Up until recently, the basic assumption was that, for a person to become a cyborg, a human-machine hybrid, it would automatically mean that the person would be fusing with machine parts. The whole romance behind becoming a cyborg is that by becoming to a significant extent non-organic, a person could escape the dangers of organic perishability, and somehow live forever. Particularly, to the extent that the mechanical parts of the cyborg would start to break down, the cyborg person could then replace these parts with other new parts, something that would be so much easier to do than trying to regrow parts organically. And anyway, there is something that seems hard and impervious and enduring about the substance of a body part made out of metal or plastic.
But I was recently acquainted with another notion of what it means to be a human-machine combination by an article in the online magazine Live Science. Live Science contributor, Charles Q Choi has written an article about a relatively new approach to solving problems. The article: “Real-Life Mind Meld? Scientists Link Animal Brains” (7/9/15) deals with experiments carried out by neurobiologist Miguel Nicolelis at Duke University and his colleagues that link the brains of rats together through implanted microscopic wires, little electrodes, and allow for direct communication between these rat brains even though separated by large distances. So the brains of the rats aren’t literally wired together and, in experiments of Nicolelis, actually are on different continents. The wires allow for the exchange of data among rats leading to the solving of problems. It is like the linked rats become one large organic computer. In one experiment, rats found that if they synchronized the electrical activity in their brains, they could succeed in obtaining water. In another experiment, wired groups of rats – or brainets as they are so cutely called – developed a heightened capacity for basic recognition of patterns. They learned to somehow synchronize their brain activity when one kind of stimulus was given to them and desynchronize their brain activity when another kind of stimulus was given to them.. This heightened sensitivity is somehow supposed to have a useful application in predicting the probability of rain. The sensitivity relates to different patterns of electrical stimulation corresponding to increased and decreased temperature and increased and decreased air pressure. Brainets of rats predicted rain in North Carolina with a 41% accuracy, which is a rate of accuracy that goes way beyond a chance prediction.
Rhesus macaque monkeys – animals much closer in evolutionary development to humans than rats – have also been used for some of these brainet experiments. In one experiment, either two or three monkeys were teamed up to operate different functions of an artificial monkey arm. Each monkey in a team was actually in a different room, so the only communication was through the brain wires. Each monkey was in charge of different functions in moving an arm (up and down, left and right, in and out). The team of monkeys would get a reward of a little juice for moving an arm together towards a target. They were able to do this after a long period of training.
The question is why is Miguel Nicolelis interested in creating brainets, and ultimately in creating organic computers. Nicolelis has discussed connecting paralyzed people with healthy people, so that the paralyzed people could learn how to activate their bodies again. He also feels that the notion of brainets could help stroke victims, people with epilepsy, and people with various other neurological problems.
This all may be true, but it involves a person losing the personal boundaries of his consciousness. And in most other life situations, this loss of personal boundaries can be very threatening to a person maintaining his personal sense of wholeness. Even a serf or a slave that is worked terribly hard under wretched conditions maintains his personal mental boundaries, his sense of being a coherent figure, if nothing else as a result of the discomfort and pain that he feels. The builders of the pyramids of Egypt may have operated as one large organic physical entity, but not as one large organic mental entity.
When a person becomes a cyborg as the result of fusion with machine parts, he is diminishing the coherence and integrity of his organic sense of self, but he is not temporarily losing himself in blending with another coherent organic self, as is the case with brainets. And once a person’s sense of self is temporarily blended as a part of a brainet with another person’s sense of self, does either person’s sense of self ever fully recover its organic coherence and its strong personal boundaries? Again, a serf or a slave is forced to give up a lot of his personal dignity, particularly in some societies, in doing the ongoing drudge work he frequently has to do. But he still somehow maintains his personal mental boundaries. Perhaps a better analogy to the situation of brainets is a person who has been brainwashed by a totalitarian society, fundamentalist religion, or a cult. In these cases, a person’s thoughts are to some extent retrained to be in synchrony with those of the people in the community that surrounds him. In all of these cases, there is definitely a deep penetration of a person’s psychological boundaries, but because these communities still do not have the impelling force of electronic signals going directly from one brain to another, they are not quite as invasive.
Once the boundaries of a person’s sense of self are penetrated as a result of participating in a brainet, that penetration will remain a part of the person’s memories and will remain a part of a person’s projected development into the future. The temporary loss of a person’s self- boundaries will blur into his ongoing sense of self and will prevent a total reintegration of his self-boundaries. The person will never be as whole again.
We must keep in mind that the researchers developing these brainet experiments are hoping to ultimately be able to develop “organic computers” where animal brains would be connected by the use of wires for different purposes. And if this can happen with animals, why not with humans. What a wonderful tool organic computers would be for dictatorships, for totalitarian governments, even for large multi-national companies, where people from different continents could be wired together for the supposed purposes of inventing new products or creating new marketing strategies. What if workers in these companies could be coerced into participating in organic computers, if they wanted to keep their jobs?
This represents a different way for a person to become machine-like that is distinct from becoming a cyborg. Instead of a person fusing directly with functional machine parts, the machine parts being used – namely the wires – act as conduits for a person merging with other person or persons for functional machine purposes.
But the brainet may be more emblematic of what has already been happening in a symbolic way in modern technological society. We have been moving toward the idea of large organic computers for a long time. Again, the large symbolic organic computers I am talking about are based on social organization and not microscopic wires and therefore do not use the same intensity of brain penetration as the brainets. But they have been moving in the same direction that leads to the loss of individual mental integrity. Communist societies and modern capitalist societies haven’t needed brainets to accomplish many similar goals. In communist societies, the state has acted as one large organic computer, where people are brainwashed into giving up their individuality and devoting themselves to promoting the economic power of the state through large work projects that demand working in synchrony. In some modern capitalist societies, companies have expected absolute loyalty, as people work to promote the collective imprint of the company. Nowadays, a new attitude has developed where people are supposed to temporarily give themselves up to a company, working in synchrony long hours often without overtime pay, and then are vulnerable to dismissal when a particular project is finished. In both communist societies and modern capitalist societies, people are symbolically wired together, synchronizing their tasks, partaking of larger strategies, temporarily or permanently giving up a large part of their sense of self to become a part of one enormous ball of mental energy, one enormous merger of consciousness. It is just that the metaphorical wiring together that we experience in today’s work place doesn’t require implanted wires. It doesn’t have to. Symbolic organic computers are already here.
(c) 2015 Laurence Mesirow