Tuesday, February 21, 2012

The Cyborg's Dilemma... Again.

"The Dilemma of Being a Cyborg" is an article by Carina Chocano which recently appeared in the New York Times magazine addressing the growing anxiety that many people face concerning what appears to be universal digitization.  In 1997, Frank Biocca first described the cyborg's dilemma in these terms:
The more natural the interface the more 'human' it is, the more it adapts to the human body and mind.  The more the interface adapts to the human body and mind, the more the body and mind adapts to the non-human interface.  Therefore, the more natural the interface, the more we become 'unnatural,' the more we become cyborgs.
At the TED conference in 2010, Amber Case seized on this theme with her talk, "We're All Cyborgs Now," noting the capacity for digital storage devices to augment memory, cognition and consciousness.  Aside from this, much has been written in the field of Embodied Cognition on the subject of cognitive offloading and how it suggests that the boundaries of our minds may not coincide with the boundaries of our physical brains.

Chocano brings a humanistic perspective to the subject, noting the important role that physical objects have played in establishing context and meaning in her life.  She is leery of the transformation, reduction, and compression of everything into "data" and the increasing dependence most of us have on the volumes of digital information at our fingertips.  Chocano, thus describes her "cyborg's dilemma" in the following way:
We're collectively engaged in a mass conversion of what we used to call, variously, records, accounts, entries, archives, registers, collections, keepsakes, catalogs, testimonies and memories into, simply, data.
Throughout the article, Chocano seems self-critical and conscious of her own reluctance to immediately embrace the digital future, but the reasons for her concern are not without basis.  Her suspicion that access to information is not the same thing as knowledge is supported at length by the work of Nicholas Carr ("Is Google Making Us Stupid?" and The Shallows).  Related to this concern, though perhaps more sinister, is the standardization and accessibility facilitated by digital technology.  In a completely standardized digital world, we don't own our own knowledge.  Our life histories, buying habits, social networks, intellectual labor - indeed our very identities - are swallowed by and subordinated to the metaprograms that beckon us to join, share and participate in this new culture even as we relinquish our control over it.

A week ago, my girlfrined brought home a long-overdue VHS/DVD transfer machine.  She bought it to preserve old home movies, but I will likely use it to transfer some of my considerable collection of obscure cinema.  When I was in high school and college, I used to collect strange foreign and experimental films at local video stores and through the mail.  I remember the experience fondly, as each little box represented a different trip through someone else's subconscious mind.  Stripped of their plastic housing and cardboard dressing, they will undoubtedly be easier to store, but they also will have lost the aura that drew me in from the start.  They will be part of a network of data and every pixel will be accounted for, assigned a number, and any hint of mystery will be utterly gone.

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