Blog Post

Interface Seminar: Rebuilding the Self

By virtue of his cochlear implant, Mike Chorost is the living embodiment of a "cyborg," yet I personally find the mere fact that he hears through a machine not nearly as fascinating as his deeply humanist philosophy, standing in stark contrast to the other noted cyborg, th techno-utopian Kevin Warwick. Chorost's talent lies clearly in reminding of us that technology does not necessitate the transcendence of the all-too-human, but the embracing of the human. And Mike takes this quite literally - quite a lot of the book is taken up by his touching experiences trying to find a date.

Chorost first makes the observation that "my hearing had not been restored, it had been replaced with an entirely new system that had entirely new rules." As Chorost changes the software that runs his implant,calibrates hardware, and even hacks new improvements to his software, the very sounds he perceives changes. However, perhaps even more strangely is that even if his implant remains constant, there are periods of adjustment and change where, out of the blue, dramatic improvements to his hearing occur without obvious changes to the cochlear implant. "The software had not changed. The world, presumably, had not changed. What had to have changed was my brain." In fact, Chorost was a true cyborg, defined by Manfred Clynes as a "self-regulating man-machine system" where his brain, in response to the electrical stimulation given to his auditory nerves by the implant, "the neurons in my auditory cortex were slowly reorganizing themselves to handle the bewildering new input from the implant."

A cyborg is a human who has been augmented by machines is in direct contrast to the idea of robot, which is a machine that merely looks like man. With cyborgs, the human is still fully in the loop. And yet reflecting on Donna Haraway's "Cyborg Manifesto," Chorost notes that his cyborg implants have made him much more aware of the ultimately contingent nature of reality and the inability of ever knowing any such thing as objective reality. Furthermore, while this rather Kantian conclusion is obvious for him since every minor software, hardware, and neural change alters his hearing in obvious ways, he is different from us only by principle that his situation makes his epistemological state apparent, while many of us humans simply will drift about never questioning our own perceptions. "Dear reader with organic ears, you do not perceive the world the way it actually is, and you never will" for "reality is ultimately a matter of software...people with normal ears are not off the epistemological hook, because their software was written haphazard by millions of years of evolution and has no greater claim to reality."

The last, and perhaps, most important point that Chorost has is that he believes that cyborg technologies are important by allowing him to connect more thoroughly with the world around him. He is not so concerned with the "mind-body" problem as he with what I term the "world-body" problem: How do we distinguish between ourselves and the world around us? Is the line between us and our world arbitrary, shaped by either evolution or engineering? By what right does the notion of individual of both science and politics, from Locke to Strawson, even exist?

Finally, Chorost has a healthy skepticism of the use of technology by itself as a fix for social problems: "Is it really progress to have a computer decide what we will see, instead of teaching people to recognize media manipulation and helping them focus their attention on the things that truly matter to them?" Chorost notes that "the one hundred and forty thousand
transistors in my skull give me sound, but they cannot make me listen. It's only when I listen that my cyborg technologes make me a better human being. In this, Chorost recognizes that the ultimate cyborg technologies may be none other than our culture itself, regardless of whether or not it is physically attached to our bodies.

As Andy Clark has perhaps most succintly put it in his "Natural-born Cyborgs", "We must recognize that, in a very deep sense, we were always hybrid beings, joint products of our biological nature and multilaytered linguistic, cultural, adn technological webs...only then can we actively structure the kinds of world, technology, and culture that build the kinds of people we choose to be." So, despite our lack of implants, Chorost's story is more than a carnival freakshow of electronics, but a profoundly human story that resonates with each of our own lives. With my laptop recently having died, I now feel that like my right hand has been removed. By what right is my laptop - and the world around me - distinct from myself? Perhaps, in all important ways, it is not distinct, and that our creation of these lines is in fact not merely contingent, but of utmost importance.

 

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