Smartphones Have Turned Us into Cyborgs

According to Pew Research Center, 94 percent of adults ages 18-29 own a smartphone. This puts most of us just seconds away from the internet. On average, according to the University of Southern California Annenberg, we spend 24 hours online every week. Given how inseparable we are from our digital devices, I would call ourselves cyborgs — beings with biological and mechanical parts. Our smartphones are a technological extension of our bodies, and the internet an extension of our minds. This has implications for how we should understand smartphone apps and our relationship to the Earth.

The sense of panic a smartphone user feels when the device is about to die, the way that we talk about the battery running out of power, and the loss of self we feel when separated from our smartphones reveal our cyborg nature. The needs of our smartphones become our needs as well; charging our smartphones becomes more than habit. Similarly, many of us turn to the internet when we have a question about the world. The internet is our second brain. These trends are not new. The smartphone is just the newest iteration of a tradition of blending technology with our biology. We used primarily to consult books or each other. Now, we have the internet as well.

The idea that we are cyborgs precedes the rise of the internet and smartphones. For example, Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” draws on the idea of humans as cyborgs to extend feminist thought; she is able to do this due to the 20th-century collapse of boundaries between humans and animals, organisms and machines, and the physical and non-physical. Cyborg imagery allows Haraway to productively challenge dualisms like nature/culture and male/female. While Haraway does not connect the cyborg to the inseparability of humans and technology, her manifesto seems prescient in beginning to consider the feminist implications of the cyborg.

Because our technology is inseparable from us, we should treat the nonliving world with care and care about how we are designed. Animism provides one method of acknowledging the relationship we have with our technology. The religious belief of animism treats both living and nonliving matter as alive. For instance, Marie Kondo’s tidying methods, which incorporate aspects of Japanese Shintoism, require you to thank the items you discard. In doing so, we recognize that everything has a spirit. By adopting practices that reject the object/subject dualism and insist on respect for all, living and nonliving, we can address many of society’s ills. For example, the linear lifecycle of products cannot be sustained on a finite planet. By respecting all matter, living and nonliving, we can begin to develop a consciousness of where our goods came from and where discarded goods go.

We must take seriously how parts of ourselves and our world are being designed. Not only for the sake of the environment, but for the sake of ourselves. For example, social media is used by 88 percent of those ages 18-29 and plays a major role in our lives. Yet, we do not formally learn about how to use these parts of ourselves in a constructive way. Social media is designed to keep us hooked. The barrage of likes and favorites and retweets is meant to keep us coming back. If we really are cyborgs, this becomes a question of bodily autonomy. Corporations are designing our cyber body parts with the intention of keeping us from living offline lives. It is our responsibility to hold them accountable for doing this.

As cyborgs, we should reconsider the ever-blurring relationship between our technology and ourselves. Animism provides a useful framework that allows us to avoid destroying the Earth. Inquiries into how our cyber bodies and minds are being designed are crucial to understanding ourselves and what we should do.

2 comments

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    Joe Griego says:

    Interesting point regarding animism. If it frames a more thoughtful approach to technology design and lifecycle, then sure, why not? As we are living through the digitization of the sum of human knowledge right now, we are having the same identity crisis as those who lived through the transfer of the previous sum of human knowledge from oral tradition to the written word. That also required that society maintain a minimum level of technology (to build printing presses, and keep them running), and so I would imagine that those alive during that transition wondered the same thing. That is, who are we without the required technology? Turns out, with few minor exceptions, we haven’t fallen below the required technology threshold for storing the sum of human knowledge in books. Will the digital age continue along the same technological trajectory? If we digitize our collective knowledge, it’ll require power, processing, storage, and networking that can never fall below our current level. As you ask, will the designers benevolent going forward? Do they give a thought to what society will become through their design decisions? Guess what – it sounds as if it is your generation that will be making those decisions – good luck to you, and keep us geezers in mind.

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