Cyborg Dreams

I recently wrote a long essay for Aeon Magazine on one of my favourite topics: technology and intimacy, and the strange ways in which we are shackled to the screens surrounding us. The first few paras are pasted below, while you can read the whole piece on their site.

Today, depending on your favoured futurist prophet, a kind of digital Elysium awaits us all. Over millennia, we have managed to unshackle ourselves from the burdens of time and space — from heat, cold, hunger, thirst, physical distance, mechanical effort — along a trajectory seemingly aimed at abstraction. Humanity’s collective consciousness is to be uploaded into the super-Matrix of the near future — or augmented into cyborg immortality, or out-evolved by self-aware machine minds. Whatever happens, the very meat of our physical being is to be left behind.

Except, of course, so far we remain thorougly embodied. Flesh and blood. There is just us, slumped in our chairs, at our desks, inside our cars, stroking our smartphones and tablets. Peel back the layers of illusion, and what remains is not a brain in a jar — however much we might fear or hunger for this — but a brain within a body, as remorselessly obedient to that body’s urges and limitations as any paleolithic hunter-gatherer.

It’s a point that has been emphasised by much recent research into thought and behaviour. To quote from Thinking, Fast and Slow (2011) by Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman, ‘cognition is embodied; you think with your body, not only with your brain’. Yet when it comes to culture’s cutting edge, there remains an overwhelming tendency to treat embodiment not as a central condition of being human that our tools ought to serve, but rather as an inconvenience to be eliminated…

Read the complete essay at Aeon magazine