“Who is flying this thing?,” we ask of our own lives.
This piece is adapted from an article I wrote for a student run magazine at Whitman College in 2016. The theme of the issue was “Graduation”. The original article was directed at graduating seniors who might have been anxious about their post-grad life.
Anxiety about the future is at all-time high. We are uncertain of our ability to regain control of the massive systems we have created. This uncertainty grows; the more we know, the more we realize how much we don’t.
A lot of the current anxiety has to do with the The Anthropocene, or the current epoch in geologic time where humans have made a significant impact on the ecology of Earth. We have dealt irreversible, or at least extreme, damage to the landscape, and thrown it out of whack, affecting populations disproportionately around the globe. How do we deal with a challenge of this magnitude?
I believe developing models to deal with problems is an small, effective component in a larger solution. The first step is to develop a paradigmatic model, rather than a scientific one. How do we even begin to think about something as massive as climate change? Philosopher Timothy Morton calls the large force of climate change a “hyperobject”. A hyperobject is something that cannot be touched, but we nevertheless feel the effects of. Other hyperobjects are race, class, gender. The future is a hypoerobject, too.
In this vein I think donning our metaphorical hats to begin to understand the hyperobject of the future will be helpful.
I will argue through a series of anecdotes that we are already cyborgs, and that the object of a cyborg embodies the paradigmatic lens we must use to approach our greater anxieties.
A cyborg is a hybrid being made up of part natural biology and part engineered mechanism. In sci-fi we might think of Frankenstein’s monster, or in film, Terminator. Cyborgs are super-human, like Iron Man, or virtual avatars we control, like in Ready Player One.
At the same time a cyborg is neither part biology and neither part engineered mechanism. In The Cyborg Manifesto Donna Haraway argues that a cyborg is its own thing altogether. A cyborg is neither human or animal, neither biological nor machine, neither virtual nor physical. Born from a dichotomy it has now dug its own hole into ontological space.
It is the story of the cyborg, of becoming a new third thing in a world of dichotomies, that allows one a clarity to approach the future. A realization that we already are this third thing, that “We Are As Gods” as Stewart Brand put it, will give us the lens to deeply accept the responsibility of the future and help us move forward.
Some of us have mechanized parts integrated with our bodies through the likes of prosthetic legs and pacemakers. We put braces in our mouths, splints on broken arms, and get in wheelchairs to get around.
Technology has become a physical extension of our bodies in day-to-day survival. Maybe a less obvious example is the cellphone you most likely have in your pocket right now. According to recent estimations by The World Bank, 75 percent of the world’s population has access to a cellphone. Cellphones act as a physical extension of the voice reaching across the globe. Similarly, television and radio have become an extension of sight and hearing. The internet has extended our emotions and our nervous system. We can sense and feel empathy for total strangers we never even meet in “meatspace”.
In some instances, technology is not only an extension of our lives but an authority over them. It has become something that is out of our direct control. When we sit in an airplanes, for example, only about 10 minutes of the entire flight is manually operated by the pilots, primarily for takeoff and landing. For the rest of the flight the pilots rely on computers to automatically navigate and to provide assistance through fly-by-wire systems. As passengers, our position in the airplane cabins is vulnerable, impotent in the hands of the airplane app. Be reminded, however, that only 2.8 accidents occur for every million departures–one is thousands of times more likely to get into a car accident. Despite having more control in a car, one is safer in a plane without any apparent control at all.
In these cases the technology of airplanes has extended our ability travel so far that it appears to be amputated. The technology seems to drive itself. Put another way, maybe our conception of the future is an extension of ourselves now amputated by the anxiety of the hyperobject. Even in the cases that we are the pilots of our lives we seem to not have total control of the plane. “Who is flying this thing?,” we ask of our own lives.
The trick is to understand the idea of “control” is evolv. Old systems of control do not work in a hyperobject. Old systems of control attempt a manual balance of parameters. New systems of control attempt to strike an inflection point of a positive feedback look and self-regulation. You are not in control in the airplane; you are the airplane!
This new system of control is embodied in the cyborg, or in the case of the chess community, what are synonymously called “centaurs”:
In 1997, the IBM computer named Deep Blue beat the then world champion Garry Kasparov in a match of chess. It was a monumental feat in the artificial intelligence department. But for some it was one of those moments, where after celebrating, a sudden clarity befell, and some felt they had just put themselves out of a job. Some thought people were over. “Long live the machine overlords!,” others said.
Kasparov lost but he did respond like the others. He realized that if he had access to the same vault of information that ‘Deep Blue’ had, then he could defeat the AI. And he was right. He invented a new genre of chess, called freestyle chess, where players are allowed to team up with a computer’s brute processing power, juxtaposed against their own human intuition and cognition, to make a powerful “centaur” player. In the present day the best chess player in the world is not a virtuoso or a computer on its own, it’s a centaur player.
Kasparov embodies the ethos in the cyborg as a compass toward a new way of being. By inventing a new genre of chess he has accepted the responsibility of the hyperobject of artificial intelligence. It was not an antagonistic dichotomy between AI and himself. His response was not anxiety over the loss. The response was a merge, transmutation into, a fusion with the system that beat him. The result was not a combination of a him and the machine, it was something more, a gestalt: a centaur, a cyborg.
I’ve touched on how we are cyborgs in our everyday existence, how our proximity to technology means that it can come to feel like it pilots our lives. Under the looming shadow of hyperobjects, there seems to be so much to do with so little means.
But it fact, there are plenty of means. What we can’t do is putz around an accept the dread of the future as an Other, as if it were us versus the future. The future can become cyborg. The means is first to partake in the paradigm of generating new ways of thinking.
Part of that is accepting a new definition of control. You aren’t flying the plane, but an automatic system is in service of augmenting your travel, it is still an extension of you. Part of that is accepting a way of thinking which is cyborg: re-arrange, invent new taxonomies, merge, become centaur. Part of this is accepting that this is happening already. We are already part machine, part old selves. We are already becoming something more than the arithmetic combination of the two. We have to rather become a cyborg than what we were before. As Donna Haraway writes in a lead-by-example proclamation, “Though both are bound in the spiral dance, I would rather be a cyborg than a goddess.”