A Survival Plan for the Wild Cyborg

In order to stay human in the current intimate technological revolution, we must become high-tech people with quirky characters. Here are seven theses to nail to the door of our technological church.

Today, the most exciting discoveries and technological developments have to do with us, we humans. Technology settles itself rapidly around and within us; collects more and more data about us; and increasingly is able to simulate human appearances and behaviour. As our relationship with technology is becoming more and more intimate, we are becoming techno-people or cyborgs. On the one hand, intimate technology offers opportunities for personal development and more control over our lives. On the other hand, governments, businesses, and other citizens may also deploy intimate technologies in order to influence or even coerce us. To put this development on the public and political agenda, the Rathenau Instituut in the Netherlands has coined the term “intimate-technological revolution,” which is partly driven by smartphones, social media, sensor networks, robotics, virtual worlds, and big data analysis. We describe this revolution in our report Intimate Technology: The Battle for Our Body and Behavior.

The fact that our selves are becoming increasingly intertwined with technology is illustrated by the ever-shrinking computer: from desktop to laptop, then tablet to mobile phone, and soon to e-glasses, and possibly in the long term to contact lenses. This shift from the table to lap, from hand to nose and even eye, shows us how technology creeps into us. For the time being, the demarcation line is typically just on the outside, but a variety of implantable devices—for example, cochlear implants for the deaf and deep brain stimulation electrodes for treating Parkinson’s disease and severely depressed patients—are already positioned inside the body.

Through our smartphone, smart shoes, sports watches, and life-logging cameras, we constantly inform the outside world about ourselves: obviously where we are through global positioning systems, but also what we are thinking and doing through social media. Once considered entirely private, that information is now accessible for literally the whole world to know. To some extent we now maintain our most intimate relationships by digital means. Social media are enabling new forms of relationships, from long-term and stable to short and volatile. And then there are phone apps that help us try to achieve our good intentions, such as exercising more or eating fewer sweets. They behave like compassionate but strict coaches, monitoring our metabolism and massaging our psyche.

The convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science increasingly turns biology into technology, and technology into biology. The convergence takes on three concrete forms. First, we are more and more like machines, and can thus be taken apart for maintenance and repair work and can perhaps even be upgraded or otherwise improved. Second, our interactions with one another are changing, precisely because machines are increasingly nestling into our private and social lives. And third, machines are becoming more and more humanlike, or at least engineers do their best to build in human traits, so that these machines seem to be social and emotional, and perhaps even moral and loving.

Mechanistic views of nature and mind have existed for centuries, but only recently has technology actually gained much control over our bodies and minds.

This development raises several fundamental questions: How close and intimate can technology become? At what point is technology still nicely intimate, and when does it become intimidating? Where do we have to set boundaries?

Mechanistic views of nature and mind have existed for centuries, but only recently has technology actually gained much control over our bodies and minds. Our hips and knees are now replaceable parts. Deafness, balance disorders, depression, anxiety trauma, heart irregularities, and innumerable other maladies have become, through the use of implants and pills, machine maintenance and performance problems. And now we begin to move to never-before-seen performance levels such as the eyeborg, the implant used by the colorblind artist Neil Harbisson to transform every hue into audible sound, with the result that he now hears colors, even the infrared and ultraviolet normally invisible to us.

The idea of intimacy used to pertain to matters of our body and mind that we would share only with people who were close to us: our immediate family members and true friends. We shared our personal intimacies by talking face to face, later with remote communication by writing letters, and then by telephone. The increasing role of technology for broadcasting information destabilizes this traditional and simple definition of what is “intimate.” On the social network Lulu, female students share their experiences about their ex-boyfriends; the geo-social network Foursquare allows users to announce their exact location in real time to all of their friends.

Consumer apps are coming that will recognize faces, analyze emotions, and link this data to our LinkedIn and Facebook profiles. When wearing Google Glasses, we ourselves will be as transparent as glass, for other computer eyeglass wearers can see who we are, what we do, who our friends are, and how we feel. Information about other people will be omnipresent, and so will information about other items in our environment. In a certain radius around Starbucks outlets, computer eyeglass wearers will receive alerts about the specialty coffee of the week, or tea if that’s their preference.

In other intimate interactions, technology has a growing intensity. Equipment has been produced that can enable parents at home to “tele-hug” a premature newborn in a hospital incubator. One in 10 love relationships now starts through online dating, and for casual sexual encounters, there are Web sites such as Second Love. On the aggressive side of the intimate interaction spectrum are the military drones used by U.S. forces that, having identified and tracked you, can now kill you.

Applications and devices fulfil an increasing number of roles that had been traditionally reserved for human beings. E-coaches encourage us to do more exercise, to conserve energy, or not to be too aggressive while e-mailing. Marketing psychologists no longer directly observe how people respond to advertising, but rather use emotion-recognition software, which is less expensive and more accurate. My son does not only play soccer against his friends, but also against digital heroes like Messi and Van Persie. Digital characters can appear very humanlike. When you kill someone in the latest-generation first-person shooter games (where you view the onscreen action as if through the eyes of a person with a gun), the suffering of the avatar that you’ve just offed is so palpable that you can feel genuine remorse. Meanwhile, the international children’s aid organization Terre des Hommes put Webcam child sex tourism on the public and political agenda in many Western countries by using an online avatar named Sweetie, a virtual 10-year-old girl, to ensnare more than 1,000 online pedophiles in 65 countries. And then there’s Roxxxy, the female-shaped sex robot with a throbbing heart and five adjustable behavioral styles. And for those who find that too impersonal, we can have remote coitus with our own beloved using synthetic genitals that are connected online.

Our devices are also gaining more autonomy. Perhaps they will soon demand it? If we neatly time and plan our meetings in our calendar, Google Now automatically searches available travel routes and gives us a call when the departure time is approaching. We are still waiting for the digital assistant who dutifully worries and asks us whether we’re not too tired for such a late appointment, but an Outlook calendar on your iPhone can warn you that you have a very busy day ahead. Real driverless cars have already travelled thousands of kilometers on public roads in California and in Berlin’s city center. Eventually the U.S. military wants to build drones that can independently make the decision to kill.

We are the new resource

These changes are a new step in the information revolution, when information technology is emerging as intimate technology. Whereas the raw materials of the Industrial Revolution were cotton, coal, and iron ore, the raw material of the intimate technological revolution is us. Our bodies, thoughts, feelings, preferences, conversations, and whereabouts are inputs for intimate technology.

When the Industrial Revolution steamrolled over England and then throughout Europe and the United States, it created enormous havoc with two factors of production: labor and land. The result was social and political paroxysms accompanied by enormous cost and suffering. Those of us who now enjoy the prosperity and material comforts made possible through industrial transformation might judge the pain a reasonable sacrifice for the benefits, but we would be wise to remember how much pain there was and how we might be affected by a similarly convulsive transformation. Now that the Information Revolution thunders even faster over us, keep in mind that we and our children are the most important production factor, that our intimate body and mind are the raw material for new enterprises and capital. And as with the old Industrial Revolution, this one can destabilize the institutions and social arrangements that hold our world together. At stake here are the core attributes of our intimate world, on which our social, political, and economic worlds are built: our individual freedom, our trust in one another, our capacity for good judgment, our ability to choose what we want to focus our attention on. Unless we want to discover what a world without those intimate attributes is going to be like, it is vital that we develop the moral principles to steer the new intimate technological revolution, to lead it in humane ways and divert it from dehumanizing abuses. That is our moral responsibility.

The insight that a technological revolution is turning our intimate lives inside out in ways that demand a moral response is not yet common. But unless such awareness grows quickly, there will be no debate and no policy. And without debate and policy, we the people are at the mercy of the whims and visions not only of the technology creators, the profit makers, and government and security services, but also of the emergent logic of the technological systems themselves, which may have little to do with what their creators intend.

To start this very necessary and overdue debate, I suggest this proposition: Let us accept that we are becoming cyborgs and welcome cyborgian developments that can give us more control over our own lives. But acceptance of a cyborg future does not equal blind embrace. Thoughtlessly embracing all current developments will turn us into good-natured high-tech puppets, apparently happy as we pursue our perfect selves but gradually losing our autonomy. This is the path to a world made not for the difficult strivings of democracy and civil society, but for the perfectly efficient functioning of the marketplace and the security state.

Seven ways to become wild cyborgs

Children and adults need to retain a healthy degree of wildness, cockiness, playfulness, and sometimes annoying idiosyncrasy. We should aspire to be wild cyborgs. The challenge will be to apply intimate technology in such a way that we become human cyborgs. I propose that we adhere to the following seven theses as a guide to our interactions with technology.

1 Without privacy we are nothing. Our data should therefore belong to us. Without privacy we cannot be free, because we cannot choose to act without our choices and our actions being known and thus subject to unseen influence and reaction. Data about our actions and decisions are continuously captured and funnelled by commercial companies, state authorities, and fellow citizens. The large data owners say that’s not bad, and many users just parrot those words because they “have nothing to hide.” But if that is true, why do these same people lock their front door and not talk publicly about their credit card security code? Too much privacy has been lost in recent years. Many people have unwittingly donated their social data to big companies in return for social media services. It is high time that we swap our childlike acceptance of our loss of privacy and autonomy for a strong adult resistance. That implies consciously dealing with the ownership of our personal data, because they are of great economic, personal, and public value.

Over the coming years, the way we will deal with our biological data provides the litmus test for whether we will be able to keep alive the concept of privacy and ensure that our physical and mental integrity are vouchsafed. The first signs are discouraging. Millions of people have already started to hand out their biological data for free to all kinds of companies. Via sensors built into consumer products such as smartphones and exercise monitors, massive amounts of biological data such as fingerprints (for example, to unlock your iPhone 5s), heart rate, emotions, sleep patterns, and sexual activity can be collected. The Advanced Telecom Research Institute (ATR) showed that wrist bands with accelerometers can be used to track more than a hundred specific actions, such as washing hands or giving an injection, such as performed by nurses, for example. Data on how we walk, collected by smart shoes, can be used to identify us, track our health, and even reveal early signs of dementia. We should rapidly become aware of the richness and potential sensitivity of our biological data, in particular in combination with social data. State security services are very interested in that type of information, and so are companies that want to market their products to you or to make decisions about your eligibility for credit, employment, or insurance. The way we handle the privacy of ourselves and others over the next five years will be decisive for how much privacy future our generations will have. We should realize that by abdicating privacy we will lose our freedom.

2 We must be aware of who is presenting information to us and why. Freedom of choice has always been a central value of both the market economy and democracy. Personalization of the supply of information is putting our online freedom of choice—and we are always online—under pressure. With every click or search, we donate to the Internet service providers information about who we are and what we do. That type of information is used to build up individual user profiles, which in turn allow the providers to continually improve their ability to persuade us to do what is in their commercial or political interest and to tailor such persuasive power for each individual. What makes such propaganda and advertisement different from what we have faced up to now is that it is ubiquitous and often invisible. It can also be covertly prescriptive, pushing us to make certain choices, for example with devices that are getting better and better at mimicking human speech, faces, and behaviors to seduce and fool us. For example, psychology experiments suggest that we are particularly open to persuasion by people who look like us. Digital images of one’s own face can now be mixed, or “morphed,” with a second face from an online advertisement in ways that are not consciously discernible but still increase one’s susceptibility to persuasion. So to protect our freedom of choice we have to be aware of the interests at stake and who benefits when we make the choices we are encouraged to make. We should therefore demand that the organizations behind the devices be transparent about the way our information supply is programmed and how the software and interfaces are being used to influence us. Precedent for how to organize this might be found in health care regulations, which require that medicines be accompanied by information on side effects and that doctors base their actions on the informed consent of their patients. Maybe every app should also have an online information sheet that addresses questions such as: How is this piece of software trying to influence its users? Which algorithms are used, and how are they supposed to work?

3 We must be alert to the right of every person to freely make choices about their lives and ambitions. Individualism forms the foundation of our liberal democratic societies. So to a large extent, it should be up to individuals to choose how to employ intimate technologies for pursuing their aspirations. This position is strongly advocated by groups such as transhumanists, bio-hackers, and quantified “selfers” that promote self-emancipation through technology. But there is no such thing as self-realization untouched by mass media, the market, public opinion, and science and technology. What image of our self are we trying to become, and where does that image come from? Many markets thrive on a popular culture that challenges normal people to become perfect, whatever that means.

We are losing the ability to just be ourselves. As more technical means become available to enhance our outward appearance and physical and mental performance—our wrinkleless skin, our rippling abs, our flamboyant sex life, our laserlike concentration—firms will pursue more effective ways to seduce us to strive for a perfection that they define. Having agreed to let marketers tell us how to dress and wear our hair, are we content to have them define how we ought to shape our bodies and minds? Are we really realizing ourselves if we strive to become “perfect” in the image created by marketers? We need to protect the right to be simultaneously very special and very common, without which we may lose the capacity to accept ourselves and others for what we are. We should cherish our human ambition to strive for our own version of perfection, and also nourish ways to accept our human imperfections.

To stay human we have to keep our social and emotional skills, including our ability to trust in people, at a high level.

4 The acts of loving, parenting, caring for, and killing must remain the strict monopoly of real people. The history of industrial advance has also been a history of machine labor replacing human labor. This history has often been to our benefit, as drudgery and danger have been shifted from humans to machines. But as machines acquire more and more human characteristics, both physical (such as realistic avatars and robots) and mental (such as social and emotional skills), we must collectively start addressing the question of whether all the kinds of human activities that could be outsourced to the machine should be outsourced. I believe we should not outsource to machines certain essential human actions, such as killing, marriage, love, and care for children and the sick. Doing so might provide wonderful examples of human ingenuity, but also the perfect formula for our dehumanization, and thus for a future of loneliness. Autonomous drone killing might be possible someday. But because a machine can never be held accountable, we should ensure that decisions on life and death must always be taken by a human being. As humans we are shaped in our intimate relationships with other humans. For example, caring for others helps us to grow by teaching us empathy for those who need care and the value of sacrifice in our lives. If we start to outsource caring on a large part scale to technology, we run the danger of losing a big of the best part of our humanity.

5 We need to keep our social and emotional skills at a high level. Use it or lose it. We all know that if we don’t exercise our physical body we will lose strength and stamina. This is also true for our social and emotional skills, which are developed and maintained through interaction with other people. We are now entering a stage in which technology is taking on a more active role in the way we interact, measuring our emotions and giving us advice about how to communicate with others. In her book Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less from Each Other, Sherry Turkle, who for decades has been studying the relationships between people and technologies, argues that the frequent use of information technology by young people is already lessening their social skills. Her fear is that our expectations of other people will gradually decrease, as will our need for true friendship and physical encounters with fellow humans.

There are plenty of signs that we should at least take her warnings seriously. What is at stake is our ability to trust our fellow humans. Our belief that someone is reliable, good, and capable is at the core of the most rewarding relationships we have with another human being. Technology can easily undermine our trust in people; think about emotion meters that check the “true” feelings of your partner, or life-logging technology to check whether what someone is telling you is really true. To stay human we have to keep our social and emotional skills, including our ability to have trust in people, at a high level. If we don’t do that, we run the risk that face-to-face communication may become too intimate an adventure and that our trust in other people will be defined and determined by technology.

6 We have the right not to be measured, analyzed, and coached. There is great value in learning things the hard way, by trial and error. In order to be able to gain new perspectives on life, people need to be given the opportunity to make their own, sometimes stupid and painful, mistakes. New information technologies, from smart toothbrushes and Facebook to digital child dossiers and location tracking apps, provide ample opportunities for parents to track the behavior and whereabouts of their children. But by doing so, they deprive their children of the freedom that helps them to develop into independent adults, with all the ups and downs that go with it. Can a child develop in a healthy moral and psychological way if she knows she is continuously spied upon? Does the digital storage of all our “failures” put in danger the right that we must have to make mistakes? The ability to wipe the slate clean, to forgive ourselves and to be forgiven, to learn and move on, is an important condition for our emotional, intellectual, and moral development. This digital age forces us to ask ourselves how to ensure that we preserve the capacity to forget and to be forgiven.

The more general question is whether it will remain possible to stay out of the cybernetic loop of being continuously measured, analyzed, evaluated, and confronted with feedback. Driven by technology and legitimated by fear of terrorism, the reach of the surveillance state has expanded tremendously over the past decade. At the same time, a big-data business culture has developed in which industry takes for granted, in the name of efficiency and customer convenience, that people can be treated as data resources. This culture flourishes in the virtual world, where Internet service providers and game developers have grown accustomed to following every user’s real-time Web behavior. And as with the Internet, shopkeepers can monitor the behaviour of the customers in their physical shops through wifi tracking. Samsung is monitoring our viewing habits via their smart televisions. And if we start to use computer glasses, Samsung and Google may even monitor at whom and what we glance.

The state is surveying its citizens, companies are surveying their customers, citizens survey each other, and parents and schools use all the means available to survey children. Such a surveillance society is built on fear and mistrust and treats people as objects that can and must be controlled. To safeguard our autonomy and freedom of choice, we should strive for the right not to be measured, analyzed, or coached.

7 We must nurture our most precious possession, our focus of attention. Economics tells us that as human attention becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, the commercial battle for our attention will continue to intensify. Today, “real time is the new prime time,” as we incessantly check our email and texts and equally incessantly send out data for others to check. Many new communications media divert our attention away from everyday reality and toward a commercial environment in which each content provider attempts to optimally monopolize our focus. On the Internet, we all have become familiar with commercial ads that are tailored to our preferences. In the near future, smartphones, watches, eyewear, businesses, and a growing circle of digital contacts will each demand more and more of our attention during everyday activities such as shopping, cooking, or running on the beach. And since attention is a scarce resource, paying attention to one thing will come at the expense of our attention to other things. Descartes articulated our essence, “I think therefore I am,” and the digital age forces us to protect our freedom from continual intrusion and interruption, to guard our own unpolluted thoughts, our capacity to reflect on things in our own way, because that is what we really are. We must cherish what is perhaps our most precious possession, the determinant of our individual identities: our ability to decide what to think about or just to daydream.

The intimate technological revolution will remake us by using as raw material data on our metabolism, our communications, our whereabouts, and our preferences. It will provide many wonderful opportunities for personal and social development. Think of serious games for overcoming the fear of flying, treating schizophrenia, or reducing our energy consumption. But the hybridization of ourselves and our technologies, and the political and economic struggle around this process, threaten to destabilize some qualities of our intimate lives that are also among the core foundations of our civil and moral society: freedom, trust, empathy, forgiveness, forgetting, attention. Perhaps there will be a future world where these qualities are not so important, but it will be unlike our world, and from the perspective of our world it is hard to see what might be left of our humanity. I offer the above seven propositions as a good starting point to further discuss and develop the wisdom that we will need to stay human by becoming wild cyborgs in the 21st century.

Rinie van Est () is coordinator of technology assessment at the Rathenau Instituut in the Netherlands.

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Cite this Article

Est, Rinie Van. “A Survival Plan for the Wild Cyborg.” Issues in Science and Technology 30, no. 3 (Spring 2014).

Vol. XXX, No. 3, Spring 2014