The Aphasic Cyborg

he Reasonable Cyborg takes as a given that technology, no matter how powerful, is instrumental to naked human intention.  Some RCs may grant that it is possible for naked humans, through inattention, laziness or lack of insight to cede their agency to technological processes.  They may advocate that Cyborgs periodically unplug from technology enough to disrupt habits that reinforce this agency cessation.  They may suggest various strategies to better manage the incursions into  human agency technology may make including various forms of meditation or mindfulness, or simply taking a walk in places they like to designate as Nature.

Others may assert that humans have always used technology, that indeed, the use of technology is one of the defining features of being human.  Here the Reasonable Cyborg equates the in-hand instrumentality of a hammer with ubiquitously coded spaces.  After all naked humans were instrumental in the writing of the code, in deciding what the outputs of the layers of algorithms should be.  A RC will point out that any decision-making these systems engage in is a result of a human decision.  While any matter at hand may be too complex, too demanding of naked human scale temporal and spacial abilities, the entire intentional freight of the enterprise is borne by the naked human’s head/brain/soul/humanity.

Reasonable Cyborgs understand the naked human’s felt Appearance of Agency as both accurate and determinative rather than a heuristic processing/enacting of cognitive, perceptual and emotional functions.  This frequently relies on understanding the understanding of consciousness as a hard problem, that lies somehow, at least partially, outside the idea that everything has a cause.

Some naked humans however, are simply not reasonable.

vibes of fuckyou orange - Christina McPhee

vibes of fuckyou orange – Christina McPhee

In past posts I have explored aphasia as a metaphor, a window framing in a revealing way various aspects of the human/tech relationship.  I came across an essay recently by a most unreasonable cyborg.

In Aphasia/Parrhesia/ Code and Speech in the Neural Topologies of the Net Christina McPhee presents her experience of aphasia as a way of understanding, of theorizing the coding of the world.  Here, the neural net interacting with the coded net creates not just an augmented naked human hybridizing into a cyborg, but a double of this cyborg entrapped in the coded net.

Against the trope of Metropolis, whose robotics are released from emblem into an active , mobile, fierce and even viral identity,[6] the neural landscape as cyborg refers the desires of the voyeuristic modern back to code, to a place where nothing is, atopia. In this negative landscape the question of the origins of trauma and violence plays out without recourse to either sacrificial emblem or to the modernist critique. All that is left is the algorithmic presets….

What if the territory of the invisible cities of the net could be contemplated as a brainscan, a neuralscape? .. An inchoate complexity ,a sound and fury signifying nothing, perhaps, and perhaps, something alive. The phenomenological scenario of a cyborg double, whose femininity is a cliché of the modernist machine mythos, unfolds as a place in which she is both an entity moving through an invisible space, and is the space itself: cyberspace as a flawed, mine-ridden war zone, a neural topography of aneurysm and amnesia. Her poorly discerned gestures might be imagined as the signals of an entrapped being in a crisis of speech….

The screen is like a motility membrane, a skin or gut wall, semi-diaphanous and anechoic, behind which, connected as skin is to central nervous system by the same embryology,  are the lesions of the brain, the zones of neural occlusion and disaster. The relative incoherence of the system is overcome only by the inveterate impulse of human participant-observers to try to interpret the fragments of speech. In this way the ground of meaning regenerates itself continuously in the realm of the human…

What is this failure but the experience of the loss of control of the image, the condition sine qua non of electronic arts, where nothing can be rendered within the safe confines of a heuristic universe…

I think we don’t want to talk about this because the idea of a completely atopic, hollowed out[14], embeddable, vulnerable, post human consciousness that stares back at us and tries to speak to us from the invisible realm of the electronic is disturbing: she mirrors something like a double[15], and yet, it seems the mirror faces a mirror in
ourselves, thereby generating an infinite regression. Or not. In which case the cyborg’s aphasic speech may make a kind of truth.

The truth of the cyborg then, emerges through an atopic, aphasic digital process mimicking the neural breakdown of the neural aphasic impasse.  Illustrating this, McPhee’s art, combines an elegance of line and abstraction of color to reveal the “violence, traumatic memory, environmental fragility, and regeneration” at the heart of the encounter between the naked human and the naked technological.

The naked human depends on an exaggerated sense of its Appearance of Agency to compensate for its low relief information processing.  The Reasonable Cyborg accepts the resulting heuristics as the baseline of awareness.4295554840_98d4e1c10c_o[1]

The naked technological in principle possess an ability and scale of information processing the naked human can only understand using its method of compensating errors. What happens when the cyborg on the other side of the screen learns how to overcome its digital aphasia and speaks?

The Reasonable Cyborg


The speculative turn here can lead me to omit from my discussions the high quality blogging I read by more Reasonable Cyborgs.  I call them reasonable not because I necessarily agree with each of them, but because of their approach.  Generally, a Reasonable Cyborg writes in a continuum from an informed illustration of a trend to a contribution meant to help to solve the challenge the ubiquitous coding of earth presents.

For the most part, they are doing something different from me, but their work is relevant here, covering ground I mostly neglect. Reasonableness goes beyond mere practicality, to include a  vision of the human/technology relationship quite different from what I discuss here.

One of the ideas many Reasonable Cyborgs hold is that technology is completely an instrument of human subjectivity and decision-making.  A fair amount of the time this idea forms an important part of the conclusion of a Reasonable Cyborg’s argument.

Recently, Michael Sacasas, in talking about the prospect of self driving cars drives such a point economically home in his post  Fit the Tool to the Person, Not the Person to the Tool.

If autonomous cars become the norm and transportation systems are designed to accommodate their needs, it will not have happened because of some force inherent in the technology itself. It will happen because interested parties will make it happen, with varying degrees of acquiescence from the general public…

Choices were made; political will was exerted; money was spent. So it is now, and so it will be tomorrow.

Developing this approach in the post Do Artifacts have Ethics, Sacasas develops a list of 41 questions one might ask before engaging with a new technology.  The preamble to this list includes this:

When we do think about technology’s moral implications, we tend to think about what we do with a given technology. We might call this the “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” approach to the ethics of technology. What matters most about a technology on this view is the use to which it is put. …

But is this really the only morally relevant question one could ask? For instance, pursuing the example of the hammer, might I not also ask how having the hammer in hand encourages me to perceive the world around me? Or, what feelings having a hammer in hand arouses.

Cyborgs exhibit reasonableness not only in theoretical contexts, but practical, problem solving ones as well.

danah boyd reports in her post Data & Civil Rights: What do we know? What don’t we know? on the Data & Civil Rights Conference she attended.  The Executive Summary of the Conference described the approach of those participating as follows:

The event had three main narratives: (1) the roots and contemporary state of civil rights issues, which centered primarily on discrimination on the basis of protected classes, and issues of privacy; (2) the inner workings of the technology and how and when it can create discriminatory outcomes and impacts, particularly through algorithmic decision-making; and (3) the next steps for these discussions, especially in the areas of policymaking, government actions, technology development, generating social change, industry innovation, and new research.

Here, the instrumentality  of technology was more implicit than Sacasas’ approach, but was just as central.  In her post, boyd implores the reader to take up this task personally.

Moving forward, we need your help.  We need to go beyond hype and fear, hope and anxiety, and deepen our collective understanding of technology, civil rights, and social justice. We need to work across sectors to imagine how we can create a more robust society, free of the cancerous nature of inequity… It means that those working to create a more fair and just society need to understand how technology works.  And it means that all of us need to come together and get creative about building the society that we want to live in.

Reasonable Cyborgs differ in their assessment of the proportion of personal responsibility versus structural societal factors at work in creating the instrumentality of technology.  boyd and Sacasas take an approach that seeks to acknowledge and balance both factors.

Others, like Nicholas Carr focus their efforts more on the relationship between individuals and technology.  His post A litmus test for technology critics responds to criticism by Evgeny Morozov that Carr’s approach stresses the individual too much.

What particularly galls Morozov is any phenomenological critique of technology, any critical approach that begins by examining the way that the tools people use shape their actual experience of life — their behavior, their perceptions, their thoughts, their relations with others and with the world. The entire tradition of such criticism, a rich and vital tradition that I’m proud to be a part of, is anathema to him, a mere distraction from the political.

Carr does not deny the importance of the structural, the political, but seeks to emphasize the more individual part of the human/technological relationship.  For example, his most recent post The illusion of knowledge discusses a study showing that “that searching the web gives people an ‘illusion of knowledge.’ They start to confuse what’s online with what’s in their head, which gives them an exaggerated sense of their own intelligence.”

I might use Morozov as a counterpoint to Carr here, but the two have a somewhat contentious relationship which might cloud whatever clarity I might be achieving here.  Instead, I’ll refer to Jenny Davis’ current post Exclusionary Algorithms:Jobaline’s Voice Analyzer.  Here the observation of a technology application goes beyond the personal to a structural analysis.

Davis discusses Jobaline’s voice analyzer.  The company asserts it can simplify and make less prone to unconscious discrimination the screening of job applicants using an analysis of their voices.  Davis observes:

Algorithms sort in the way that humans tell them to sort. They are necessarily imbued with human values. Hidden behind a veil of objectivity, algorithms have a powerful potential to reinforce existing cultural arrangements and render these arrangements natural, moral and inevitable…

Technological processes are, always, human processes.

This last sentence presents clearly the radical instrumentality of technology at the heart of the Reasonable Cyborg.



The Nomadic Cyborg

I have conceptualized here the cyborg in Haraway-ian fashion, as hybrid of the human and the cybernetic, the machinic, the algorithmic.  I have suggested that these partners to the human have a kind of agency that left unexamined is likely to lead to humans misunderstanding their relationship with the machinic. I have let Prof Haraway speak for herself in cautioning against “the solace of human exceptionalism”.

Somehow this seems still a half measure.  Somehow the human almost always seems the senior partner in the hybridization.  The cell phone, the internet of coffee makers, cars, consumer artifacts of every description, the vast extractive enterprises leveling mountains for a few tons of gold, rare earth metals, copper, the semi-autonomous war machines, manufacturing complexes seem somehow, even with a rampant speculative turn here, augmentation.  That is augmentation to the vivid subjet-ivity of human consciousness which experiences each iteration of the machinc as individual, driving nothing from their networked existence, existing only as cell phone, coffee makers, extraction and manufacturing.

After all, these machines are of human creation, purposing.  Without humans they would, after varying lengths of time, just stop and become insensible ruins.  Many would cease functioning minutes, hours, days after an end to humans.  While some would continue for  years, this would be without human consciousness.  No ghosts would haunt these machines.

Some say humans have always been cyborgs, have always used tools, machines, information.  If so then these augmentations complete the human.  They are not augmentations at all.  Without machines then, humans would just as surely just stop as well, conceptually and functionally both, becoming  insensible biosphere-ic mass and energy.

The challenge perhaps is to think of the human and machinic as each necessary but each not sufficient to the existence and functioning of the cyborg.  The constant change and flux in the technological, in its individual components, in its variability of specific components, in its evolution, not on human time scale, but the machinic time scale of Moore’s law makes the machinic seem  Other to self reflective consciousness. At the same time the machinic’s integration with human giveness makes it seem integral to the vivid nowness of consciousness.

Rosi Braidotti has theorized something like this.  Her “nomadic thought” refers to the “symbiotic inter-dependence” with the appearance of a subject with its environment.

Conceptually, nomadic thought stresses the idea of embodiment and the embodied and  embedded material structure of what we commonly call thinking.  It is a materialism of the flesh that unifies mind and body in a new approach that blurs all boundaries. The embodiment of the mind and the embrainment of the body (Marks 1998) are a more apt formulation for nomadic thought than Cartesian or other forms of dualism.  Nomadic thought builds on the insights of psychoanalysis by stressing the dynamic and self organizing structure of thought processes. The space of nomadic thinking is framed by perceptions concepts and imaginings that cannot be reduced to rational human consciousness. In a vitalist materialistic way, nomadic thought invests all that lives, even inorganic matter, with the power of consciousness in the sense of self affectation.  Not only does consciousness not coincide with mere rationality, but it is not even the prerogative of humans.  This emphasis on affect and extended consciousness, however is not the same as Freudian unconsciousness.

Nomadic Theory: The Portable Rosi Braidotti


While I might quarrel with the usefulness of a vitalist, everything is alive, approach, I find the embodiment/embrainment merging quite useful.  Pointing out that consciousness is embodied has helped to undercut the mind/body dualism that plays out in all sort of idealizations.  Yet the directionality of this can suggest that consciousness still exists in some idealized form waiting to express itself in the body.  The embrainment of technology extends past the body to create an agency distinguishable from human agency in the machinic.

Embodiment suggests then a consciousness/agency network of limited scope. The human brain finds it expression, discharges its agency through the human body.  Embrainment suggests perhaps a larger scope, human agency extending to the inorganic components of the cyborg, in all their alien-ness followed by a counter movement of inorganic agency expressed through the human machine.

Consciousness then becomes an activity, not a state –  the activity of  embodied/embrained awareness through a cyborgscape without boundaries between the human and the machine.

Note: Just before finishing this post, Karen and I watched the third episode of the current season of House of Cards  which features Pussy Riot.  Then, this video of Don’t Cry Genocide plays during the final credits.  As it happens, Pussy Riot includes Rosi Braidotti as one of their important influences.  So while not directly relevant here, it seems fitting to feature the video, perhaps as an illustration of what the nomadic cyberscape looks and sounds like.