Current Weather
The Spy FM

Making Peace With Our Cyborg Nature

Filed by KOSU News in Science.
August 26, 2012

I loved the TV show The Six-Million Dollar man growing up. For me, Steve Austin (played by Lee Majors) wasn’t less cool because he had bionic implants that enabled him to perform superhuman feats. He was more cool.

For millions of years, our ancestors survived with only the crudest implements. Some 35,000 to 75,000 years ago, a technological revolution took place on an extraordinary scale. Innovation now abounds in the archeological record. Whereas before, generation after generation used the same blunt pounding tools, now we find highly refined instruments for cutting. And we find tools for making tools. We find an increased diversity of building materials and evidence of real specialization in tool use and tool making. We can also date back to this time the emergence of graphic art, clothing and, we speculate, language.

What explained this burst of technological progress? Did we get smarter? Or did denser populations, trade and other changes in our mode of living make it possible, for the first time, to build on each generation’s innovations?

However we answer these questions, this much is clear: The appearance of cognitively modern human beings is coeval with the integration of human living with the innovative and productive use of tools. We are truly the tool-using species, not because we are the only species to use tools, but because the use of tools is essential to what we are. Tools organize us.

We see this everywhere we look. You can only frame a thought about a negative integer thanks to the availability of our shared notational tools. Science, art, law, politics — can we imagine any of this without writing? Can we imagine ourselves in the absence of all this? The simple answer is that we cannot.

We like to think that here is the person and there the tools he or she uses to solve this or that problem. But in fact, the tools are internal to the kind of lives we live, and so to the kinds of problems we face. If we lacked shoes and cars and planes, we couldn’t carry on the kinds of projects that we do.

Or, think of the way that communication technology organizes a workplace. Remove the communication technology — phones, email, social networking software — and you don’t have the same organization minus the technology. You have something different, something disorganized.

Whether we think of knowledge, or communication, or perception, or medicine, or commerce, or the arts, we live in a vast web of organized human exchanges and shared practices. We are technologists by nature. Or to use philosopher Andy Clark’s apt phrase: We are natural-born cyborgs.

The point is not just that we couldn’t do what we do without tools. The point is that we couldn’t think what we think or see what we see without tools. We wouldn’t be what we are without tools. Making tools, changing tools, is a way of making new ways of being. Technologies are evolving patterns of human organization.

Consider: We are animals who can digest milk. But only because we first domesticated milk-bearing animals. When we did that, just a few thousand years ago, we genetically engineered ourselves!

So let us turn now to the case of Lance Armstrong. He is a trailblazer. One of the greats. He didn’t win races on his own. No, like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, one drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, and that no one ever had, before him.

That we now attack him, and tear him down, and try to minimize his achievements … what does this tell us about ourselves?

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter @alvanoe [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio]

Leave a Reply

6AM to 7AM On Being

On Being

On Being engages listeners across the spectrum of belief and non-belief in conversation about life's deepest questions. From autism to the ethics of torture, Krista and her guests reach beyond the headlines to probe faith and meaning, ethics and new ways of being, amidst the political, ecological, economic, cultural and technological shifts that define 21st century life.

Listen Live Now!

8AM to 10AM Weekend Edition

Weekend Edition

Weekend Edition Sunday premiered on January 18, 1987, and was the last of NPR's major newsmagazines to hit air. Since then, Weekend Edition Sunday has covered newsmakers and artists, scientists and politicans, music makers of all kinds, writers, thinkers, theologians and all manner of news events.

View the program guide!

9AM to 10PM Sound Opinions

Sound Opinions

Take two nationally respected rock critics, the latest music news, personal commentary, and exclusive interviews and performances, add a huge pile of records old and new, and the result is Sound Opinions-the world's only rock and roll talk show.

View the program guide!

Upcoming Events in your area (Submit your event today!)

Streaming audio and podcasts

Stream KOSU on your smartphone

Phone Streaming

SmartPhone listening options on this page are intended for many iPhones, Blackberries, etc. with low-cost software applications available to listen to our full-time web streams, both News on KOSU-1 and Classical on KOSU-2.

Learn more about our complete range of streaming services

We're perfecting the patient experience - Stillwater Medical Center