I am always going on about the dangers of social media, its power to addict and co-opt lives of its adherents and leave them with a lack of depth in relationships that has seldom been seen in the human experience. Although I still think that can be the case, I have begun to see that there is more than one way to look at it. That other way concerns the creation of a second self.
I am going to admit something that comes as no surprise to anyone who has ever seen my library. Like many boys, I grew up as a serious science fiction fan, and still am. Yes, Mr. Darcy is a cool guy, Tom Sawyer had a childhood that we can all envy, and of course, who wouldn’t want to have participated in the rise of the Roman Empire. But science fiction came of age as I was growing up. From Azimov to Star Trek, I read it all, watched it all, looking for the day that some of what I saw or read would become real.
The most interesting was the concept of a cyborg. Now for you Star Trek fans, they were there too. I am not talking about Mr. Data; he was an android, too cool in so many ways (the ubiquitous machine what longs to be human), but still not human; he was a synthetic human. He was not the first. Even before Isaac Asimov fictionalized robots and artificial intelligence, there was Pinocchio; oh how he wanted to be a boy. He remains the grandfather of androids. But that is another story. None of them were cyborgs. It was the borg who were the cyborgs. Darth Vader was a cyborg, and if you are real science fiction geek (yep, guilty as charged) the cylons from Battlestar Galactica were cyborgs as well, particularly the ones that looked just like humans.
Cyborgs and Their History
So how about a little history. Back in 1960, the term cyborg was introduced by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline. What the term means is that “the being” has both organic and biomechanical/biomechatronic parts. But even before that, Edgar Allen Poe described a person with extensive prosthetic parts in his short story The Man That Was Used Up. So what you get is a person who has enhanced abilities or in the simplest cases, restored functionality to damaged body parts (think pacemaker or mechanical heart or mechanical leg).
Where the androids in fiction are often seen as helpmates to humanity, cyborgs are often portrayed as dangerous. Their human creators are evil writers who use them as foils to crank up human contempt for our over- dependence on technology that threatens our free will, or involve us in war of one kind or another. The core of the concept however, is the intimate relationship between human and machine to accomplish some goal that is not obtainable to a human alone.
Guess what. Most of you are cyborgs. Me too.
People want more and they add things to their bodies to achieve that end. Imagine someone, say an anthropologist from an earlier time, appeared here today. They would look around and see a new form of homosapien. The kind they find is using some new technology, they click on things, they stare at screens, they put their hands in gloves that control mechanical devices, they command electronic devices with their voices. They operate in space, they operate under the ocean, they operate inside of other humans. There are people who use every form of plastic surgery and other techniques to physically change themselves wherever they can. Heck, there are even humans (count me as one since I have a pacemaker), who have smart devices implanted in them to ensure proper operation of one part or another. These devices have enhanced the performance of our bodies to achieve all sorts of previously impossible goals for themselves and their world. Cool? To me just being alive is cool.
When you think about it, every time someone created a tool of one kind or another they were taking a step down the path. For thousands of years we have been creating things that were modifications of ourselves. Things that made you go faster, hit harder, swim deeper. They all apply, and we all eventually find a limit that stops us.
Extending Our Mental Selves
Now, we aren’t just looking at an extension of our physical selves; we are creating extensions of our mental selves. In that way, we see farther, communicate faster, we interact differently. The other thing is that we all carry these little things with the technology once only found in Mary Poppins’ carpet bag.
We put anything we want into this thing and it is no heavier than when we started. We can take anything out and nothing happens to it. Think about what goes in your computer, your iPhone, or laptop. What really does it look like inside where it keeps all that stuff you put in? Ever given that any thought? If you print it out, all of the information and knowledge accessible to it or stored within it, you would have literally tons of paper—and you carry it with you in your pocket. You back it all up so you won’t lose it; if you lose it, you suddenly have a loss in your mind, your second mind, your external mind, and you will suddenly feel like something is missing, except you can’t see it. Does that sound weird? It is indeed a strange feeling to experience.
Your Second Self
So what do you have, in your pocket, in your computer? What you have is your second self. Regardless of your feelings about it, you show up online and people interact with your second self when you aren’t even around. Shut down your Facebook account, and it remains. Your second self remains indefinitely for people to interact with even though you think it dead and buried. As in your regular life, you have to be cautious about leaving your front door unlocked; basically, that’s your Facebook wall. You try and make sure that people don’t post on it while you sleep. It is sort of like when people wrote on the fence around your house when you were a kid. It can be very unnerving.
Now all of a sudden, you need to start maintaining your second self. You try and show yourself in the digital world as you do in the brick and mortar one, your analog life. Just as you wake, have coffee, shower and dress in your analog life, you learn to do the digital counterpart for your digital life. Lots of us, particularly young people, find themselves going through two adolescent periods in their lives. The primary one, their human, analog one (that’s difficult and awkward enough), and their second self’s one because there, like it or not, you have an actual history online. That vacation with your family, you hugging Cinderella, freaking out on camera at the mechanical shark, your prom, and on it goes to today. Thus, if you are entering this digital world right now, new to the technology, it is as an online adolescent. It is, like the first one, difficult to maneuver and awkward to the feel. In time, you learn.
Your second self remains indefinitely for people to interact with even though you think it dead and buried.
When I was a kid, my dad taught me to sail, he taught me navigation, he taught me that a straight line on a map isn’t really the shortest distance on the globe between two points. The Great Circle route is actually the shortest, and the physicists of our time have now taught us that there is an even shorter way. Once you have the energy, you can fold space-time and have two points in space almost touch and the distance between two points shrinks to almost zero. Ponder that thought for a few minutes. And that doesn’t even consider the time machine created by H.G. Wells. When you record yourself, leaving a message for your future self, you are doing sort of the same thing; a voice from another life and time talking to your future self.
The Miracle of Technology
Technology gets adopted because people use it, not just because it works, but because it was made for humans. Look back and see how many similar devices were made by competitors of Apple, but because theirs was made for humans, the Apple device is the one used today.
Think of your cell phone. You don’t physically transport yourself, but you mentally do the same thing. You click a button and you’re connected instantly (almost) to anyone, anywhere in the world. It is both technological and anthropological in nature, and nothing like it has ever been available to man of the past. Perhaps you do have your own transporter.
You can stand on one side of the world and whisper and be heard on the other. With an app, you can film an event in real time and have it experienced in real time by anyone on the planet. You have compressed time and space in this process. You can also store time on your device; they all have it—memory. They all have your different experiences, different times, different places, all giving you the ability to move in time. It becomes a tool to dig around in your external memories; where did they go? Did I back them up? You become a paleontologist, digging around in your external brain that you are toting around in your pocket or purse. When you can’t find it, what do you feel? Yep, that would be panic. Oh shit, where is it? Why can’t I find it? You get to where it can feel like keeping up is just out of reach, and why not? All the knowledge of the world is at your fingertips! How can you think to manage it all?
What happens when we bring all of this into our social/personal space is that we’re always checking our cell phones, our email, all the time. I heard it called “ambient intimacy.”
It isn’t that you’re always connected to everyone, but you are able to connect with anyone you want when you want.
Words, sounds, pictures; they are all available to you in a way that without your devices would be impossible. If you could dump them, your contacts, out of your phone into a room, it would be much too crowded to make any sense of it all, but they are simply people you have access to, right now, and in theory, they all have access to you. Creepy maybe?
Here is the rub. What happens to lots of us, most of us, is that we no longer take time for mental reflection. People just don’t slow down and stop because of all the effort made to get and keep our attention in all the ways that our attention can be had. There are people out there who think that no input is just sitting there; they couldn’t be more wrong. That “no input time” is an opportunity for long-term planning, when you can try and figure out who you are, time for creation or development of self. Once you do that, then you can take a moment and decide how you want to present your second self in an authentic way, rather than just dealing with stuff as it comes over the dam. “Oh gosh, I need to do this.” ”Crap, look at that emergency” and this, and this, and that….
Something that comes to mind is that young people today, i.e., kids, adolescents, and many young adults, are not using this downtime effectively; in some cases, they aren’t dealing with it at all. I have a consultant who says that his generation has an “instant click” culture. They are used to everything coming to them, getting regular—if not constant—reward/feedback, and that they have, or are becoming addicted to it. It has become how you keep them engaged. If you forget that point, you lose track of them, and they you.
Think about this; even the world doesn’t stop. It has its own external devices and these devices all keep us connected and facilitate our communication. When you actually try and visualize it all, thinking of a map of the internet, it really does look like an organic creature don’t you think?
This is the first time in human history…ever… that we have all been connected like this. You say that machines are taking over, I say that you are mistaken. Machines are helping to make us more human, helping us connect with each other. Watching all of this happen over the last 20 years or so I can tell you a couple of things; they have become almost axiomatic in our world:
- The best technology stays out of the way and helps us live our lives as we desire.
- The best technology ends up almost more human than tech, because we are co-creating each other.
- The best technology turns out helping us live our lives.
These human connections of our second self increase rather than diminish our humanness, our ability to connect with each other, cyborg or completely organic.
Life in a cyborg world, with the ability to create your second self, is curiously interesting, don’t you think?
What say you?. Let me know what you think of the concept of a Second Self.
If you would like to talk, schedule a time for a call and let’s give it a go.
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Bowden Van Ripper, A., Science in Popular Culture