Courtesy of Flickr / Tom Rolfe

May 12, 2020

YANG | Hey, Stephen, Are We Cyborgs Now?

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Reading the farewell articles of fellow arts columnists evoked a sense of closure during this time of lingering unknown. As I continue to feel perplexed by the new way of living, it soothed my soul to feel the temporality of life again.

My perception of what it means to be human has been vehemently challenged by the onslaught of radical changes. I began to feel an emerging dichotomy between my body and my mind. It feels like a Kafka-esque nightmare – except that I don’t feel like or see myself as a bug, at least not yet. It just feels that everything is less real than it was. The notion of reality became fuzzy and reshaped the meaning of life into a metamorphosing enigma.

Our society has gotten closer to an Orwellian panopticon. With our bodies being constrained in our dwellings in a networked fashion, the mediation of everything communicated has become the reality of life. We are ubiquitously connected to others. Our lives are enhanced and accelerated but also monitored and secluded with the pervasive integration of new mediums. These mediums — from the Internet, mobile phones, Instagram, to Animal Crossing — have become the main carriers through which we manifest our thoughts. We’re now primarily connected to one another through the extension of our minds. Our physical beings are rendered peripheral to texts and images. We “code” to communicate with one another in languages that are artificial to us. We constantly engage in the debugging effort of trials and errors with our meticulously-crafted messages on Tinder. We reconstruct our identities with avatars that do not look like us.

So, Stephen, are we cyborgs now?

We could be. Our new way of living has further obscured the line between humans and machines. As we co-exist with machines in our techno-social systems, we collectively function as hybrids of machines and organisms. We are now as real as human beings in 2020 but also as surreal as cyborgs in science fiction. Just think of how the inundation of notifications mediated through Canvas has rendered our presence at home unearthly. We are living in a society of cybernetic control. The roots of our very physical existence are now intertwined with the machine of surveillance. With heat sensing technologies, we may be surveilled into existence solely with our body heat, and we cannot cease being warm bodies, not even with the biotech we have now.

Perhaps our generation has always been a generation of cyborg natives. The cyborg way of living has become an infrastructural part of our life. If we have co-existed as cybernetic constructions of humans and machines in the past, what do today’s mediums tell us? Marshall McLuhan’s renowned phrase — “the medium is the message” — might be the answer. The media philosopher has framed the postmodern way to think of the affordances of different mediums. His critique fundamentally speaks to how the form of a message largely determines the ways in which that message will be perceived. In this respect, this column is a particular medium that delivers a particular form of message in a particular way, and the message will be reached by a particular audience and interpreted through a particular lens, all due to the unique quality of the medium.

It is perhaps more pertinent to reimagine our cybernetics as a way of living. We should pay closer attention to how we want to be afforded by new mediums and what we want these mediums to shy away from. If we now function as hybrids of humans and machines, we should guild the machines and design them to attend to our needs. The formation of an Orwellian hellscape is directly afforded by our use of the new mediums, and by no means is this an inevitable trajectory of technological advancement.

I spent the past year writing about how new mediums have afforded new possibilities and narratives in contemporary arts and entertainment. I tried to historicize the past and imagine the future of technoculture. This unprecedented new era has afforded me the opportunity to reflect on my own thoughts, in a sense that my column and I have gone on separate journeys of self-discovery that are equally messy. Since then, I began to feel that this column has evolved from a self-righteous monologue by Stephen to a dialogue between my mind and my words. We’ll see what conversation we will have the next time we talk. For the time being, stay safe and stay resilient to the Orwellian hellscape.

 

Stephen Yang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at syang@cornellsun.com. Rewiring Technoculture runs alternate Tuesdays this semester.