sensitive, deeply aware of what we might face.
By using that word, “resistance,” I absolutely intend to invoke a political, moral, or ethical claim to avoiding or repudiating the move toward new technologies or new norms of use, in the case of e-reading: to allowing a new generation to grow up reading from screens rather than paper pages.

Take one of the most prominent works on the subject of resisting e-reading, Sven Birkerts’ The Gutenberg Elegies. At the height of his argument Birkerts tells us that

“What [codex] reading does, ultimately, is keep alive the dangerous and exhilarating idea that a life is not a sequence of lived moments, but a destiny. That God or no God, life has a unitary pattern inscribed within it” (Birkerts, The Gutenberg Elegies (1996) 85)

There is an ethics here, but an ethics tied to resisting a move away from the natural, or, worse, a drift from metaphysical rightness.
Though this is an extreme position, to associate the driving lines of text with a pattern in our lives, there is a real sense amongst many resisters of e-reading that there is very much a right way to do things.
And this sense of naturalness is almost always rooted in embodiment, a sense that reading is always-already perfectly aligned with the human body and that a move to the screen drags us away from ourselves.
Again, this is nothing new to technological criticism, but instead a playing out in the popular culture of established ideas to a far wider audience.
The early-to-mid-twentieth century technological critics, Mumford, Heidegger, Ellul, all saw technology as a potentially corrupting influence for a particular humanness.
Earlier, Marx argued that we are at our most human when we’re putting something of ourselves into our work out in the world, but also that the corruption by what we might now call technical systems had led us away from the purity of individual technical work.
The American Romantics also issued their own warnings: Thoreau told us that men had become the tools of their tools, and William Carlos Williams looked to the fields and saw technology getting in the way of lived experience:

Machines were not so much to save time as to save dignity that fears the animate touch. It is miraculous the energy that goes into inventions here. Do you know that it now takes just ten minutes to put a bushel of wheat on the market from planting to selling, whereas it took three hours in our colonial days? That’s striking. It must have been a tremendous force that would do that. That force is fear that robs the emotions: a mechanism to increase the gap between touch and thing, not to have contact (William Carlos Williams, In the American Grain 182-183).

This idea, that technology gets between us and the world, that it acts as a kind of visceral insulation, this is an idea which repeats and repeats.
At the end of the twentieth century, the anarcho-primitive philosopher Jonathan Zerzan states it bluntly:

“It seems to me we're in a barren, impoverished, technicized place and that these characteristics are interrelated” (Zerzan, “Against Technology” 1).

And it’s this same trend, this same concern, that moves through much resistance to e-reading.
Blog posts from readers reviewing new devices can be oddly illuminating with regards to what people actually find important. We see a concern that printed books, in their particular form, are able to record in their materiality a rich history of use, and this ties them to a human physical world in a way that the clinical asceticism of plastic and glass simply can’t.
A blogger, Anna Dorfman, offers a representative argument for what is important to her in her interactions with print:

I don’t see the act of reading as a purely word-based experience. Reading is also tactile. Reading should involve interaction between you and the text in your hands. The speed at which you turn to the next page (or flip back to the one before) matters. That accidental glimpse you got of page 273 (while still only on page 32) while fishing around for your bookmark matters. The weight of the book in your bag - that subtle reminder that it’s waiting for you - matters. The paper stock matters! The font, the letter-spacing, the margin width! It all matters!...And don’t even get me started on the smell of old paper and fresh ink!

There’s a kind of folk-phenomenology at work in reports like this, an intuitive sense that something profound changes when we undertake effectively the same task, but with a new bodily pose, a new engagement, or a new apparatus.
But then you get someone like Baroness Susan Greenfield who’s pseudoscientific claims that the new Facebook phone is going to rewire or cannibalise children’s brains, or that the Xbox is responsible for the increase in autism diagnoses - both of which are abhorrent bits of parent-shaming by the way, that neglect the finer aspects of neural plasticity; the expansion and better implementation of diagnostic criteria; and the fact that autism manifests way before most children have the kinds of manual dexterity required to manipulate a controller – anyway a sense of nuance can often evaporate, and this ends up shaping the red-top debate.
But these kinds of angry, ideological rants are important – and I mean Greenfield’s rants, not mine - they’re important, they have importance, as they structure the ways in which people conceive of things, conceive of the new, and in this way they shape the emergent.

And this links to my next project, the one that’s not being written, but that I seem to be constantly writing.
I’ve become increasingly interested in transhumanism and how, as a discourse, it’s actually at work in professional and amateur scientific communities, and in the wider popular consciousness.
Very briefly, I'm siding with the definition of “transhumanism” as

“a general term designating a set of approaches that hold an optimistic view of technology as having the potential to assist humans in building more equitable and happier societies mainly by modifying individual physical characteristics.” (Sky Marsen, “Playing by the Rules - or Not? Constructions of Identity in a Posthuman Future).

I'm not pretending that this is a neatly established distinction, but it gives us a reference that, for now, I'm fairly persuaded by.

So let’s look at some contemporary examples of transhumanism:

Here are some existing and near-future proposals for drugs and wearable technologies designed to change us: a new range of smart watches that are a few months away; tDCS light electroshock stimulation; creativity and attention enhancing pharmaceuticals; the Google Glass project's promise of ubiquitous augmented reality; the Occulus Rift Virtual Reality unit; and the emerging appetite for the constant tracking of biometrics with products like the Nike Fuelband.
They all represent ways of continuing our manipulation of our conceptions of ourselves, our world, and our agency within it using technology.
We might think of these sorts of enhancements, these wearable communication devices, pills and monitors, as a light transhumanism perhaps; gateway drugs towards becoming other.
They're items certainly well worth considering on their own terms, but also as pointers toward things to come with their potential for building the public appetite for transforming the body and embedded mind chemically and surgically.
This preparation is something that any harder transhumanism will require, though public desire often gets left off the list of biohacking necessities in favour of more tangible technological requirements.
By a “harder” transhumanism I mean, for instance, the arguably murkier realms of elective surgery and permanent neural enhancement; murkier as they open up questions of who can afford what, who will have access, who will want access, who might be left behind, what will be expected of people before they’re old enough to make their own decisions, and similar challenging social questions.

So why might these seemingly softer technologies lead us down such a path?
Miniaturisation and normalisation are trends that mundane technologies have often taken.
Mobile phones with batteries in briefcases carried by businessmen become cheap clamshell devices spreading throughout developing countries.
Printed books started as Gutenberg bibles and proceeded to iterate toward, largely, better conforming to the hands which held them, becoming smaller, more robust, less decorative.
Sundials became clocks became watches which became minute elements of other devices.
Computers took up rooms, took up desks, took up laps, fitted into pockets, now they're set to become watches and glasses.
The line to a world of normalised implantation is perhaps simply another step away.
Now, this may seem initially far-fetched, but Wired reported in late February the creation of electronic temporary tattoos, powered by the movement of the wearer, and capable of sending and receiving information.
When your phone is as disposable as a nicotine patch, the ultimate in wearable tech, how far away does sub-dermal really seem?

One of my favourite discussions in the Digital and Cyberculture Studies class I started this year involved the work of amateur bodymodifiers, a subculture known as “grinders,” who's experiments with biohacking have lead them to implant small free-floating magnets in silicon shells into their fingertips.
This hack allows them to feel the shape of electromagnetic fields, the stuttering of failing hard-drives, it reveals an invisible layer of our built world, and users who have performed the surgery find that, after a couple of weeks of recovery, their brain starts to code information from their fingertips very differently, arguably forming a new sense as the magnets spin in response to the unseen and previously unfelt forces in the world.
A subdermal hack has altered their cognition and their phenomenal experience of the modern world in a way that we might imagine as being a step toward the strongly transhuman; it has the “ick” factor, or the fascination - depending on your tolerance - of a subtly new form of being.
But my students readily saw this kind of “hard” hack as existing on a continuum from search changing the way that they remember; Google Maps changing their sense of their lived space; and mobile phones and social media changing their relationship with time and with their friends.

So we have technologies iterating to be smaller, more complex, and more advantageous the more deeply that they are embedded within us and our practices.
We also seem to have a technological trend towards breaking the skin barrier, and some devices which have started to do this, be they fingertip magnets, more traditional surgical implants, or bone-conducted sound in audio devices.
But this all appears against the backdrop of a very mainstream resistance to new technologies that already seem to go “too far.”
And as I said earlier, “too far” tends to mean “unnatural” with regards to our embodiment. The markers of such an unnaturalness are, surely, the justifiable fears of pain and infection, which are closely related, but distinct enough that we shouldn’t reduce one to the other; corruption is a different fear to pain.
Infection is actually probably more clearly linked to a fear of defacement, of ruining the only body we have – this, too, is a thread that runs through the e-reading debate: that by changing the devices that we use we might somehow be ruining ourselves and our experience of the world.
Surgical transhumanism necessarily relies on extinguishing such fears, and this neutering of concern, or its escalation in light of a new realism, requires the normalisation of the more extreme soft assemblages of always-on digital artefacts such as mobile phones, smart watches, and other, even more intimately wearable tech.

I’d like to finish up by looking at how pop cultural representations of transhuman devices can accompany this tendency and the discourse of resistance.
I said that I'd talk about Sherlock Holmes, who may seem like an odd figure to associate with transhumanism, but bear with me.

In the new American Holmes series, Elementary, set in contemporary New York and accompanied by a female Watson played by Lucy Liu, an in-recovery Sherlock, played by Johnny Lee Miller, is as brilliant as ever, able to establish the most arcane connections between events; spotting the most minute of clues; and generally impressing everyone around him with his cognitive abilities.
In the first episode, Holmes and Watson have only recently met, and he surprises her by reading a story of her life in her clothes, her phone, her demeanour.
One of the most astounding moments, for Watson at least, comes when Holmes sees an image of her parents on her phone, apparently happy, which leads him to state: “handsome woman your mother, it was very big of her to take your father back after the affair.”
“Ok, how could you possibly…?” and Watson tails off.
Later on she insists that Holmes reveal his methods.
“Google” Holmes replies, “not everything is deducible.”

Holmes is the embodiment of supreme cognitive skill, a very human refining of pattern recognition and critical thinking.
In short he's the poster boy for the power of natural cognition.
And yet throughout this series he continually supplements, augments, his innate and trained skills with the bolt-on efficiency inaugurated by mobile computing.
When Sherlock relies on Google, and it’s so obviously beneficial for him to do so, the show contributes to the making mundane of our changing attitudes towards knowledge and, importantly, its location.
Google’s function as a prosthetic memory has been debated, and it can be experienced by expert users of the system, but its representation in the work of Holmes rarefied deductive process makes it not only normalised, but a part of an aspirant intelligence.
Similarly Holmes uses his phone for all sorts of other support, a macro-lens replacing his iconic magnifying glass; text speak, praised by Holmes for its brevity and precision, replacing a more taciturn manner.

We might compare this modern Holmes to someone like John Luther.
Luther has a distinctly Holmesian vibe, a detective who can see things that others can't, who sees the connections between things.
But Luther maybe has more in common with the classical Holmes than Miller’s portrayal in Elementary. Aside from getting others to search the various police databases, his most advanced use of technology is spreading paper case documents around himself in an effort to see all the facts.
His phone remains stubbornly turned off lest people contact him; it certainly isn't used to solve cases or augment his thought process.
So are these simply two representations of technological use? An enthusiastic adopter and a resister?
Perhaps, but the hyper-intelligent detective trope seems to have genuinely altered.

In the same way that the existence of mobile phones changes the kinds of plots that we can see in our films, Holmes use of cognitive supports is never questioned, it makes sense, it ties into his idiosyncrasies and becomes a part of his allure.
The same isn't true of the damaged Luther. His refusal of technology feels like a part of his misanthropy; everyone in the show thinks that he's weird for the way that he doesn't use the now elemental device; Luther is great despite his refusal of technology.
Two somewhat broken men, the hyperactive and perennially bored ex-junkie, and the righteous misanthrope, but only the latter has technology as a symptom, and it's a refusal malady.

A more blatant popular transhuman figure is Tony Stark and his Iron Man suit.
Stark, with a chest-implanted electromagnet keeping a piece of shrapnel from piercing his heart, builds a suit of metal armour, an exoskeleton which responds perfectly to his every move and that’s equipped with an artificial intelligence which perfectly matches and predicts his requirements.
The Iron Man suit is the ultimate friction-free upgrade. It matches the needs of its user, amplifies their potential, and seems to promise no ill effects for its use. It doesn't seem to push back, it's very clean. In many ways it’s a high-end phone that you can ride in.
The Iron Man suit undoubtedly overplays the potential to offer an incredibly intimate segue between the human and the machine without risk, but in this regard it also represents a coherent fantasy for human support.

Exoskeleton devices, for instance - for military, rehabilitative, and disability support -, are often compared to Iron Man and we can see here another facet of how popular media might be deployed to affect our expectations.
The postphenomenologist Don Ihde talks about how our fantasies can become culturally primed:

“in an already technology-familiar culture, fantasies can easily take...technofantasy forms...Technofantasies include many sorts of desires...[,] technologies which will give us powers usually beyond our bodily, sensory, sexual, intellectual, or for that matter any or all dimensions of human embodiment. But while we imagine technologies which could do this, we also want them to be transparent, without effort, enacted with ease, as if our enhancements were part of a well trained ‘sports body’” (Ihde, Embodied Technics 10-11).

The technologies that we want to be frictionless often reveal our various horizons of experience. Their aspirational presence in popular media not only speaks to our desires, but actively begins to cultivate them, particularly in areas that we haven’t previously been forced to conceive of as possible.
Analysing the mundane representation and discussion of tools in media might be one of our best primers for the future state of acceptance of things, and also a discourse of value to, but also able to be manipulated by experimental science, engineering, military, and military industrial complex.
If scientists, engineers, and designers want dramatic implantable technology to take off then they will have to ally with or shape pop cultural discourse, and we can maybe discuss this later, but it’s already arguably happening more now than any other time in history, and this is something we have to watch.

Discussions of media as being simply reflective of the culture aren't enough when we have iterations of devices in our pockets that have equalled or exceeded many creative visions of the future, and an iPhone or Blackberry could soon start to look like merely the tame beginnings of what we became.