I wrote this paper about eleven years ago for a college class, so please forgive its academic tone and length. But I felt I just had to post it because sadly, it’s all still true, but with even scarier examples and implications.
Living in a body is core and implicit to being human. We experience birth and death, love and hate, and well-being and disease through the sensations and functions of the body. The body gives us physical strength, tears welling up in the eyes, the precision of a surgeon’s hands, the hollow pain of heartache, and the ability to learn and create. The body’s gifts range from orgasms of pleasure to the basest of corporeal reality.
Common language is full of references to the body. A coward is spineless, while a trusted friend is considered a right arm. Parents advise their children to put their best foot forward. An exemplary character is head and shoulders above the rest. Those who have powerful perception are said to have eyes in the back of their heads. Intuition speaks through gut feelings and some things are known deep in the heart.
Although living in a body is basic to being human, our biology imposes limitations on what we are able to do. As mammals, we come poorly equipped. We lack thick fur, tough feet or sharp claws. We are slow and unsteady because we walk on two legs instead of four. Our senses of sight, taste, hearing and smell are not exceptional when compared to the eyes of a cat, the ears of a horse or the nose of a bloodhound. Our heads are rather large, especially as infants, making childbirth difficult and child rearing lengthy. Pressured by evolution and constrained by our biological limitations, humans have had to use those large craniums and the gray matter inside to our best advantage, hence the creation of technology and the tools we need to help us live and survive.
For most of history, technology has served the body by extending the range of its senses and abilities. Telescopes and microscopes serve as extensions of the eyes, enabling us to see worlds big and small that would otherwise be invisible. Headphones and telephones extend the range of our ears. Prosthetic devices like artificial legs make walking possible for an amputee. Artificial valves in the heart help keep the blood pumping and computers extend the function of our brains. Famed theoretical physicist, author and lecturer Stephen Hawking uses many forms of technology to enable him to locomote, write and speak. A computer mounted to his wheelchair and a custom program called “Equalizer” allow him to select words from a list which are sent to a speech synthesizer so he can deliver his lectures (Hawking).
Medicine is full of examples of how technology serves the body, and to find just a few I have no further to look than my own family. My father brought home polio from the South Pacific in World War II and spent six weeks in an iron lung that mechanically breathed for him. My mother’s implanted pacemaker prompts the muscles of her heart to contract when it loses the beat. My husband’s father used a dialysis machine twice weekly because his failing kidneys could not filter his blood. My sister straps on an artificial bladder bag to replace her own nonfunctional one. My reading glasses magnify the black squiggles on paper so that I can decipher words and their meaning.
In all these cases, technology has not only served the body, but has also liberated it from being doomed or diminished by its own biological constraints. Tools and technology are inextricably woven into the fabric of our everyday lives, and the survival of our bodies is dependent on them. But with the advent of the information age and computers, the line between human and machine is getting blurred. Humans may be entering an age when technology no longer serves the body, but rather the body serves technology. In fact, many philosophers and technologists involved with exploring and promoting this new relationship consider the body as obsolete, and are planning for a post-human age.
If the body is declared obsolete because of the fusion of human and machine, all our traditional values are called into question. If the body is obsolete, our very identity as human beings is under fire. If the body is obsolete, our connection to the body of planet Earth is shaken and disrupted, and the future of Earth’s body itself is jeopardized.
My argument will begin with an examination of the idea that the body should serve technology because the body should be considered obsolete. Second, I will argue that technology should limit itself to serving the body, and that the experience of living in a body, even in an age dominated by technology, is central to our experience as human beings. Last I will discuss some of the dangerous implications that result from the idea of a post-human future. Since this topic extends into many fields, including politics, sociology, medicine, bioengineering, biogenetics and bioethics, discussion will, of necessity, be limited. Resources for this paper include books, articles, websites, an interview and my own experience as a martial art instructor and artist. Terms will be defined as the arguments are given.
In 1989 the summer issue of The Whole Earth Review was devoted to the question, is the body obsolete? Contributing writer Bruce Sterling wrote: “In the most likely scenario, the years to come will see us gradually learning to ‘hack’ the human body. Imagine it as an attempt to meddle with a massively complex genetic information –processing system. Only this system is not programmed to run very well. It’s deliberately programmed to crash, in a thousand different ways, and our mission is to stop that from happening” (1-2). Fifteen years later, in our technological, digital, networked, information-deluged and virtual age, the body and identity through the body have indeed been called into question. “The fusion of man and machine has reached new levels today and requires a reconsideration of many of our traditional values, among them identity” (Paul). Many living in industrialized nations are much more likely to make their livings sitting all day in front of a computer screen than digging a patch of potatoes. We cram our bodies into cars rather than walking to work. We sit in front of TV’s rather than dancing around the evening fire. We take diet pills rather than exercising. We can conceive a child in a test-tube and get a sneak preview of its sex with an ultrasound rather than waiting to be surprised.
With the advent of virtual reality, we trade the sensations of bodily experience for a facsimile, a deluge of cerebral stimulation that tricks our bodies into accepting a substitute for the real thing. Increasingly, we relate and interact in disembodied cyberspace. Emails and teleconferencing supersede letters or face-to-face meetings. Teachers teach on-line, often never meeting their students face to face. As the technological advances increase every day, those enamored of new technology celebrate disembodiment as “liberating because in cyberspace you can leave your age, sex and race behind” (Hermans 2). New technology is planning for the body’s total obsolescence.
Many contemporary artists are exploring the interface between man and machine. Their work poses the question, where does the body end and the machine begin? For example, in his art project entitled “Time Machine,” Eduardo Kac inserted into his leg a subcutaneous microchip with a programmed identification number just like implanted microchips used in a Web-based animal identification database. When scanned, the microchip implant generated a low energy radio signal, which was broadcast live on TV and on the Web (Paul 8). The entire event – the implant, scanning and live broadcast – was the art project.
The work of Australian-based performance artist Stelarc incorporates medical imaging, prosthetics, robotics and the Internet. In “Ping Body,” Stelarc used his own body as a host for pings or locaters that were mapped to body muscle so that his muscles could be remotely activated (Paul 9). Stelarc’s manifesto states that the human body is so limited by biology that it cannot cope adequately or efficiently with the quantity and complexity of the information age and that at this point in our evolution, the body should be considered obsolete (Stelarc).
The questions these artists raise in their work require an understanding of the concepts of cybernetics, cyborg and cyberbody. Mathmetician Norbert Wiener was the first to realize that existing terminology was not adequate to describe a “man-machine symbiosis” (Paul 5). He invented the word cybernetics from the Greek “kybernetes” meaning “governor” or “steersman,” signifying the importance that feedback plays in steering the course of a communication system (Paul 5). Cybernetics is the “theoretical study of communication and control processes in biological, mechanical and electronic systems, especially the comparison of these processes in biological and artificial systems” (Dictionary.com).
According to Andrea Gaggioli of Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Lab in Milan, Italy, both cyborg and cyberbody refer to post-human views of the body brought on by the dramatic advances in biomedicine, genome mapping, genetic engineering and prosthetics, all of which rely upon computer technology. Gaggioli argues that these technologies have so drastically reshaped the notion of the body and the embodiment experience that they have brought about the concept of the techno-body (76-77). A cyborg (cybernetics plus organism) “is a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices” (Dictionary.com). According to this definition, my mother with her implanted pacemaker is a cyborg. A cyberbody, on the other hand, is inorganic and composed of pure bits of information (Gaggioli 77). It is detached from the physical body, floating in the virtual reality of cyberspace (Paul 2). According to Christian Paul, the new media arts curator of the Whitney Museum, “In the so-called information age and digital networked society . . . our bodies seem to have become increasingly transparent and, at the same time, are stripped of their sensual capacities. Exact surveillance and identification seem to threaten the idea of individual autonomy. Ubiquitous surveillance cameras track our movements; biometric technologies, such as electronic fingerprints, software for face recognition, and the scanning of the retina, push into the market as a means of identification. On the Internet, “intelligent” software agents attaching themselves to our data-bodies promise to filter and customize information for us while making us targets for marketing and advertising campaigns. Mass dataveillance turns us into transparent customers whose transactions can be tracked” (2-3).
According to Paul, virtual reality is the manifestation and continuation of a flight from the body. Virtual reality creates a “psychology of disincarnation” by promising the ability to download consciousness in a computer, “leaving the obsolete body behind” (3). Users are provided with a three-dimensional interactive experience that creates the illusion they are inside a world rather than observing an image (3). Even the term “user” implies a certain amount of disembodiment. Nevertheless, Paul notes a fundamental difference between the cyberbody in the digital space and the perceptual body in the space of the physical world. Both the cyberbody and the perceptual body may interact with their worlds, but there still seems to be a lack of sensory experience in virtual worlds. Can cyberspace become an extension of our nervous system? Is there something like digital perception? How can our technologically enhanced bodies connect? (Paul 10). Presumably solutions to these questions are being programmed into virtual reality at this very moment.
The problems generated from the entanglement of humans with technology are perhaps most thorny in the fields of medicine, biogenetics, and bioengineering, and have inspired the growth of a new field – bioethics. Although biogenetics and bioengineering are beyond the scope of this paper, biotechnologies in medicine will be considered.
According to Frank Gorman of The New York Times, pharmaceutical companies are reaping huge profits from drug sales ($317 billion last year alone) to people who incorporate medicine daily into their lives. Health-conscious, wealthy and educated people in this country have come to take being medicated for granted. People are pursuing better living through chemistry, using drugs like antidepressants with increasing frequency. Gorman notes, “this [trend] is a social change on the same order as the advent of computer, but one that is taking place inside the human body” (1). The President’s Council on Bioethics issued a report lastyear concerning issues of genetics, embryo selection, performance enhancement and behavioral drugs. The report noted an increasing trend to treat everything in life, even that which formerly had little to do with doctors or hospitals, as if it were a medical problem. This ‘medicalization’ of life raises concerns that the pursuit of happiness will soon become your doctor’s business (Gorman 2).
The evolution of the cyborg in medicine began in the 1950’s and 60’s with artificial hearts and hip joints. Bionic engineering made it possible to use motor controlled body parts as prosthetics. Improved bionic devices include pacemakers, cochlear implants and pumps. Today’s technology is so accurate that neuro-implants can detect the firing of a single nerve. For example, microelectronic devices implanted on the surface of the retina communicate with a small video camera worn on the eyeglasses of a blind person. The visual signals are processed through a belt-mounted microcomputer and transmitted to the electrode array in the eye. This array stimulates the optical nerves, which enhance the signal sent to the brain, so that, amazingly, a blind person is able to see (Gaggioli 78).
A cyberbody in medicine is the digitalization of all body tissues and structures of interest so that the virtual representation is indistinguishable from the real thing, as in Magnetic Resonance Imaging or Positron Emission Tomography. These high fidelity imaging technologies open up powerful new opportunities for medical diagnosis, even across physical distance, as in telemedicine (Gaggioli 80-81). Virtual reality for training surgeons allow them to plan, perform and simulate surgical procedures on a three dimensional, interactive basis, thus minimizing potential damage and increasing efficiency (Gaggioli 80-81).
Valuable as these technologies may be, however, the existence of the cyborg and cyberbody challenge the human/machine distinction (Gaggioli 79). Perhaps to combat the anxiety produced when this distinction is violated, another technology is currently emerging to make the interface between humans and computers (seemingly) disappear: Ambient Intelligence. In Ambient Intelligence, microprocessors are integrated into everyday objects like clothes, vehicles and roads to enable these objects to communicate wirelessly with each other and the user. For example, smart clothes and other body-integrated devices incorporate intelligent biosensors and multi-function processors that detect and relay information about the body’s vital signs in real time. Depending on blood pressure, pulse rate and temperature, instructions for the correct parameters of these vital signs can be transmitted to the body implants (Gaggioli 81), a sort of wireless visit to the doctor.
With this deluge of technology crossing the body’s boundary in the biomedical field, the body is no longer what Hippocrates conceptualized as a “sacred inviolable temple” (Gaggioli 83). The body has been invaded and made transparent. Traditional face-to-face clinical examinations will soon be supplanted with telediagnosis and telemedicine. Although potentially increasing efficiency, the use of virtual patient records in cyberspace has its risks, including the de-humanization and de-personalization of medical care (Gaggioli 84).
Despite these problems and risks, there can be no doubt that technological advances have improved our lives and extended our capabilities. However, the centrality of the body as our defining experience as human beings must not be overshadowed or supplanted by the power of technology. As Bruce Sterling concluded in his 1989 article, “who the hell, besides some socially autistic techie in an ivory basement, would WANT to give up the human body? . . . Real people don’t want to transcend the physical plane to live in some juiceless Platonic cyberspace: what they want is to live right here and now and be young and sexy and beautiful. For as long as post-humanly possible” (1).
Living in a body is central to the development of wisdom and intelligence. Experience through the body actually shapes our brains, both as a species and as individuals. Evolutionary theorists speak of a process called “encephalization, a complex ratio of brain size to body size that indicates how brainy a species is” (Konner 63). Human evolution is the culmination of this process in mammals, resulting in our large heads. Our brains weigh about three pounds, a big load for a mid-sized mammal. They contain between ten and one hundred billion nerve cells which form an integrated network handling the mental, emotional and spiritual functions of the body. The newer outer cerebral cortex handles the higher functions of speaking, seeing, remembering and thinking, while the older, more primitive core of the brain stem regulates sleep and waking, and modifies alertness and arousal (Konner 66-67). Both are the product of millions of years of evolution through natural selection (Konner 68), and thus are the result of millions of years of experience living in a body.
Likewise, a child learns through experience in the body. Babies learn to recognize the physical characteristics of the face of their mother. They know her smell, the sound of her voice. They learn to crawl and eventually to walk. Learning through movement actually develops their brains by increasing the integration and complexity of the neural network in their brains. The research of neurophysiologist Carla Hannaford reveals that children’s playground games like swinging, rolling and jumping stimulate the inner ear’s gyroscope which sends crucial information about balance and coordination to the brain’s cerebellum (Jensen 83-84), that part of the brain that is responsible for balance, posture, motor movement and some cognition (Jensen 9). Movement links directly with learning and the ability to pay attention. Motor memory, like the ability to ride a bicycle, is activated by physical movements (Jensen 108). Once on the bike, the memory of how to ride it is easily retrieved. Teacher and member of the International Society of Neuroscience Eric Jensen cites numerous studies in the field of neuroscience, which show strong links between the development of the cerebellum and memory, spatial perception, language, attention, emotion, decision-making and the ability to decipher non-verbal cues. These links demonstrate the value of physical education, movement and games as important ways to boost learning in children (Jensen 84).
Without learning through stimulation of the body, children fail to make vital connections and understanding. Internationally known psychologist and sensory deprivation expert John Zubek has found that sensory deprived children who experience isolation and limited physical touch grow fearful, alienated, apathetic and restless and have lower conceptual abilities.They show little affection for others and withdraw from social situations (6-7). Violence, aggression and anti-social behavior in youth are strongly related to early neglect and abuse. Tiffany Field, Director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, cites studies that find that minimal physical affection toward children predicts higher rates of violence when the child grows to be an adult. The opposite has also been shown to be true: significant amounts of physical affection as a child predicts minimal or no adult violence (1). In fact, Field’s work demonstrates that touch and therapeutic massage are significant contributors to physical and mental well-being (4).
Humans deprived of sensory stimulation over time, like my father encased for six weeks in the iron lung, or a prisoner confined in a tiny cell, or pilots crammed inside a tiny cockpit, can develop psychotic-like symptoms including anxiety, delusions and hallucinations (Schultz 1-2). Most of us have experienced boredom, sleepiness and loss of concentration after driving for a long time on a straight, even-graded freeway. Workers doing the same motion over and over again also experience deleterious physical effects of monotony and lack of stimulation, and their job performance suffers as well. Brainwashing, punishment and the interrogation of prisoners often include solitary confinement, bondage and other ways of limiting both the perceptual environment and physical movement (Schultz 5). Physical exercise can counter the negative effects of sensory deprivation by exciting and stimulating the nervous system and the reticular formation of the brain (Schultz 187), a kind of switchboard that connects the cortex above with the body’s musculature below (Schultz 15).
As these examples show, the body is the mainline to learning, memory, and mental well-being. The body also directly links us with creativity and expression. Adams State College Associate Professor of Speech and Theater John Taylor states that in theater arts, the body is the primary form of expression. Theater, whether dance, music or dialogue, compels us make face-to-face contact with somebody else. It is live action in front of a live audience, and that unique interaction is what gives theater its spark (Taylor interview).
The body offers a wealth of information and wisdom if we would just tap into it. Think of the dynamics of the body using a hand tool. A hammer or chisel can be considered extensions of the hand. When these tools are first picked up, the body must consciously learn how to use them; but with practice and familiarity, they become part of the body and no longer require conscious thought. The tools have been incorporated into what dancer and writer Carolien Hermans defines as the body schema, that part of the nervous system that registers the shape and posture of the body on a subconscious level and tells us where the body is in space (2). For example, when I pick up my stone-carving tools, my left hand holding the chisel and my right hand swinging the hammer, the actions of my hand/tools combine to strike the stone at just the correct angle so that the right size chip comes flying off without any conscious thought on my part. For all practical purposes, the hammer and chisel have become part of my body.
Similarly, the body can extend awareness into its surroundings. As an instructor of the martial art Aikido, for example, I teach the concept of extending awareness in all directions outward from the body. For students concerned with learning self-defense, this skill is crucial so that attacks can be perceived in time to respond. I encourage my students to practice 360-degree awareness when driving a car. By extending awareness through their arms and hands into the steering wheel, students develop a relaxed and fluid control of their turns. By extending spatial awareness in all directions outward to the “skin” of the car, students become more sensitive to the car’s boundaries, which can be quite helpful when in heavy traffic, or when attempting to parallel park. By extending their perceptual awareness out into the car, students have made the car part of their bodies and become better drivers.
If the body is so important to learning, memory, intelligence, well-being, creativity, awareness and even safety, how can the crucial role of the physical body be denied? The problem arises when we considering the computer and the advent of virtual reality.
Certainly the computer can be seen as an extension of the brain. Certainly the computer extends the range of the brain’s abilities. Today’s computers can in seconds perform difficult math that would have taken months to calculate in previous years. Computers have enabled us to launch human bodies into space. Computers link the world in a global network of communication. Computer-generated scenarios can even predict how, when and why our planet will undergo its own death.
A brain can technically exist fully independent of the body and even be capable of experience and cognition, as long as it is bathed in a vat of proper chemicals and provided with the right information (Hermans 2). If a brain can exist without a physical body, can a computerized brain generating a digital body in digital space really exist completely independent of the physical body, thus rendering the body obsolete?
To declare the body obsolete is erroneous. Cognition is dependent on the body-based experience of perception and movement (Hermans 2). The body is involved in every human activity, whether we are conscious of it or not. For example, even while quietly sitting in front of my computer and typing these words, I must transform my thoughts first into words and then into small but precise movements of the fingers of both hands. If I forget to keep my back straight, or to breathe deeply now and then, I know from bodily experience that I will tire and lose concentration. Every thought or action has the body as its source.
To declare the body obsolete is dangerous. Francis Fukuyama of the President’s Council on Bioethics states “the most significant threat posed by contemporary biotechnology is the possibility that it will alter human nature and thereby move us into a ‘posthuman’ stage of history” (7). Just as in Brave New World, medical technology offers a devil’s bargain: longer life, but with reduced capacity to enjoy it; freedom from depression, but with an absence of creativity or spirit; happiness, intelligence or slimness, if only you take this pill, and the perfectly engineered child, if you have the money to pay. Any technology powerful enough to reshape human nature and even our bodies, no matter how noble or benign the intent, can also be used malevolently (Fukuyama 7). If biotechnologies mix with politics and the quest for power, they can potentially be misapplied and used to discriminate, enslave or even to exterminate. One has only to remember the Nazi medical experiments in the concentration camps of World War II to appreciate the risk. Technological advancement may be difficult to control, but its regulation and oversight are both possible and necessary, hence the development of bioethics. Regulatory systems to control human biotechnology will require legislators around the world to “step up to the plate and make difficult decisions on complex scientific issues” (Fukuyama 11).
To declare the body obsolete cheats us of the gift of mortality. The reality of mortality is a useful concept because it compels us to make good use of time. It keeps us humble by deflating our egos and it helps us to appreciate the wonders of existence. The bittersweet realization of mortality intensifies the experience of living.
And last, a denial of the body in a post-human age may foster destructive attitudes toward the Earth. The idea that the body can be regarded as obsolete, a post-human doll with interchangeable parts or a transparent cyberbody floating in cyberspace, is based upon an unquestioning faith in the power of technology. That faith deludes us to think that how we treat our bodies is beyond repercussion. If what we do to our bodies is beyond repercussion, what we do to planet Earth escapes repercussion as well. As we naively trust that technology will save the day, we risk the danger of destroying our home. Every day the body of Earth suffers wounds, poisons, and degradation. Industrial agriculture treats the Earth is if it were a one-night stand. Miners dig deep into Earth’s body and extract its ores, fluids and gems. Radioactive waste is buried under its skin. Trees are cut at an alarming rate, devastating the Earth’s ability to breathe. Nature is seen as something to be improved upon or controlled. Widespread disregard for the land, animals and natural resources is tolerated because we believe that humans are entitled to harvest, mine and exploit them for our own use. And when we are done, shall we declare Earth’s body obsolete?
If disregard for the body and for the Earth are linked, it is also possible to transform our relationship with the Earth by revitalizing our relationship with our own bodies. Body intelligence, like intuition, dreams and healing power, not only benefit our own lives but also enrich our connection to the Earth. If we are strongly connected with our own bodies in a healthy, respectful, non-violent way, then we are much more likely to have a healthy, respectful, non-violent relationship with the Earth.
The rich complexity of the human body has take millions of years to evolve. It is arrogant, foolish and dangerous to think that a hundred years of technology can decipher, manipulate, and improve that complex mystery. The ability to crack the human genome or implant a certain gene or clone a sheep doesn’t imply understanding of what Nature has created over time. As Melvin Konner reflects in his book The Tangled Wing: Biological Constraints on the Human Spirit, “Anatomy may not be destiny, but it is all we bring into this world and all we can take away with us when leaving. Not that we are endowed at birth with a fixed and changeless structure; it is dying and being reborn continually. But in this intricate, dense, moist web of cells we carry around with us . . . lies the substance of all the love and hate, joy and grief, hardheaded analysis and excited imagination we experience during our sojourn on this planet” (59).
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