How often do you leave your smartphone behind?
Hasn’t it, in fact, become an extension not only of your voice, but also of your memory, your processing power, your hearing, and your eyesight?
Even your house or your apartment can be seen as an extension of your skin, your body’s largest organ, protecting you from the realities of your environment. But where buildings and structures can transform the human experience locally, technology has a tendency to remove geographical constraints from our capacity to sense the world.
Personally, I use my 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.
With trends like cloud computing, artificial intelligence, internet of things, lifelogging, quantified self, and even transhumanism, we’re blurring those already thin boundaries between humanity and machinery.
What does it mean to extend the human experience with technology — or is it the other way around?
Becoming Cyborgs with Human APIs
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 (source).”
Science fiction does have a tendency to become reality; maybe we’re already 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? Wikipedia, in itself a swarm type AI, 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 (source).”
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 (source).”
If we consider your smartphone, one could argue that it works as an extension of yourself and thus impacts the human race more than anything we can ever see, read or hear on its screen. Our smartphones extend our social graphs, our memories, and our logic and without them, in McLuhan’s light bulb analogy, we would still be in cybernetic darkness.
The Cybernetic Renaissance
Apps and gadgets for extending the human API are on the rise. Tony Stark and Iron Man enchants us with his holographic UIs and suddenly Google’s Project Glass seems to be not so far-fetched after all — only a little bit too early on the adoption curve.
I would argue that we’re in the midst of a cybernetic renaissance.
The social media revolution and the extreme CPU enhancements only get interesting as innovations when they actually begin changing humanity.
Because our brains and our capabilities are starting to become seriously affected by the human API advancements.
As traditional media logic (apparently, it isn’t dead yet) would have it, we tend to focus on the negative effects, such as technology-induced stress, attention deficits, brain tumors, and big data-related integrity issues.
Or, as life designer and author Tim Ferriss would advise you:
“We’re talking about one hour of exposure with a normal GSM phone to — testicles, let’s say. One hour, that’s nothing. It dramatically lowers not only sperm count but morphology, I mean the shape, the swimming ability, so that led me to do a number of things.
Number one is to remove the cell phone from the pocket. Keep it off if it’s in the pocket. Also, use a corded headset […] I definitely do not want that little microwave next to my head at all (source).”
But there are other effects as well, of course.
Because technology is literally changing our brains. Not just mine, but yours too. If you find this hard to believe, you should simply do some research into what’s called 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 (source).”
The Human API and Transhumanism
Even well-respected evangelist Brian Solis, Altimeter Group and PR 2.0 blogger, has taken to the human API, making it his primary focus for his keynote presentation at the world’s most prestigious new media event, Le Web in Paris.
Brian Solis argues:
“What if the medium wasn’t just the device, the medium was us? At the center of the IoT [Internet of Things] 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 behavior over time (source).”
A couple of years ago, back in 2009, I helped the Pirate Party to grab what turned out to be two seats in the European Parliament. Within this somewhat technocratic movement, the idea of transhumanism was often discussed and debated.
All science fiction aside—these ideas are simply far from new. We might be facing a large-scale H+ debate in the near future.
If you’re not familiar with transhumanistic discourse, here’s the Wikipedia description:
“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 aging 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” (source).”
Where does all of this lead us? The effects of the human API are potentially massive, and like so many historical transitions, we could very well be standing with both feet in the middle of a societal reformation, a Cybernetic Renaissance if you will, which has only just begun.
Are we focusing too much on artificial intelligence instead of human augmentation? Please share your thoughts in the comment section.