Cyborgs have bodies too

Posted Nov 14, 2011 | New Media Project

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By Kathryn Reklis


Last week a friend posted a status update on Facebook that said something to the effect of: “I just involuntarily thanked Siri when she defined a word for me. She responded, ‘You’re welcome. I love to serve.’”

“Is this foreshadowing a post-human future?” my friend asked somewhat sheepishly.

If you haven’t kept up with the latest iPhone news, “Siri” is the name for the voice controlled system that directs the iPhone 4S. I don’t have one myself, but if you believe the ads and your hipper friends, you simply speak what you want (“text my husband and tell him I’m running late” or “remind me to call my dad tomorrow”) and Siri finds the application you need, opens it, performs the task, and then let’s you know what she’s done. By giving the system a name and a gendered voice, we can speak of it with human pronouns. And, like my friend, users are encouraged to be relaxed and chat with Siri like they would a friend, or a really competent special assistant.

My friend’s question about whether or not talking with our phones signals some kind of post-human future is the big question for me behind these kinds of advances in technology. The pervasiveness of social media as a platform for connecting with people and sharing news and opinions is small potatoes compared to the technology that imagines how we could be connected to these networks all the time and increasingly with little manual mediation. “Being wired” might not be a metaphor for savvy technological use; it might soon be a literal description.

A recent episode of the radio talk show Science Friday discussed advances in virtual limbs that a monkey can control by thought alone and that can send sensory data back to the brain. The scientists have hope that the same technology might one day lead to a full body suit that would restore movement to paralyzed people. In discussing how the monkey assimilates the virtual arm, the neuroscientists don’t talk about the relationship between the body and the mind. They talk about the brain (which, let’s remember, is part of our body) creating a “body image”—a map that defines where the brain perceives the body’s limits to begin and end. As the monkey interacts with the virtual limb, it is assimilated into the brain’s body image, in effect becoming part of the body. In old sci-fi language, the monkey becomes a cyborg—a living thing melded with the technological.

Something like this is already happening with the various devices we use everyday. When I think of something I want to remember to do, a word I want to define, a friend I want to say happy birthday to, my finger involuntarily twitches, searching for the device it associates with all these actions. My brain has mapped my phone into my body image. In this way, we might say, somewhat playfully and also quite seriously, that I am already a cyborg.

Like my friend’s question—does talking to your phone foreshadow a post-human future?—the concern many people, especially thoughtful Christians, raise about these kinds of technological advances is one of embodiment. We have just begun to shake off the mind/body dualism that has plagued our tradition, remembering the importance of embodied practices for the life of faith. Could there be anything less embodied than cyborgs?

I’m not so sure the virtual/live distinction fits so easily onto mind/body dualism. Mapping a phone as an extension of my brain-arm connection is not a less embodied way of being in the world. It is just differently embodied. I am not encouraged to retreat to some ethereal space outside of material reality; if anything I am grounded more fully in my embodied self since without my body I wouldn’t have access to technological appendages I now consider part of me. In the next few months on this blog and in the longer theological work I am doing for this project, I want to reflect more on the embodied nature of our virtual realities. Whether you think of yourself as a cyborg or not, I hope you’ll join the conversation. You can even ask Siri to text me herself.

Kathryn Reklis, a research fellow for the New Media Project, is the Executive Director of the Institute for Art, Religion, and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D candidate in religious studies, concentrating in theology, at Yale University.

The New Media Project is a research project helping religious leaders become theologically savvy about technology. To request permission to repost this content, please contact newmediaproject@cts.edu.

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