June 2007
From the beginnings of alphabetic literacy we have been irrevocably restructuring our ways of thinking, and in doing so we have recontextualized our world to fit our new thought processes. These changes have had a reciprocal relationship on the formation of individual identity in the modern world. Indeed, our relationship with technology in the digital age is beginning to redefine our sense of self. The divide between the technological haves and have-nots is growing. Just as the non-literate, primary orality of hunter-gatherer societies shaped the boundaries of their thinking, our new digital environments also constrain the boundaries of our discourse. This paper explores the impact of technology on the formation of identity in the modern cyborg.
Technology and Self: The Structuring of Consciousness in the Modern Cyborg
[T]he old puzzle, the mind-body problem, really involves a hidden third party. It is the mind-body-scaffolding problem. It is the problem of understanding how human thought and reason is born out of looping interactions between material brains, material bodies, and complex cultural and technological environments. We create these supportive environments, but they create us too. We exist, as the thinking things we are, only thanks to a baffling dance of brains, bodies, and cultural and technological scaffolding.(Clark, 2003, p.11)
In the quotation cited above, Andy Clark points out the inescapable truth that we, as humans, are the products of both our biology and our environment. Clark’s use of the word “scaffolding” is particularity appropriate here. The environment in which we develop acts as the platform on which our identity is built. The human environment is replete with technological connections. As modern humans, our technology infiltrates our consciousness and structures our conception of identity both as individuals and as a species. It is important to realize that we humans are not always active agents in this structuring process. The human relationship with technology is complex and interdependent. As we create and implement technologies, these technologies return to impact us in unforeseeable ways. In this way, the development of human consciousness is embroiled in a contentious matrix of intended and unintended consequences folding back in on themselves to create the current incarnation of humanity. We are all, to some degree, cyborgs. It is wired into the fabric of who we are as humans. As Walter Benjamin noted, “The audience’s identification with the actor is really an identification with the camera”(Benjamin, 1936, p.55). Our technologies are a part of us. This relationship, on a very basic level, creates our sense of self and defines the boundaries of our consciousness. As much as we create our technology, we also are our technology.
The story of humanity, then, is the story of technology. In making the journey from hunter-gatherer societies into the state of so-called “civilization” we have both lost and gained much. From the beginnings of alphabetic literacy, we have been irrevocably restructuring our ways of thinking, and in doing so we have recontextualized our world to fit our new thought processes. Indeed, our relationship with technology in the digital age is beginning to redefine our sense of self. At the same time, the divide between the technological haves and have-nots is growing. As this gap increases we are quickly creating a stratified world divided between traditional, biological humans and post-human cyborgs who literally extend their consciousness into their technologies. Furthermore, the technological society itself is split into camps of the programmers and the programmed (though these categories are by no means mutually exclusive). These stratifications are wrought with political struggles that are immensely important for determining how humanity will proceed into the future. The dialectic surrounding technology is the site of contestation that will determine the future of humanity. The stakes could not be higher.
Change is inevitable. As we implement and assimilate our technological creations into our sense of self, we will continue to redefine what it means to be human. This, in essence, is post-humanity. It is what comes next, whatever that may be. I contend that this transition to post-humanity is not simply a phenomenon of material wealth (though wealth certainly plays a role), but a fundamental shift in the thought processes of the individual as he or she melds with the technological environments of modern society. In studying this transformation it is important to keep in mind that, as Walter Ong has pointed out, “Not only are the issues deep and complex, but they also engage our own biases.”(Ong, 1982, p.2) We are on the inside, attempting to project ourselves outside of the social milieu in order to view it from a new perspective. This strategy is filled with difficulties, but it is all we have in trying to understand the profound changes that are occurring as we move into an increasingly technological future. Though the observations contained here are by no means comprehensive, I hope to, in some small measure, illuminate some of the aspects of this conceptual transition and to explore the impact of technology on the formation of identity in modern society.
Language as Technology / Technology as Language
At base, a technology is a means of recontextualization. The conscious restructuring of the environment creates the fabric that makes up a civilization. Technology requires an interaction between the biological being and the external environment. Spoken language is essentially a manipulation of air to represent the content of a message to be received by the ear. Spoken language, then, is the recontextualization of the physical environment in order to create meaning. In other words, language is a technology.
The technology of spoken language takes the form of metaphor - using one thing to represent another. Sounds represent objects and ideas. With the advent of language, thinking becomes possible. Thinking is, at base, what makes us human. Thoughts make use of language. “Language is nested in sound.”(Ong, 1982, p.5) Sound is a phenomenon that occurs as a part of our perceptual environment. The relationship of the human to his or her environment is absolutely crucial in creating the human ability to think. The ability to think in turn allows us to consciously recontextualize the materials that make up our environment in order to meet (or attempt to meet) the desires articulated (through language) in our minds. The technology of language structures human consciousness. It sets the boundaries of thought. Spoken language allows us to conceptualize our environment in useful ways and to transmit that conception to another person or persons.
Then comes writing. It is here that the technology of language begins to solidify. Indeed, the invention and implementation of written language had a profound impact on the development of humanity. Suddenly, for the first time, ideas (metaphors) can be saved external to the human mind. This allows for the systematization of thought. History comes into being. Science becomes possible. The development of literacy rapidly expands the scope of the environment’s impact on the creation of the individual. Indeed, the environment itself enlarges as the amount of written material grows. This profoundly impacts human consciousness. As Walter Ong puts it,
Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form. More than any other single invention, writing has transformed human consciousness.(Ong, 1982, p.78)
Literacy changes the way we think. Leonard Shlain, in The Alphabet Versus the Goddess writes, "The practice of alphabetic reading and writing over long periods will subliminally reinforce the user's belief that the world is a chain-linked tessellation of events that occur in linear time."(Shlain, 1998, p.337) No longer constrained by the temporal and spacial boundaries of the individual, the written word systematizes thought and solidifies culture. The technology of writing becomes part of human identity. In the words of Ong, “Many of the features we have taken for granted in thought and expression in literature, philosophy and science, and even in oral discourse among literates, are not directly native to human existence as such but have come into being because of the resources which the technology of writing makes available to human consciousness.”(Ong, 1982, p.1)
Today our resources have changed. Though we still have access to writing, new media technologies give modern humans many other choices of mediums through which to convey information. The communication of language has begun to take on new, technologically mediated forms. The linear, logical order of written language begins to be replaced by a totalizing view that eschews hierarchy. The real-time environment of image and sound replaces the structured environment of text. The technology of language is regaining the aural component that it lost in the shift from spoken to written language.
Media theorist Marshall McLuhan writes that the effect of the phonetic alphabet on the individual is to free her or “him from the tribal trance of resonating word magic and the web of kinship.”(McLuhan, 1964, p.86) Our new mediated sound environments have the opposite effect, returning the individual to tribal kinship - but with a sinister twist. The kinship of the cyborg is the kinship of consumerism. The commodification of everything leads to a battle waged by corporations for people’s attention. This is characterized by redundancy through the rise of the advertising jingle. The use of redundancy to transmit cultural messages signals a return to an aspect of orality described by Walter Ong. In the words of Ong, “Since redundancy characterizes oral [as opposed to literate] thought and speech, it is in a profound sense more natural to thought and speech than is sparse linearity.”(Ong, 1982, p.40) The advertising environment created by modern mediated society uses redundancy to encourage memory and reduce analytic thought. The difference between the trait of redundancy in a state of orality versus the usage in modern mediated society is that in a state of orality redundancy is necessary in order for cultural memories to survive, whereas in modern usage redundancy is needed to help compete for the scarce attention of the consumer. Regardless, the outcome is equally internalized. The technology of language becomes increasingly invasive as the media environment become noisier (both literally and figuratively).
Because of the inescapable din of consumption-oriented messages, the label of “consumer” is a major force in the construction of identity in modern mediated society. The subject-position of consumer is constructed through what Louis Althusser calls “hailing”. As Althusser puts it, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects, by the functioning of the category of the subject.”(Althusser, 1991, p.162) In this case, the constant barrage of media messages recruits the individual into the subject-position (category or ideology) of “consumer” through the hailing mechanism. This technologically mediated subject-position becomes an internalized facet of the sense of identity that exists in the modern, technologically dependent individual - in other words, the modern cyborg.
The technologies that we bond with act as a form of language that broadcasts our identity (as a showing of cultural and social capital) within our culture. These forms of capital are informed by technologies that use language (largely advertising) to tell us what each product is worth (socially and culturally). It is also important to realize that underneath this relationship lies an economic base. As Pierre Bourdieu notes, “economic capital is at the root of all other types of capital and that these transformed, disguised forms of economic capital, never entirely reducible to that definition, produce their most specific effects only to the extent that they conceal (not least from their possessors) the fact that economic capital is at their root”(Bourdieu, 2002, p.288). The technology/language relationship is rooted in commodification. An example of this phenomenon is the way that a PC projects a different “image” than a Mac due to the advertising imagery associated with each product. The language associated with the social capital of these products can be “read” by those who are “literate” in the language of a given cultural system. In this way, language is apart of technology at the same time that technology acts as a language in the world of the modern cyborg.
Fragmentation / Totalization
As noted above, the brand-name (which acts as a form of capital) of the technology an individual bonds with acts as an identifier. Each piece of mediated identity adds up into a supposedly unique individual. The media we consume becomes a part of our identity. Matthew Fuller, in his book Media Ecologies, calls these fragments “flecks of identity”.
An element, cluster, or concatenation of data, flecks of identity - a number, a sample, a document, racial categorization - are features that identify the bearer as belonging to particular scalar positions and relations. Such flecks are processed in ways that make them resolvable, contradictory, that make them bear - given certain forms of interpretation - certain values, depreciations or openings, and are made useable. The citizen has a place, a speed, a set of functions as a variable within a social, bodily, and technical algorithm.(Fuller, 2005, p.148)
Fuller applies the concept of flecks of identity to means of social surveillance and control. I would assert that this concept is also relevant to media as a cyborg function in the formation of identity. Are you a Bud man or a Miller fan? Coke or Pepsi? McDonalds or Burger King? Product choices define our place within the cultural superstructure. They identify us both to ourselves and to others. It is the same with media choices. Do you know what a “Soup Nazi” is? Are you a Trekkie? Do you know what happened last week on [fill in the name of a currently popular television program]? These bits of mediated culture are more than just entertainment. They are important flecks of identity that mark us as members of various subcultures within the larger social whole. Taken individually, these flecks are fairly insignificant, but when working together they often form our concepts of identity.
What does it mean, then, for the modern cyborg to construct his or her identity in this way? When pieces of culture such as brand-names, phrases, images, and other cultural products become the property of corporations, as well as becoming cyborgean pieces of individual identity, a conflict arises between the conception of the self as an independent entity and the self as an amalgamation of corporate subsidiaries. This is serious stuff indeed! What are we if not the sum of our experiences? If our experiences are each in some way owned by a different corporation, our sense of identity becomes a scattered collaboration between various immortal profit-seeking entities that simply have no conception of human individuality. The human element is reduced to a discrete digit in a computer program designed to make functioning consumers in the cultural marketplace.
This fragmentation is done purposefully. As Judith Butler points out, “Identity is only constituted through the foreclosure of a field of possibilities, a field that nevertheless conditions that identity in absentia.”(Butler, 1995, p.441) Our mediated sense of identity, then, becomes a site of colonization for corporate entities seeking to exclude their competition from staking a claim to one of our flecks of identity. We not only define our sense of self by what we are, but also by what we are not. It is the goal of advertising to bring foreclosure to the field of possibilities available to satiate a particular desire. Once foreclosure has taken place, the consumer has bonded with the non-foreclosed selection and it becomes a part of the cyborg identity of the individual. In this way, the fragmenting forces of identity in modern technological society act as a mechanism for colonization of the individual by commodities.
Still, the fragmentary forces of consumer culture are not the only forces that act to shape the consciousness of the modern cyborg. As the force of modern advertising acts to fragment and colonize, the ahistorical context-free style of communication espoused by modern media (especially television) exerts an oppositional totalizing effect on the technologically mediated individual. This is due to the way that modern media tends to encourage the decline of literacy as images and sounds can instead be used to transmit messages directly to the individual without the need for a specialized skill (literacy). As the need for literacy declines and the availability of non-literate media increases, the consciousness of the modern cyborg returns, in some respects, to the traits of the oral mind. One of these traits is, in the words of Levi-Straus (as quoted by Ong), that “the savage [i.e. oral] mind totalizes”(Ong, 1982, p.39).
This totalizing effect of the modern technological environment relates to another trait of oral cultures that Walter Ong points out. Oral cultures are “aggregative rather than analytic”(Ong, 1982, p.38). This same trait manifests itself in modern mediated culture. In the words of Ong, “The cliches in political denunciations in many low-technology, developing cultures - enemy of the people, capitalist war-mongers - that strike high literates as mindless are residual formulary essentials of oral thought processes.”(Ong, 1982, p.38) Aside from the implication that “high literates” are somehow invulnerable to these cliches, this assertion seems reasonable, but there is no reason to limit the application of this idea only to low-technology cultures. Terms like “terrorist” and “axis of evil” seem perfectly at home among the phrases mentioned by Ong. The totalizing effect of these terms is necessary in the formation of consciousness in the modern cyborg in order for the individual to make sense of complex ideas in a short amount of time. The need for these totalizing terms lies in the overloaded information environment that surrounds the modern cyborg. The constant inundation of information that floods our media environment forces the individual to oversimplify in order to survive. Totalization becomes manifest in technological cultures as a decline in the application of linear, logical thought and an increase in intuition, impression, and emotionality. In fact, according to media critic Neil Postman,
The distance between rationality and advertising is now so wide that it is difficult to remember that there once existed a connection between them. ... The television commercial is not at all about the character of products to be consumed. It is about the character of the consumers of the products.(Postman, 1985, p.128)
Indeed, the identity of the modern cyborg is linked to the consumer culture in which he or she exists. The totalizing effect of modern media technology allows the individual to feel as though he or she is a unique and whole individual regardless of the forces of fragmentation brought to bear. That fragmentation and totalization are both the product of advertising is difficult to grasp, but this apparent contradiction creates an influential tension concerning the role of capitalism in shaping the identity of the individual in modern technological culture. Indeed, the structure of consciousness in the modern cyborg is wrought with contradiction. As Walter Ong notes, “We plan our happenings carefully to be sure that they are thoroughly spontaneous."(Ong, 1982,  p.137) The decline of logic cannot be contained by logic.
Haves / Have-nots
The decline of linear thought might, at first consideration, seem to be a strange phenomenon in a technologically-based society. Afterall, technology derives from science, which is a product of linear, hierarchical thought processes. This apparent contradiction is the result of a number of stratifications that occur both between the technological society and the non-technological society as well as between cyborg-individuals within technological societies. The decline of logic is a product of the passive, programmed version on the modern cyborg. Thus far, I have attempted to explicate some of the broad traits that characterize consciousness in the modern cyborg. In this section I will explore the stratifications that take place in modern mediated culture. These stratifications have a profound impact of the potential conceptions of self available to the individual in a given position of a particular social structure.
The first stratification occurs between those with access to technology and those without access. Obviously, those without access to a particular technology are unable to incorporate that technology into their sense of self. It is a mistake to devalue the non-technological society. The marketing of technology to the world through modern media serves as a form of cultural imperialism. The homogenization of the globe is a foolish endeavor. Rather, there is much to be gained by encouraging a multiplicity of perspectives. Indeed, there is much to be learned from non-technological societies. As Paul Shepard writes, "Primitivism does not mean a simplified or more thoughtless way of life but a reciprocity with origins, a recovery misconstrued as inaccessible by the ideology of History."(Shepard, 1998, p.320) In fact, hunter-gatherer societies lived for many thousands of years without creating the global havoc that has been wrought by technological society. The modern cyborg would be wise to learn what he or she can from the ecological balance sustained by previous incarnations of human culture. As John Gowdy points out, "the blueprint for survival is contained within our cultural history"(Gowdy, 1998, p. xxvii). In order to build the model for sustainability indicated by this blueprint, technological societies must combat their own self-identification as somehow superior to “less advanced” societies.
The gap between the technological haves and have-nots is apparent even in the language available to describe the situation. In the preceding paragraph I struggled to find a term that would not appear condescending towards “primitive” cultures. The best I could come up with was “less advanced”. Even the word “primitive” has negative connotations. This difficulty exemplifies the power structure inherent in the technology of language. The modern cyborg is so completely acclimated to the technological society that he or she does not even have the words to critically evaluate his or her position in relation to non-technological cultures. The problematization of the relationship between the modern cyborg and the non-technological society shows just how deeply the technological society inhabits the consciousness of the modern cyborg.
A second area of stratification that occurs concerning modern mediated society is the split within technological societies themselves between the programmers and the programmed. This split is by no means mutually exclusive. The modern cyborg is bonded with his or her technological environment in complex ways. Some of these relationships are empowering and some are not. Negotiating (or perceiving to negotiate) the difference is a key strategy in creating an individual sense of identity in modern mediated culture.
The relationship between the programmers and the programmed heralds back to the development of writing. When it was first invented, the technology of writing was “often regarded as an instrument of secret and magic power".(Ong, 1982, p.93) The materials involved in early writing made it difficult to spread beyond elite sectors of society. The same can be said concerning the creation of modern electric media. Though the tools of media production are now beginning to fall within the grasp of average citizens, the creation and distribution of media is still largely controlled by corporate elites. As Neil Postman points out, “only through a deep and unfailing awareness of the structure and effects of information, through a demystification of the media, is there any hope of our gaining some measure of control over television, or the computer, or any other medium.”(Postman, 1985, p.161) In other words, the best way to combat the tendency of the modern cyborg to allow his or her identity to be programmed by technological consumer culture is to be cognizant of the potential effects of uncritical media exposure. “Forewarned is forearmed."(Shlain, 1998, p.377)
What Does It All Mean and Why Does It Matter?
Regardless of any value judgement placed on it, the technological society is here to stay. Humans can and do internalize their technological environments to the point where these environments become a part of their sense of identity. Marshall McLuhan (1964) postulated that media is an extension of our senses. Andy Clark (2003) takes this one step further. He states that as our tools become increasingly transparent, they become a part of us. This is the definition of a cyborg.
Perhaps a simple example of this phenomenon will offer a better explanation. I cannot see without my glasses. Were I to get behind the wheel of a car without them I would undoubtedly be a menace to everyone on the road. But, as I am sure is common to most people with vision as bad as mine, I would never do that. I would never do it because I don’t do anything without my glasses. In fact, I do not typically even realize that I am wearing them. They are, for all intents and purposes, a part of me. I only notice them when they are gone. This is what Clark is talking about when he refers to “transparent tools”. To me, I can see just fine - that is, when I am wearing my glasses. “[T]he line between that which is easily and readily accessible and that which should be counted as part of the knowledge base of an active intelligent system is slim and unstable indeed”(Clark, 2003, p.42). This marriage between the biological and technological is the definition of a cyborg. The relationship between our biological construction and our technologies is an increasingly important part of who we are as individuals and as a society.
The implementation of new technology always involves a trade-off. Something is lost, and something is gained. This is especially important when the stakes include human consciousness and identity. The culture of literacy that brought us science, literature, and art also gave us nuclear weapons, global warming, and slavery. In a world where a single decision can destroy the planet for everyone, it is increasingly important to make wise decisions concerning the use of technology. A narrow vision will no longer suffice if humanity is to survive into the twenty-second century. As Andy Clark posits,
Taken as a package, the emerging wired (and soon to be wireless!) world is neither intrinsically good nor intrinsically evil. It is simply up to us, in these critical years, to try to guarantee that human-centered technology really means what it says: that human means all of us and not just the lucky few.(Clark, 2003, p.169)
Having a better understanding of how our technological choices shape the development of our minds is a step in the right direction.
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