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A cyborg, or "cybernetic organism", was initially defined as follows: "The Cyborg deliberately incorporates exogenous components extending the self-regulating control function of the organism in order to adapt it to new environments." This verbose sentence can be simplified to, the cyborg represents "a notion of human-machine merging".
This concept, dear to science fiction writers, is all about humans becoming stronger, faster, and more powerful through the use of integrated technology. One example of this is the cochlear implants used to help deaf people hear again; these implants are more than hearing aids, since they interface directly with nerve endings. Another example is prosthetics, which allow people who have lost limbs in accidents to function almost as before.
Andy Clark, a cognitive scientist, sets out to recount why, in his eyes, "we shall be cyborgs not in the merely superficial sense of combining flesh and wires but in the more profound sense of being human-technology symbionts: thinking and reasoning systems whose minds and selves are spread across biological brain and nonbiological circuitry." This is quite a statement, if you look at it closely: he is suggesting that the systems we will incorporate into our bodies will be thinking systems, that they will merge with our minds, and that they will be come self-aware.
This is not surprising from a cognitive scientist, working at the frontier between mind and machine. As John Foxx of Ultravox sang in the 1970s, "I want to be a machine," Clark seems to have the same desires.
But this book leads the reader off on unexpected paths. Clark takes a long time examining the common idea that mind and body are separate; something that cognitive scientists take great delight in refuting. He then goes on to discuss technology—tools—and how it changes our thought processes. "Mind expanding technologies come in a surprising variety of forms," he says, and gives examples such as the pen, paper, pocket watch and slide rule. It is true that the watch and clock introduced hitherto unknown concepts of time into the minds of men and women, creating a culture where time had a constant value, rather than one of occasional reference. But I cannot accept his suggestion that we are already cyborgs because we write with pens and pencils. Yes, this technology allows your minds to go further, through the ability to set down on paper ideas and events, but the assumption that all tools make us cyborgs seems to be in contrast with received ideas.
Man is a tool-making creature, and always has been. The ability to master a tool allows us to do tasks we couldn't do otherwise. But does a hoe turn a farmer into the Bionic Man? Does a bow and arrow turn a hunter into Terminator? I don't see how Clark takes the concept of the cyborg to include the simple assimilation of tools into our everday lives; he calls these tools "nonpenetrative cyborg technology", and spends a lot of time trying to explain how these objects have become part of our "bodies".
I certainly agree that "various kinds of deep human-machine symbiosis really do expand and alter the shape of the psychological processes that make us who we are." The mere fact that I write this review on a computer allows my mind to think in a different way than if I were writing on paper, in a more linear manner. I am free to jump back and forth, to easily copy and paste sentences from different sections, and to edit on the fly. Writing on paper, with its more rigid structure that prevents such flexible editing, may, however, be better, since the writer must generally think more carefully before setting words down in ink or pencil.
But the reader is led to this book by its promise of integrated technologies, hardware interfaced with wetware. This is far more interesting, and much more futuristic than mere tools. Great strides have been made in such areas, most of which, for the present, address issues of health: pacemakers, cochlear implants, prosthetics; all these have been designed to correct imperfections in the body. But, as Clark suggests, the next generation of cyborg technology will be used to add functions to humans.
The heart of Clark's argument - and, indeed, the profoundest part of the book - comes when he says the following: "There is no self, if by self we mean some central cognitive essence that makes me who and what I am. In its place there is just the "soft self": a rough-and-tumble, control-sharing coalition of processes—some neural, some bodily, some technological..." This type of statement is relatively common among scientists working in this type of arena, and is a shocking idea to many. By nullifying the concept of self, Clark suggests that we are mere machines, that there is no unique element that makes us human; he relegates us to a mass of cells, electrical impulses, and loosely-connected body parts.
This rejection of all that is transcendent in man, of all that is spiritual, is frightening, because it opens the door to many excesses, all of which take for granted that we are nothing special after all. The ethical issues surrounding the cyborgization of man are all too easily swept away by such statements, which admit as a commonplace an idea of such import and reject thousands of years of mankind's history and spiritual growth.
But Clark stops there. After this section, the end of the book looks more at search engines and questions of Internet privacy; he doesn't look at what he promised to examine. He never explores the real questions of how we can become cyborgs; he seems to think it's sufficient to suggest that we will tame the electronics that already exist and integrate them into our thought processes.
This is a shame. Clark is a good writer, and presents his ideas well, but my feeling after reading this book is that it doesn't really fit with its title. While he talks about cyborgs in part of the book, most of it examines related issues. This approach means Natural-Born Cyborgs is an interesting read, but also that the book raises far more questions than it answers.