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The blurred line between you and your smartphone

How often do you leave your smartphone behind? Not very often, I dare guessing.

Yeah, me neither.

But no, this isn’t going to be one of those opinion pieces where someone complains about how we’re becoming slaves to technology. (Aren’t such tirades just tiresome?) I would instead suggest that we’re inevitably becoming ones with our smartphones. The idea of allowing information technology to extend our human bodies is far from novel. Marshall McLuhan (1911 – 1980), famous for his statement “the medium is the message”, considered all media to be extensions of the human body:

“McLuhan’s insight was that a medium affects the society in which it plays a role not by the content delivered over the medium, but by the characteristics of the medium itself.

McLuhan pointed to the light bulb as a clear demonstration of this concept. A light bulb does not have content in the way that a newspaper has articles or a television has programs, yet it is a medium that has a social effect; that is, a light bulb enables people to create spaces during nighttime that would otherwise be enveloped by darkness.”

The smartphone in your hand are potentially way more impactful than any message you could ever consume via its glowing screen. The smartphone has become an extension not only of your voice, but also of your memory, your processing power, your hearing, and your eyesight.

Our journey out of biological darkness has begun

A medium is that in which a physical transfer of information takes place. If our smartphones are extensions of our voices, our ears, our social graphs, our memories, and the very fabric of our logic thinking, then aren’t we, according to McLuhan’s light bulb analogy, in the process of stepping out of cybernetic darkness?

We have a long history of appropriating technology to free up mental bandwidth.

  • A camp fire or the clothes on your back could be seen as extensions of your biological heating system.
  • A building can be seen as an extension of your skin, your body’s largest organ, protecting you from the realities of your environment.
  • Your to-do app could be seen as an extension of your memory, reliving you of (perhaps unnecessary?) cognitive loads.

By adding supportive systems to see in the dark, to stay warm and sheltered, to sort and structure thoughts and ideas, we literally free ourselves to communicate and to develop increasingly complex and abstracts ideas. Information technology allows us to create layers upon layers of human civilisation. But recent technological advancements, starting perhaps with the smartphone, must be regarded as unprecedented even by historical standards.

I’m talking about transhumanism.

Transhumanism — A posthuman approach

What is transhumanism? A couple of years ago, back in 2009, I advised the Pirate Party who managed to earn two seats in the European Parliament. Within this by nature technocratic movement, the concept of transhumanism was often discussed and debated.

According to Wikipedia:

“Transhumanism, abbreviated as H+ or h+, is an international intellectual and cultural movement that affirms the possibility and desirability of fundamentally transforming the human condition by developing and making widely available technologies to eliminate ageing and to greatly enhance human intellectual, physical, and psychological capacities.

Transhumanist thinkers study the potential benefits and dangers of emerging technologies that could overcome fundamental human limitations, as well as study the ethical matters involved in developing and using such technologies. They predict that human beings may eventually be able to transform themselves into beings with such greatly expanded abilities as to merit the label “posthuman”.

A transhuman world is almost incomprehensible. It seems to sit above basic conceptions of “good” or “bad” — it just seems inevitable.

A global village for sharing the human experience

I would argue that development is intrinsically inevitable — and that technology allowing for more information to flow is necessary. And there’s no shortage of trends that suggests that we might be on the cusp of a transhumanistic future.

  • The internet (allowing humans to connect regardless of geographical constraints)
  • Cloud computing (sharing information access and computational power)
  • Augmented- and virtual realities (spatial
  • Internet of things (where everything is interconnected)
  • Internet of brains (brain-to-brain or brain-to-tech interfacing)
  • Quantified self (to track and analyse oneself passively)
  • Data mining (on a global scale with massive data sets)
  • Neural networks (with layered computational models)
  • Artificial intelligence (including the potential of a singularity)
  • Quantum supremacy (where qubits allows for deeper calculations)

What does it mean to extend the human experience with technology — or is it the other way around? Are we, in fact, extending technology with human experiences?

In the legendary words of Kraftwerk — “We are the robots”

Popular culture has been playing around with the idea of merging humanity with machines for centuries. Science fiction does have a tendency to become reality; we might already be well underway to becoming cyborgs:

“A cyborg, short for “cybernetic organism”, is a being with both biological and artificial (i.e. electronic, mechanical, or robotic) parts […] The term cyborg is often applied to an organism that has enhanced abilities due to technology, though this perhaps oversimplifies the necessity of feedback for regulating the subsystem.

The more strict definition of Cyborg is almost always considered as increasing or enhancing normal capabilities.”

So, how close are we? Personally, I use Evernote as an external memory bank, an artificial extension of my brain made up by software and hardware working in sync with the living organism that is me. Does this make me a type of cyborg? Wikipedia, in itself a type of swarm technology, presents this argument:

“According to some definitions of the term, the metaphysical and physical attachments humanity has with even the most basic technologies have already made them cyborgs. In a typical example, a human fitted with a heart pacemaker or an insulin pump (if the person has diabetes) might be considered a cyborg, since these mechanical parts enhance the body’s “natural” mechanisms through synthetic feedback mechanisms.

Some theorists cite such modifications as contact lenses, hearing aids, or intraocular lenses as examples of fitting humans with technology to enhance their biological capabilities; however, these modifications are as cybernetic as a pen or a wooden leg. Implants, especially cochlear implants, that combine mechanical modification with any kind of feedback response are more accurately cyborg enhancements.”

Will we ever be able to develop a human API?

Would it be possible to create a biological/electrical interface? Even well-respected evangelist and fellow public relations blogger, Brian Solis, are discussing “the human API”, making the concept his primary focus for his keynote presentation at the world’s most prestigious new media event, Le Web in Paris. Solis argues:

“What if the medium wasn’t just the device, the medium was us? At the center of the IoT and Big Data are the very people who fuel the constant exchange of information.

At the same time, it creates a human network, where we become nodes and the information that ties together people and devices feed new experiences and changes our behaviour over time.”

Is there a human API? Here’s how Wikipedia defines API:

“An application programming interface (API) is a protocol intended to be used as an interface by software components to communicate with each other. An API may include specifications for routines, data structures, object classes, and variables.”

Will we ever be truly able to integrate directly with information technology?

Neuroplasticity, epigenetics, and brainwave states

Technology is literally changing our brains. Not just mine, but yours too. Our brains have the capacity of rewiring itself. If you find this hard to believe, you should simply dive deeper into neuroplasticity:

“Neuroplasticity, also known as Brain Plasticity (from neural – pertaining to the nerves and/or brain and plastic – moldable or changeable in structure) refers to changes in neural pathways and synapses which are due to changes in behavior, environment, and neural processes, as well as changes resulting from bodily injury.

Neuroplasticity has replaced the formerly-held position that the brain is a physiologically static organ, and explores how — and in which ways — the brain changes throughout life.”

Add to this recent discoveries in epigenetics, where it becomes increasingly clear that our DNA comes with some “wiggle room” allowing us to adapt faster by switching genes on and off. And in rat experiments, groups of individuals have had their brainwaves electronically synched with each other to outperform non-synched individuals in performing simple tasks.

Would it be inconceivable to think that we, in a not too distant future, will be able to allow for direct brain-to-brain, brain-to-tech, or tech-to-brain technologies?

The human race is entering into the cybernetic renaissance

I would argue that we’re in the midst of a cybernetic renaissance. As the media curse of the Bell curve and the historically recurring techlash dictates, we tend to focus on the negative side effects, such as technology-induced stress, attention deficits, brain tumors, and big data-related integrity issues.

Loud voices are demanding everything from legislative counter-measures to prohibiting the use of information technology in schools. I think that we’re collectively afraid of what our transhuman future will bring. We shudder at the thought of having humans and machines merge into one.

Where does all of this lead us?

The effects of developing human APIs are potentially massive, and like so many historical transitions before, we could very well be standing with both feet in the middle of a reformation that by far overshadows the digital information revolution. Still, sharing experiences and becoming more interconnected with everything else might just as well be seen as a natural stepping stone in human evolution. Some will choose to fear a medieval cyborg dystopia, but I firmly believe that humanity is entering a cybernetic renaissance.

Keep your smartphone, not as its slave, but as a part of what you can be.

Promotional image from Ghost in the Shell.