“I’m a cyborg? I thought I was just wearing glasses”: technology, agency and ontology

This is a quick attempt to elaborate on a thought which kept coming back to me during the Quantified Self seminar on Tuesday. It seems obvious to me that one of the key conceptual questions encountered in studying technology which augments human capacities (and this category is obviously much wider than digital self-tracking) is the nature of the interface between the human and the technological. One common response to this seems to be to conceptualise it in terms of co-constitution or co-evolution where the properties of the human become indistinguishable from the properties of the technological because both are changing in relation to each other. As I understand it the point being made is that the entwinement of the human and the technological has reached such a degree of complexity that it makes more sense to think in terms of hybridity rather than interaction between entities.

Is this a fair summary? If not input would be much appreciated. It’s one of those arguments I’ve encountered in conversations and listening to talks rather than having read about in any serious way  (one of many things on my post-phd to do list). But what appears to me (perhaps wrongly) to be a case of collapsing the conceptual distinction in the face of empirically observable interplay worries me. From my point of view the interaction between myself and my iPhone involves two distinct sets of properties and powers – my own as a reflexive embodied human being and those of the iPhone as a technological artefact. During the two weeks I’ve had my new iPhone I’ve changed its properties through modalities (e.g. apps, settings) encoded into the artefact by other reflexive embodied human beings whom I will never meet nor know. I’ve also changed its properties in ways which were not designed into it as an artefact: I dropped it and scratched it*, a change in its properties reliant on the material constitution of itself and the floor onto which it fell.

Has it changed me? I don’t think so. But my old iPhone changed me in all sorts of ways. Some of them are superficially dispositional, such as the oft cited tendency to rely on wikipedia rather than remembering information, though perhaps with long term neurophysiological correlates. Others are entirely deliberate, such as my experience of navigation using digital maps – I couldn’t navigate to begin with so I’ve not lost a capacity through failing to exercise it because of a technical substitute. It’s an affordance the phone provides which I deliberately draw on in specific situations rather than something that has changed me in a more substantive sense.

My point is that I’m not convinced it’s necessary to think in terms of hybridity to understand these trajectories of human <–> technological change. As far as I can tell I basically agree about what these processes are but I disagree about how these should be conceptualised. Input would be very appreciated on this, as would suggestions on where to start reading about the concepts I’m expressing suspicion of so I can stop predicating blog posts on conversations I’ve had & talks I’ve heard.

*I didn’t actually do this. I love my shiny new iPhone too much to be so careless. But the theoretical point stands.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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8 replies »

  1. In what ways has your phone altered you? Have you begun outsourcing your memory yet? No more remembered ph numbers, they are on the iphone…you are part of it, and it part of you. Cyborg.
    Have a look at Donna Haraway’s cyborg manifesto

    Or in Science, technology and society (STS) studies, but with an ANT lens; interrogating human and nonhuman actors in the same way.

    We are not so much separate from these other beings as we might like to believe…we too are made of minerals etc.
    They are in us/ and us in them.
    The cyborg manifesto and ANT allows a provocation to explore what seems outlandish.
    But actually isn’t all that outlandish once the surface of socialised ways of being get cleared away.

    • “you are part of it, and it part of you.”

      but I’m really not. my point is that i understand the theoretical impulse behind this argument but find it methodologically problematic. it doesn’t offer explanatory purchase on how specific humans engage with specific technologies and in fact actually detracts from this endeavour by blurring the boundaries between the former and the latter.

  2. Yes I have also grappled with this issue though not sure I identified as succinctly as you what troubles me about it. I found Ian Hacking’s The Social Construction of What quite insightful, in particular, his point about ‘interactive kinds’ eg women refugees, as opposed to ‘non-interactive’ kinds eg quarks. His key point is, as you say, that you are reflexive and embodied and the phone isn’t. But he adds to this by reference to the idea of a matrix. I won’t embark on more explanation and oversimplification of Hacking’s ideas here but I would be interested to hear your views if you take a look.

  3. This was retweeted on twitter, and I just wrote a reply and noticed this post is a bit old. I’ll reply anyway!

    There’s a pretty vast literature on these topics. David Chalmers has written a lot on “the extended mind” (a youtube video here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ksasPjrYFTg), Bruno Latour has written a paper called “on interobjectivity” which presents some of these thoughts, Ingunn Moser has written some good papers on disability, technology and subjectivity as well.
    Of course you are right that your phone is not “in you” in a literal sense, but you do enter into a relation with it, which enables you to do things which you did not do before. The point, at least for me, is the acknowledgement that people do not live in vacuums. You might be a reflexive and embodied person now, but lock you up in a vast, white room with nothing to interact with, and I think you’ll feel different! Further, people develop their cognitive skills as reflexive beings through interactions with, amongst others, things! The psychologist Lev Vygotsky wrote on this in the 1930s.

    Anyway, I think you should expand on what you mean by the fact that this type of theory doesn’t allow “explanatory purchase”. Also, it should be considered that not all the scholars writing about these issues are especially interested in (causal) “explanation”.

    • “The point, at least for me, is the acknowledgement that people do not live in vacuums. You might be a reflexive and embodied person now, but lock you up in a vast, white room with nothing to interact with, and I think you’ll feel different!”

      I couldn’t agree more! My question is what we do with that relationality in concrete cases of trying to explain things as social scientists. I have no disagreement with the point on a philosophical level, my question is a methodological one. I’d be genuinely interested in seeing studies that have applied the cyborg concept (etc) to case studies of specific people interacting with technology over time.

  4. You could complement the topic by adding stories of first encounters with technology (especially in the case of people who have not had much contact with technology but all of a sudden found themselves in the midst of a digital age). Also you can write about the onset of this “hybridity” (or when you believe it started).

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