Saturday, August 23, 2014

Take a Pill! Become a Robot!

            Discussions in this column have focused on two distinct influences in the transformation of humans into robots.  First, there is the mirroring and modeling that occurs when people interact with all the complex machines and computers and robots that surround them.  In particular, machines, computers and robots mirror back to people how they are defective in functioning like technology and then people start modeling themselves after the technology in order to overcome the ostensive defects.

            Second, as more and more people start living long enough to have different parts of their body wear out, they start replacing those parts with prosthetic pieces. Prosthetic body parts are also used to replace human body parts that have been damaged or destroyed by accidents or war.   Although, on one level, this represents a promising development in medical treatment, on another level, this represents the beginning of the gradual transformation of humans into cyborgs.  Granted that prostheses perform important services in helping people who have lost certain functioning to be able to develop at least part of that functioning again.  Nevertheless, there is a spillover effect from these prostheses, a blurring of boundaries, that spreads the machine influence from a prosthesis to the rest of the person’s body.  It is not just that the prosthesis becomes integrated into a person’s organic body.  It is also that the whole organic body adapts itself and integrates into the prosthesis.

            One influence I haven’t discussed is the mechanical exoskeleton frame being developed to help paralyzed people to walk.  Again, it performs a very important service, and again, it creates an even greater blurring of boundaries that makes the whole body feel like a machine.

            A really insidious influence of technology over people is the use of pills that indirectly turn people into machines.  Again, the ostensive purposes of these pills are not to robotize humans but to perform important functions for them.  But the way people experience the effects of these pills is inevitably going to change their self-image such that they start to experience themselves more like robots.

            One of these pills is the Proteus pill, so called because a U.S. company, Proteus, is developing it.  The pill contains a microchip.  It is swallowed at the same time that a person takes medication.  The purpose of the pill is to send data from a person’s stomach to a smartphone or a tablet to indicate that he has indeed taken the medicine he is required to take.  Also, the time and date are sent as well.  The way the pill works is that when it hits the stomach, stomach acid activates a sensor which sends information to a patch on the person’s skin, which in turn sends information via a blue tooth to a smartphone or tablet. The target markets for the Proteus pill initially are children and older people, people who may tend to forget if or when they took their medicine.  But other uses are also being considered for this pill including the regulation of different bodily functions like blood pressure.

            So what is wrong with what I’m describing?  After all, the principal purpose of the pill is to help certain groups of people stay healthy and even alive.  Doesn’t this represent a positive development in health care?  Well, yes and no.  To the extent that it transforms a person in his interior into an ongoing source of defined discrete data, the person is turned into a machine.  His flowing continual internal bodily processes are transformed into discrete measurable events that in turn are transformed into discrete data that connect the person with machine systems outside of himself.  The person is subtly transformed into a machine that is being constantly regulated by the caretakers that are monitoring him.

            Eventually, more and more aspects of human physiology may become susceptible to such monitoring and potential regulation.  The people who take this pill will constantly be measured to make sure they are functioning smoothly and correctly.  And they will begin to lose their sense of organic cohesion, as they become broken down experientially into a series of different quantified processes.  Without a sense of organic cohesion, there is a loss of a coherent sense of self in a person and a weakening of the will.  The more that people are being constantly monitored by external caretakers for both voluntary processes like taking pills and involuntary processes like blood pressure, the more they lose their integrity as organisms and their sense of any direct control over their destiny.  People normally maintain a coherent sense of self and a coherent independent will as a result of ongoing continual organic stimuli.  They are not meant to simply comprise a series of fragmented functions and to be an entity that is constantly being monitored so that he can be potentially constantly acted upon.  When children are very young and old people are very senile, there is less concern about a coherent sense of self or a strong independent will.  So caretakers can monitor the taking of pills and the bodily functions in less physically intrusive ways, because they are with the patients all the time.  And for older children and for more cognitively aware older people, such constant monitoring through the Proteus pill will diminish the predisposition to function more independently.  It will diminish personal responsibility and personal growth in older children.  They will be under a constant cloud of a lack of independence.  And for more cognitively aware older people, loss of responsibility could actually trigger a gradual loss in their independent functioning in daily life.

            Aware children and aware older people need a narrative in their lives.  What can keep them alive is not only their medications, but also taking some responsibility and absorbing the risks involved with making sure they take their medications on schedule.  Also, the awareness that internalized microchips are allowing external caretakers to constantly monitor bodily function so that the patient can be constantly tinkered with like an old jalopy is going to weaken the patient’s self-image and his independent will, as he becomes as much an entity that is acted upon as an entity that is an assertive actor.  As a patient’s sense of self and independent will become weaker, his overall life force will weaken and his overall capacity to stay healthy and to stay alive will weaken.

            Another pill with a microchip is a password pill being developed by Motorola.  This pill is potentially for everyone.  A person swallows this pill and the stomach acid activates a chip to turn on a computer and other digital devices.  In other words, the stomach acid acting on the microchip replaces the use of the password.  It is thought that people can too easily forget their passwords and hackers can too easily discover them.  Evidently, no one can too easily replace the chemical composition of an individual’s stomach acid.  It is said that, in effect, the person becomes his own password.  I think that a person becomes more like a physical mechanism that, once activated by the equivalent of a password in the stomach acid, in turn activates the digital device.  So the microchip, in effect, transforms a human into a machine.

            Here we get back to the answer I gave as to whether the Proteus pill represented a positive development.  I said yes and no.  I would have to give the same response for the Password pill.  Given the fact that digital devices play such an important role in modern society, it is nice to think that we could develop an effective solution with regard to forgetfulness, on the one hand, and hackers in connection to passwords on the other.  The solution is the discrete focused activity of stomach acid acting on a microchip in a person’ stomach.  The side effect is the blendable continual experience a person has of becoming machine-like.  A person’s grounding as an organism, rooted in the blendable flowing continual processes of nature is disrupted.  This will lead to a subtle disruption and breakdown in his coherent sense of self and his independent will.  His conscious mind and his directed willful activity won’t be in control of the solution to his problem of protected passwords.  The microchip he swallows will be in control.  The person blurs with the digital devices he is using.  He becomes part of the digital technological system he is engaging.

            In general, there is a pattern to modern technological solutions.  A human action precipitates a technological event or a series of technological events and this creates an atmosphere in which a person experiences a disruption of his grounding in the world.  This disruption, in turn requires a reconfiguration of the person to become numb and hardened – like a machine – in order that he can survive the sensory distortion in which he is placed.  Then the person starts to identify with the device or devices with which he is interacting.  He blurs together with the device or devices.

            This pattern will become particularly apparent when a person swallows a pill and becomes the equivalent of a mechanical switch.  There is a price to be paid for the conveniences which these pills offer.  And the price can affect the very essence of who we are as humans.
(c) 2014 Laurence Mesirow