Saturday, May 10, 2014

Wearing Your Computer Next To The Skin

            In a previous article, I wrote about the possibility that some authoritarian government might find the means to start planting computer chips in the brains of its citizens in order to better control them.  These computer chips would be of the type that are found in all the sensor mechanisms of the Internet of Things: the passport chips, credit card chips, clothing tag chips, etc.

            Such a possibility goes against everything people stand for as free independent citizens living in a democracy.  And inside our minds, we say that could never happen here, that won’t happen here.  That would truly be a revolution in how human beings would be configured and perceived.

            But other things are already happening that are gradually changing how humans are configured and perceived without requiring any internal physical alteration of the human essence.  People can merge experientially with technological devices without actually merging physically with them.  I am talking about the whole world of wearable computers: devices that are worn by a person so that the person is constantly interacting with computer technology.  The most well-known of such devices is Google Glass – a device that goes over the head, that performs many different computer operations, but that essentially reinterprets human primary experience in terms of computer information.

            There are many people that see this development as something fundamentally positive.  They like the idea that humans are merging with machines.  After all, unlike the computer chip implants about which I speculate, people are free to physically separate at any moment from their wearable computers, and become free-standing, organic mammalian human beings again.  In modern democracies, wearable computers don’t create obvious inalterable changes in people that would destroy freedom.  At least, that is the way it would appear to be upon first examination of the matter.

            Merging with machines is something that gives some people a sense of immortality.  Being made partially at least of plastic and/or metal rather than simply of perishable organic flesh means that one has transcended above perishable nature and has found a way to preserve the imprint of his existence into an indefinite future that is experienced as eternity.

            Nevertheless, there are unforeseen effects of wearing computer devices on an ongoing basis.  These devices increasingly mediate the primary experience world of a person such that he becomes reconfigured to absorb primarily the defined discrete stimuli of computer data.  In other words, not only does a person become more open to these defined discrete stimuli and more able to absorb them, but he becomes less and less capable of absorbing the organic blendable flowing continual stimuli of immediate sensory experience.  In other words, he becomes more and more dependent on these wearable computer devices to even stay connected to an external world.  This is where it could be said that a person becomes uncontrollably a part of the network of shallow-bonding computer devices that surround him in his modern technological living environment.

            I have defined modern machines as those phenomena that come into action exclusively through defined discrete stimuli.  The newer machines being built as they are with digital technology, with different combinations of discrete ones and discrete zeroes, are made to act with precise movements to correspond to particular combinations of these digits.  And wearable computer devices produce ongoing precise computer data as the product of the defined discrete stimuli of combination of digits.  It is these data that provide the stimuli that can move modern humans to action.  As people start using wearable computers more and more, they will become gradually reconfigured to respond more and more to these data to the exclusion of  organic blendable flowing continual stimuli.  Unlike smartphones, which have to be turned on and off, activated and deactivated, wearable computers are always on.  The smart glasses, the watches, the arm bands, the bracelets, the rings, and even the clothing are not implanted in a person the way a computer chip from the Internet of Things would be.  But experientially, the wearable computers become a part of the person.

            With their computer data, wearable computers create an overlay of stimuli that simply diminishes the importance of primary experience in a person’s life.  The connection to primary experience is weakened.  The ongoing perception of the computer information overlay prevents the deep-bonding with any sensory phenomena.

            In one manifestation of the augmented reality of the computer information overlay, one can get computer information from smart glasses as an overlay describing something one is looking at directly.  Just as one gets a brief description to explain each painting in a museum exhibition, so data can be brought up by smart glasses to give verbal data on anything one is seeing.

            Imagine this being done with people.  One could look at a person and, through facial recognition, find out all the salient points of his life history.  A lot of people have a lot of personal information being displayed on Facebook, LinkedIn and Google.  It would represent an incredible invasion of privacy, an incredible breaking down of boundaries of sense of self.

            In another manifestation of augmented reality, wearable computers can transmit images in real time of a person while he is living his life.  In such a case, a person is voluntarily giving up his own privacy for a sustained period of time.  In the process, he weakens the boundaries of his sense of self.  Much more than posting his thoughts on Facebook to his hundreds of Facebook friends, a person, in this case, is posting his life.  And we’re not talking about posting special performances, as when a person posts songs from a concert or a studio recording on You Tube.  We’re talking about posting ordinary trivial life actions.

            In still another manifestation of augmented reality, a swimmer or a runner can get information from goggles regarding their bodily stress reactions while they are in a race.  In that way, they can pace themselves accordingly.  In my opinion, in such a case, a medal should be given to the best computer device as well as the best athlete, ha ha.

            All of this truly represents the destruction of human nature as we have known it up until now.  We don’t have to wait for the hypothetical implanting of computer chips in the brain to realize that with wearable computers, we are approaching a time of real merger of humans and machines.  The person side of this merger goes through profound changes.  As the wearable computer increasingly mediates the interaction of the person with his field of experience, it is this computer that does the prehensile grabbing of direct experience, while the person sees the world passively and flat through the screen with the computer data.  It is the machine that becomes the assertive partner in the external involvement, while the person wearing the machine becomes the passive recipient of experience.

            Before we fully embrace these seemingly harmless little accessory devices, we better think through the situation carefully.  It is true that some of these devices have simple focused purposes like monitoring the heart rate for a person with heart problems.  But most of the more commercial devices totally disrupt a person’s journey through life as a human being.  These are the ones to particularly watch out for.

(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow

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