Monday, March 22, 2010

Our Cyborgian Selves, Part I

"We are all dreaming cyborg dreams. While our children imagine "morphing" into metallic cyber-reptiles, our computer scientists dream themselves immortal. They imagine themselves thinking forever, downloaded onto machines"

--Sherry Turkle

(There is an episode of The X-files called Kill Switch written by William Gibson (of Neuromancer fame) that deals with this very thing--the concept of downloading human consciousness to create a kind of immortal electronic self. That show just rocked. Seriously.)

Most of our cyborg dreams are a little less outlandish, of course.

Dana has been talking about social networking at My Gorgeous Somewhere & I cannot stop thinking about how much we depend on machines to maintain our connection to the outside world. On the one hand, I am grateful for the opportunities social networking sites like Facebook & Twitter make possible, this closing of distance via the computer screen so we might (virtually) see so many different faces, hear so many different voices. On the other hand, there is something of a disconnect, too. Sometimes I log in to Facebook & read the status updates & think How lonely everyone seems or How anxious we all are to form these networks...

Sherry Turkle wrote Life on the Screen in 1995, but so much of the book still seems relevant today. Our interactions may have moved from Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Multi-User-Dungeons (MUDs) to Facebook & Twitter but the concepts haven't changed: our protean, cyborgian selves, the resultant fragmentation & disconnection coupled with the instinct to use the computer to "retribalize" (178). It's all still happening fifteen years down the electronic road.

It brings to mind a line from Allen Ginsberg's Howl: "angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly / connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night" & I think he could have just as easily been talking about cyberspace, had it been written about 40 or 50 years later.

We find ourselves in a technological bind. The very nature of of our bodies has become a hybrid of biology & technology. For many, it's almost physically painful to disconnect from our cellular phones, our computer screens, the netbooks & notebooks that remind us we are human when we use them to communicate while simultaneously making us feel a little less grounded in our physical bodies. Who would I be if my computer were to disappear tomorrow, perhaps forever? It's a sobering question. How much of myself have I invested in the machine? Is this dysfunctional, or simply adaptation? I don't think I'd want to live forever, downloaded onto a machine or morph into a metallic critter; my cyborg dreams are much less dramatic. Is it possible for us to utilize our tools without becoming overly dependent on them? I enjoy talking to a variety of people via the internet. I've met many of them In Real Life and I'm very glad that's happened, so they aren't always fully "virtual," these relationships. I enjoy much of the work I do on the machine... But at the end of the day, I'd like to be able to walk away from the machine, to forget about it for while while I engage in something else profoundly human--walking the dog, baking a cake, sitting in the sun--without thinking I gotta check my email or I wonder what's happening on XYZ site today.

I have to believe this is still possible.


Dana said...

It is still possible.

Ironically, I am using a machine to tell you that, and you are using a machine to read what I am telling you. And I am responding to what you just wrote and shared by way of a machine. Hmm.

Let's go our separate ways and bake cakes, shall we?

Susan said...

We are somehow both connected and disconnected when we use these machines. Still, I am glad I can read your words & you can read mine.

My plan is to walk away from the machine today, see some people in the non-virtual world, maybe feel a little less cyborgian for a while.

If I'm really lucky, there will be cake. Or banana bread.

steve cavrak said...

If we walk to to right place, there is at least a free cone of Ben and Jerry's ice cream :)