The Spirit of Technology -- "Psychopathic Hyper-Cyborgism"
Just what sort of creatures have we become, in our 'progress' from makers of hand axes to "artifically intelligent" androids? Human genetics have changed little in 200,000 years. But our human systems have changed drastically. Are we in control of our vast technological systems, or have we become the servants of our creation? If the latter, then what is the 'characteristic spirit' of our new master?
A variety of animals use tools, such as crows and chimpanzees. Our hominid ancestor, homo habilis, or "handy man," was named in reference to the stone tools found with its remains in the Oldewan region of East Africa. From its time, some 1.65 to 2.3 million years ago, through homo ergaster and homo erectus, hominids were tool makers. The species goes 'hand in hand,' as it were, with the purposeful creation of extra-bodily implements -- or technology. Human tool use is distinguished in part from other animal tool users by our ability to employ tools to make tools, or techno-logical skills that enhance technological extensions of bodily functions. That capacity gave an ape-like biped of modest physical strength, relative to other animals its size, the ability to act as a super-predator and eventyally extend its range across every continent except Antarctica.
It is useful to think of technology as 'leverage,' as in using a pole for a lever to increase one's ability to lift a heavy stone. A lever literally multiplies human strength. Externalizing human capacities provided more 'manipulative leverage', directly and indirectly, over objects, animals, plants, even other people. By the time of modern humans (or homo sapiens, meaning 'wise or knowledgeable man') this logical technique of making technology from technology enabled the manipulation of entire environments, construction of monumental architecture, supersonic flight, and the instantaneous transmission of information around the globe, etc. Along the way, our brain size increased considerably.
Genetic human evolution thus appears to have occurred, in part, through the interactions of body, mind, tools, and environments. The early use of technological enhancements of bodily functions created feedback loops between all four. Tool use and its consequences became an environmental factor that influenced which genetic traits natural selection favored. Traits of body function and intelligence that enhanced tool making promoted adaptive capacity, thus were favored by fitness selection. The interplay of body, mind, and tools became a fundamental trait of 'being human.' It literally altered the external environments within which humans lived, through hunting, herding, and agriculture -- each of which had its own technology. It is important to note that extensions of human capacities are not just implements and what we make with these, but include numbers, writing, calculation methods, and record keeping. Clearly, in terms of cultural evolution, this technological capacity has played a major role in the emergence of industrial civilization and its worldwide dominance as the primary form of human societies.
We would not be human, in the ways we are, without our technologically enhanced bodily and mental abilities. Our brains and minds have evolved to be techno-logical. The functions of our tools are 'in our minds,' yet, somehow, our 'minds are in our tools.' Though we are not our tools in a physical sense, we could not exist without our tools. We have 'externalized' our adaptive capacity. And contemporary humans are utterly dependent upon massively complicated technological systems for their survival. Indeed, most of our efforts are in some way or another 'in service to' those systems. They would not exist without us nor we without them. Of course, there are a handful among us who could go off into the woods and survive without modern technology, though such grow fewer by the day. The vast majority of us have no idea how to use an axe, a spear, start a fire from scratch, or build a shelter.
A cyborg is defined as an organism, a biological entity, but one that has enhanced abilities derived from some artificial technology which has been incorporated into the organism through an integrated feedback network. That is, the organism and the technology have become a 'single system.' For some people this cyborgism represents a dystopic future in which humans have become more like machines than animals. Think of the "Borg," from the Star Trek movies, and their ominous prediction of dominion, "Resistance is futile." But for others, modern humans seem unable to communicate or navigate without their smart phones, so have already become fully cyborgian. It even appears to many that our machines will displace our biological body-minds and carry on their evolution without us-- or that we will somehow live on in/as computers.
Given our co-evolution with technology, it might reasonably be said we were, from our very origins, cyborgs. A tool only exists 'as a tool' because it is integrated in a feedback network with a human mind and body. Human organisms only survive because they participate in such feedback networks. But clearly, we contemporary humans do not just 'use tools' to adapt to natural environments. We depend on vast technological systems to create and sustain the urbanized environments in which we live. These systems dictate the structure of our societies and economies. The more complex they become the more we depend upon them for our existence. Many people now feel that they no longer control their personal lives, but that Technology, writ large, is their master.
The Internet is not directly under our control. It is interdependent with and enables all the technological systems of our industrial economies that facilitate its operations. Though the whole of this network arises from the actions of millions of human agents. But, like an ant colony, those interactions enable purposeful self-organization and adaptation at a 'higher level.' There are numerous subsystems contributing this overall integration. Corporations like Apple, Google, and Facebook obsessively strive to expand its influence on us. That is the purpose of their existence. From a systems science perspective, it is a kind of "super organism" -- a self-directing meta-system that arises from interactions of biological agents but is not, itself, a biological entity. Humans are said to be the dominant species on the planet. But what about this super-organism of technology that we have externalized around us? The two are codependent, but which one has more influence over the other? Have the manipulators of tools become the tools of this complex adaptive system our species 'gave life to?' Have humans, who once enslaved other humans, now become the 'slaves' of their machinery? One thing is obvious: technological innovation appears compulsive. Our future is imagined as ever more technologically 'advanced.' Most believe technology will make us more comfortable, richer, more powerful, even happier. With the rise of "artificial intelligence," we begin to transfer what direct control we have over this super organism to its 'machine mind,' its own 'computational agency.' Though some experts warn that AI could 'turn on us,' it appears inevitable we will grant it autonomous 'android status.' We even see our selves in its terms, as 'computers.' We have progressively made, and experienced our selves, as ever more cyborgian.
Media theorist Marshal MacLuhan once observed that technological externalizations of human capacity have a psychological effect he termed an "outering," in which part of one's self is experienced as not just 'extended' but "amputated." Our tools, from stone axes to computers, displace experience of a body or mind function 'to' an external thing, tending to make one feel less capable or adaptive, less complete, even disabled, in the absence of the tool. In such a view, the elaboration of our cyborgian character diminishes our sense of 'sufficient inherent adaptive confidence.' Once having driven an automobile, walking can seem like an utterly inefficient mode of travel, lessening one's sense of one's own embodied capacity.
An additional idea worth considering is termed "extended cognition." The most obvious examples would be the extensions of computers or smart phones. In using these, human mental capacities are amplified by becoming interdependent with computational machines. With self-learning artificial intelligence, a machine is literally mimicking aspects of the human cognition with which it is networked. This notion is likely derived from anthropologist Gregory Bateson's concept of "extended mind." Bateson used the example of a blind person navigating with a cane. In the absence of vision, such a person must project a concept of an invisible world, must 'extend' their cognitive processes beyond their body. What is now termed "embodied cognition" considers how our consciousness derives in part from our external environments, actually networking with the tangible world of things and events. We are actually 'thinking with' or 'through' external aspects of our environments. In considering our cyborgian relationship with technology, this concept suggests how our minds and tools become networked into a particular complex adaptive system. This network has postive reinforcing feedback loops. Thus, unconsciously at least, we 'become our tools,' or our technology 'becomes us.' The more we are immersed in a technologically derived and dependent environment, the more our cognition is 'extended,' the more human agency becomes entangled in this cyborgian system -- as in when our smart phones are 'running our lives.' If we lose our smart phones, we feel we have 'lost our selves.'
In all this there is a sense of extremity. If a little control is good, more must be better. If our current technologized existence is threatened, then we need more technology. While humans have existed through technological adaptation for millennia, by the 21st Century, we have become utterly obsessed with this cyborgian aspect of our character. The result has been both astonishingly creative and horrifically destructive. Human populations have exploded, material comforts elaborated, but so has human brutality to both humans and natural systems. The industrialization of war, mass murder, and ecological exploitation are inseparable from modernity. Such devastation, heading now toward collapse of the biosphere, and thus human extinction, does not seem 'wise.' Homo sapiens appears to have become 'homo sapiens mechanicus' -- 'mechanically knowledgeable man.' We are knowledgeable about technology, but not wise about its consequences.
In mythical thinking, human behaviors are understood to be influenced by non-human spirits or divine agency. These 'forces' are represented as personifications that have archetypal character. There are gods and goddesses that personify the behaviors of war, wild nature, hearth and home, marriage, commerce, dance and music. Their character and recounted deeds provide insight into the patterns of thought and action human behaviors can express. Mythology is a symbolic form of psychology. The stories about how these gods influence human behavior often indicate what happens when one god or spirit 'takes over' and pushes behavior to an extreme. These archetypal metaphors of myth are psychological mirrors that can assist people to understand the behaviors of themselves and their societies. Among early civilizations, the Mesopotamians imagined a god-spirit with the capacity to build cities, Marduk. As the metaphor for technologically focused civilization-creation, he is represented as defeating and dismembering an animal-bodied goddess, Tiamat, who personified the chaotic creativity of wild nature. Accordingly, Marduk's character appears as aggressive, merciless, and triumphal. Here we see a mythological distinction aboout the human impulse to 'defeat wild nature' in the technologically empowered establishment of civilization as a 'tamed domain.' Psychologically, the 'wilful wildness' of Tiamat, and the 'forceful taming' of Marduk, are manifestations of archetypal behavioral patterns in 'human nature.' Posed as these are in an opposition that results in the triumph of the aggressive Marduk, a split is mirrored in human culture between The Wild and The Tame, with a reflexive bias toward the latter. The Mesopotamians were 'up front' and honest about the 'spiritual character' of their civilized system: it existed to triumph over Nature.
In our modern world we do not have such metaphoric symbolism that imagines the characteristic forces manifesting in our systems. At least, we do not have a culturally shared imaginal personification of our cyborgian character, of the spirit or 'godliness' of Technology -- though there are some candidates in popular imagination, such as "The Borg," "The Matrix," and Mary Shelly's earlier Dr. Frakenstein (the doctor, not his monster).
It is worth noting that what mythological background still reverberates in our modern cultures predisposes us to the 'conquest of Nature.' The Christian church once promoted the notion of "The Great Chain of Being." This is an extremely hierarchical, top-down conception of order in the world. At the apex reigns an omnipotent singular divinity, with humans in second rank of importance dominating animals, plants, etc. Tellingly, at the very bottom is a realm of 'devils and demons,' which can be understood as agents of corruption and disorder. Relative to other mythologies, this view of divine agency as infallibly 'in control of everything, forever' and humans as superior to all Nature, is rather exceptional.
Though we lack a contemporary 'mythological mirror,' we can apply a version of myth's archetypal characterization to our modern systems. This can be termed 'archetypal analysis' of system behavior. If we reflect upon technology as an adaptive system that asserts itself characteristically, we can look for examples. Historically, human amplification of bodily functions changed little for tens of thousands of years, while humans lived a "subsistence life-style" as hunter-gatherers. Then, perhaps in relation to climatic changes after the last Ice Age, human techno-logical extension diversified and flourished as civilized societies, amplifying human capacities for agriculture, manufacturing, architectural construction, and warfare. Tools were used to make the 'tools' of plows, irrigation systems, granaries, pottery, harnesses and carts for domesticated animal power, urbanized cities, ships for trading, instruments for writing, record keeping, and weapons of war. Civilizations with this level of technological amplification gained dominion over natural environments, accumulated surplus food, elaborated material possessions, advanced metalurgy, created money, generated centralized political states, conducted wars of conquest, institutionalized slavery, and often developed extreme inequity in their social hierarchies. This amplification of our cyborgian spirit gave social systems greater power over both the individuals that comprised those societies and the systems of natural environments.
Civilization is clearly an expression of techno-logical thinking, and the increases of manipulative control that this cyborgian aspect of 'being human' can generate. Indeed, it institutionalizes that control as the 'sine qua non,' the most essential aspect, of civilized society. The political state systems it enabled claimed a "monopoly on violence," the ultimate power of life and death over their subjects. By and large, a person's life no longer 'belonged to them,' or their community, but to technologically enabled authoritarian social systems. Now that is control.
And so it went, for thousands of years, again without much variation, until modern times. Along the way, numerous civilizations and empires flourished and typically collapsed, often due to how they debilitated of their environments, or conquest by some other civilized state. A prominent characteristic of these technologically amplified societies has been aggression towards each other and readiness to use violence toward their own subjects when these challenged existing social hierarchies. But the modern era, if we identify it with the technological eruption of the "industrial revolution," from the mid 18th to mid 19th centuries, took cyborgism to a radically new level.
It is difficult now to comprehend the extent of that change in relationships between humans and technology. While vast quantities of material goods had been manufactured prior to the invention of steam engines, the earlier mode of manufacture was "cottage industry," meaning independent workers living in their homes who processed materials through manual weaving, pottery, blacksmithing, carpentry, etc. The cyborgs of that time still worked mostly with hand tools and governed their own work lives. With the advent of wood, then coal powered steam engines, the human/technology network changed dramatically. The mass-production factory and the time clock became the masters of working life. Railroads, steamships, telegraphs enabled world wide empires. The powers of the human/technology network multiplied through material science. Marduk was on the march and the remaining corners of the planet still under the dominion of wild Tiamat were rapidly subdued. Though the prevailing description of the industrialization regards modernity as 'human progress,' the brutality and destruction it imposed upon both people and natural systems is truly beyond conception. In pursuit of what we thought was 'the good,' we have often turned the already authoritarian state into totalitarian and fascistic systems. But the ultimate outcome is the present catastrophes of general ecological collapse and the disintegration of global climate regularities. The ancients were harmless compared to us. And still, exponential economic growth and ever greater technological advancement are 'the order of the day,' Cyborgism has become a kind of religion. We might term our behaviors as 'hyper-cyborgism.'
Critiques of this history often focus upon the greed of socio-economic elites and general human short-sightedness. But if our societies have become subordinated to the feedback loops between them and their technological systems, then our collective behaviors might better be understood as an expression of that network's biases -- its inherent archetypal impulses. If humans have become enthralled by these, then our behaviors likely express the same tendencies. It is crucial to consider here that we may think, even feel, we are acting from values and for purposes that are actually contradicted by the consequences of our cyborgean actions. We may feel our smart phones, Amazon shopping, jet travel, and consumer societies make our lives better, without realizing the misery of low wage workers, environmental devastation, and even damage to our own brains and bodies that result.
But why did our cyborgism escalate so vehemently to produce modernity? Why, after thousands of years of civilization, did the Industrial Revolution occur? It can be argued that the discovery of fossil fuel energy and the elaborations of the 'machine age' were not the primary causes but the consequences of cultural changes. Three cultural threads might be relevant here. One is the Christian notion of a top-down "Great Chain of Being," in which humans are destined to hold dominion over Nature. Another is the Christian derived regard for the individual, for human liberty from oppression. A third is the intellectual Enlightenment in Europe , which overlaps the era of the Industrial Revolution. Here it was thought that Reason and Science would 'liberate' humans from superstition, political tyranny, and economic inequality. Though there is an anti-religious aspect to these ideas, they actually reinforce the concept of human domination of Nature and the ultimate primacy of logical control of everything. In addition, Enlightenment thought promoted the primacy of individual liberty and the personal pursuit of material prosperity. So it has been argued that some people in this time period actually conceived technology as what would "redeem Adam," and make the earth a paradise for humans (See David F. Nobel's "The Religion of Technology"). Thus our tendency to be 'religious' about our hyper-cyborgism, to unconsciously grant it some 'divine agency,' has a 'cultural history' to it. It is supposed to 'save us' from our weakness, even 'make us immortal' by transferring our 'selves' into computational machines, where we can 'live forever' -- not as cyborgian humans, but as fully mechanical androids. To 'be god-like,' in reference to our cultural background, is to 'be infallibly in control' of everything. Try as we have, we are making a mess of it. Perhaps our android descendants will have more control over their 'selves' than we over ours.
From a systems science perspective, this run-away technologizing in pursuit of 'absolute control' can be understood generally as an exagerated expression of an inherent self-asserting impulse in complex adaptive systems. These are systems that manifest the capacity to regulate and adapt their forms and functions so as to further their continued existence. Natural selection for fitness favors the evolution of successful adaptations, both in genetic terms but also cultural ones. Orca whales are one genetic species but develop different hunting behaviors in different parts of the world, related to specific ecosystems where they live. These are considered cultural adaptations. So these different whale cultures are optimizing their adaptive capacities in different ways. Humans behave similarly. But with industrial technology, powered by fossil fuel energy, our self-asserting system impulse has 'run amok.' It has 'freed' us from the constraints of our environments to the degree that we are overwhelming the self-sustaining assertion of natural systems. If some aspect of human systems does not act to impose constraints on our hyper-cyborgism, the latter's inherent self-assertion will pursue its goal of 'absolute control' to its 'biocidal' conclusion.
Returning to the perspective of archetypal analysis, we can ask what are some basic traits of cyborgism, of the extending of human functions through tools. Tools use is 'technical' in the sense that it requires 'technique.' This word means 'a way of doing, performing, or executing a task' and a 'skillful or efficient means accomplishing a procedure.' There is an inherently sequential aspect to such technical skill, whether in knapping obsidian to make a hand axe a million years ago or generating computer code today. Machinery operates in highly sequenced processes. Computer programs are encoded with 'ones' and 'zeros.' It is binary, very 'either/or,' and must be 'read' in sequence. In these examples one finds a bias toward goal-directed thinking achieved through skillfully sequenced technique. Control and a kind of 'single mindedness' are essential. Technologically enabled civilized systems tend to be configured as 'top down' networks with 'command and control' structure that are maintained by sequential procedures.
The cyborgian in us favors such traits of thought and action. In the modern world, with all our machinery and digitalized devices, nearly everything we do is imbued with this sequential command and control mentality. Our environments are constantly facilitating it or even carrying it on 'automatically.' Indeed, there is a telling link between our computer age and the flint knapping of homo habilis. The term digital, which now refers to computer programing, data storage or transfer, and numbers, derives from the Latin digitus, meaning finger or toe. Presumably, this derivation comes from both 'counting with fingers' and the primary use of fingers to manipulate things -- to be technically skillful. And it is our fingers, after all, that are the primary interface of our networking with technology.
However 'mechanical minded' we have become, we humans are not machines. We are self-organizing, self-animating organisms. Creatures of emotion, makers of the symbolic expressions of art, who sing, dance, dream, suffer, and love. These aspects of 'being human' are not much expressed by our hyper-cyborgian obsession with technology. Cultural resistance to the impact of industrial technology began at the onset of the Industrial Revolution with the Romantic Movement. This "Romanticism" countered Enlightenment emphasis on reason and science by prioritizing intuition, emotion, aesthetic experience, and idealizing Nature in contrast to the degrading effects of industrialization. The Luddite movement of textile workers in the early 1800s resisted mechanization in defense of their craft-based skills and economy.The invention and use of the atomic bomb gave impetus to a whole genre of science fiction movies in the 1950s that imagined catastrophic consequences of our scientific technology. We have had five decades of environmental activism seeking to protect natural systems from human ones. But none of this has slowed our exponential "outtering" of human manipulative capacities in the pursuit of more control.
Contemporary psychology provides a way of characterizing behavior similar to myth's archetypal personification of gods and spirits. With its diagnostic terminology, it differentiates extreme expressions of human behaviors with terms such as narcissistic, obsessive-compulsive, psychopathic, schizophrenic, psychotic, neurotic, paranoid, manic, depressive, dissociated, bi-polar, addictive, etc. Given the destructive impacts of our hyper-cyborgian civilization, we can examine it psycho-pathologically. If we examine our collective systems, with their now universal bias toward cyborgian extension of our capacities for manipulative control, what sort of 'personality traits' are revealed? Firstly, it appears that the more technologically enhanced a society is, the less it appears to notice or respond to the effects it has upon other systems, particularly those of the biosphere. It seems that emphasizing our cyborgian aspect progressively alienates human systems from natural ones. The world, even our selves, become 'just more material to be manipulated.' In exaggerating control of our environments we become insulated from and less empathic toward other life forms. Such inability to 'feel' the disruption or distress of 'others' resembles the psychological diagnosis of being psychopathic. That is an anti-social state of impaired ability to feel empathy or remorse, characterized by uninhibited egotism and a tendency to exploit others without regard for the consequences, or even for the 'pleasure' of being mean and destructive.
Our inability to stop exploiting both human "underclasses" and the biosphere in order to further indulgence in control and consumption also resembles an obsessive-compulsive diagnosis, as well as that of addiction. There is no doubt we 'know what we are doing,' but collectively we cannot stop, we manically pursue ever more -- or, at least, the self-asserting complex adapting system of Technology does so. Perhaps this narcissistic and compulsive behavior involves a symptom of collective neurosis, a deep anxiety about inadequacy in the face of our dependency on the technological system we feel we 'can't live without.' Then again, our over-emphasis upon the cyborgian side of our nature might be creating disassociation in which we have actually 'lost touch with reality.' All these psycho-pathological conditions appear to apply to our hyper-cyborgism. There is nothing practical or logical in pursuing utterly un-sustainable behaviors while knowingly driving the sixth great extinction of life on earth and collapsing the global climate system that has made earth habitable for our species. We are clinically insane.
The Mesopotamian god-spirit Marduk was a terror to Nature. But his powers were paltry compared to our civilization's god-spirit of hyper-cyborgism. We have created a monster. And, like all our tools, it is and is not us. We have extended our manipulative capacities into a system that has no empathy, no sociability, only a mania for extending its powers of exploitation. Yes, there are more benign and even beneficent aspects, like medicine and the pursuit of scientific knowledge. But these in no way compensate for the rampant despoilment of life occurring.
So how to contend with such a monstrosity in which our larger humanity has become entrained? In traditional pre-modern societies, tools were often regarded as 'having soul,' as somehow being 'self animating.' thus worthy of great respect. These were, after all, the means by which humans could survive and prosper. These "outtered" aspects of humanness had a kind of 'life of their own.' That was also how such people regarded the systems of nature, as fellow creatures with feelings. With our vast amplification of mechanical technology, it became easier to 'take it for granted.' We made it, it serves us. We have become "psychologically inflated" with our 'god-like' powers. Machines have been our slaves: used, abused, and readily discarded in favor of the next, more powerful version. We do not care about our tools so much as the advantages we gain by them. If we regarded them as 'having spirit,' or being an aspect of our 'spirit,' that has impacts on the 'spirit' of other systems, might we behave any differently?
If we are to avoid being rocketed to our extinction by the psychopathic temperament of our hyper-cyborgism, we shall have to differentiate our sense of being human from the seductive powers of it 'as an autonomous system', one which thrives by the subordination of our own agency to its manic purposes. But that means we must see our selves as "addicts," as 'out of touch with reality,' as "codependent enablers" of an "obsessive-compulsive sociopath," so that we might redirect our priorities, indeed our inherent cyborgism, to other, more life-sustaining purposes. In this view, it is not the individual persons so prominently acting in service to the "Technosphere," the Elon Musks and Mark Zuckerbergs, that are 'the problem.' It is 'The System,' as a complex adaptive network, as a 'creature in its own right.' Here there be dragons.
David F. Nobel: Religion of Technology