World Wide Mind

Books / by Michael Chorost /

For an author with cochlear implants, the merger of computer and brain, bytes and thoughts, has never felt far-fetched. In a brilliant new book, Michael Chorost makes his case: by making the internet a new nervous system for humanity, humans will also re-connect with one another in a profoundly new way.

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I also aim to imagine how to sustain the life-affirming properties of human contact and community in the face of such powerful and addictive technologies. They will not improve the quality of human life if they only bury people even further into their electronic shells. Practically every week some magazine runs a story about how email, cell phones, texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc., etc., have diminished the quality of face-to-face communication. In 2009 the New York Times profiled a family of six in which every member, including the five-year old, starts the day by grabbing a nearby electronic gadget instead of talking to each other. There is nothing new about the fear that technology is harming human interaction. People philosophized and worried about telegraphs and telephones in very much the same way that people now philosophize and worry about the Internet. In an 1880 novel titled Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes two telegraph operators carried on a very politely Victorian version of cybersex and pondered whether they had a “real” relationship. Going back even further, Plato fretted about the impact of writing on human interaction 2,400 years ago in the Phaedrus. (To see that writing is a technology, consider what it would take for you to create a pen, ink, and paper on your own.) Plato argued that unlike its author, a written text could not engage in conversation; if questioned it would simply give the same answer again. Knowledge only truly exists in human interaction, he said. He concluded that by seducing people into believing that they can obtain knowledge from solitary reading, the written word threatens human ties.

The debate about technology’s effects on social interaction has been around for so long that it is essentially technology-independent. I see it as being about the tension between conflicting desires for autonomy and community. On the one hand we want to be autonomous, and seek space and privacy. On the other hand we want to be known and loved, and seek intimacy and community. These desires are in constant conflict. By constantly introducing new ways to be alone and together, technology keeps renewing the conflict. The conflict endures through the millennia; only the specific technologies change.

Rather than try to resolve the conflict, I want to transcend it by introducing a new perspective. For our two hemispheres, the distinction between autonomy and unity is meaningless because fast communication makes them effectively a single entity. In a similar way, the direct connection of brains to each other would transform the very terms of the debate. We would have to rethink what it means to be an individual and what it means to be part of a community. What would happen if we had the emotional equivalent of Twitter in our heads every waking moment? What if we could communicate nonverbally with people while dreaming? Bizarre-sounding ideas, to be sure, but exchanging 133 or more written messages in one day would have sounded equally bizarre just a few years ago. Teenagers’ conceptions of communication and community are already very different from their parents’.

If humans and machines become integrated in ways that let people
communicate collectively, it would trigger a vast reconfiguration in how
people define personal boundaries. Such a reconfiguration is already
under way, in fact, with many people revealing deeply personal information
on Facebook and Twitter. As New York magazine put it, “More
young people are putting more personal information out in public
than any older person ever would . . . In essence, every young person in
America has become, in the literal sense, a public figure.”

Similarly, notions of identity and selfhood are changing. Psychologists
worry that nonstop texting makes it harder for teenagers to define
themselves as autonomous individuals, since they are constantly
engaged with messages at the cost of exploring their own selves. But I
argue that what is really happening is a redefinition of selfhood rather
than its simple diminution. In the 1950s the philosopher Pierre Teilhard
de Chardin suggested that individuality would be enhanced, not weakened,
by collective communication. Later in this book I discuss his ideas
in detail.

Still, writing dozens if not hundreds of messages per day cannot
help but take away time from introspection, conversation, and the intimacy
of personal connection. Physical presence and touch are crucial
to development and health, and we ignore them at our peril. Even with
interlinked brains we would still be mammals with mammalian instincts
and needs. I argue that uniting technology with the body would address
some of the problems that bedevil us now, such as incessant distraction
and near-addiction to a flood of incoming messages. And if done right,
connecting the human body directly to the Internet would make online
communication as personal as face-to-face communication. Counterintuitively,
it will become possible to combine electronic connection with
physical presence, making them complement each other. Today, online
technologies are “dis-enchanting”; they pull people apart. Tomorrow,
they could be “enchanting” in that they pull people together.

Enchantment is a special and rare experience. When one is “enchanted”
with someone, one becomes fully aware of his spark, his personhood, his
uniqueness, his physicality. One does not experience the dissociation and
abstraction so often created by today’s electronic technologies. But when
enchantment happens in today’s world, it is usually only a one-on-one
experience. One is spellbound by a lecturer, infatuated with a lover, in harmony
with a co-worker. Collective enchantment, on the other hand, has
become relatively rare. In collective enchantment, one feels in harmony
with a group. Not overpowered by it, as in mobs or fascistic rallies, but
acutely attuned to it and contributing to it. This is what happens in the
dance, the symphony, the team collaboration. It does not happen online,
because that is precisely where the body disappears. But if the body could
be integrated with the Internet, in such a way that one feels what others
feel and sees what others see, then the possibility of collective enchantment
returns. And enchantment in a richer, deeper way, and on a larger
scale, than has ever been possible before.

But that kind of physical and electronic connection is going to require
a profound readjustment of the boundaries of privacy. How much of
ourselves we are willing to show, and how much of each other are we
willing to see? I am going to suggest that in order to make intimate electronic
communication work, we will have to teach people how to do it.
Deliberately, systematically, mindfully.

I was bereft when my BlackBerry died. It impressed on me how separate
the Internet is from the human body, and how much I felt that separation
when I lost access to it. So in this book I talk about overcoming
that separateness from the world of information. But my BlackBerry’s
demise also made me think hard about my reduction of face-to-face
connection with other human beings. So I tell a parallel, personal story
about intimacy. I rediscovered how to become enchanted with people. I
went to communication workshops in northern California, which were
resolutely and radically nontechnological. I moved to Gallaudet for a
year to learn American Sign Language in an effort to connect with other
deaf people in a language purely of the body, and also to get to know
Regina better. While this book is about connecting people via technology,
it is also a romance about friends, about a woman, and about what
humanity can become.
         


About the Author:
Michael Chorost is a technology theorist with an unusual perspective: his body is the future. In 2001 he went completely deaf and had a computer implanted in his head to let him hear again. This transformative experience inspired his first book, Rebuilt: How Becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human, in which he wrote about how mastering his new ear, a cochlear implant, enabled him to enhance his creative potential as a human being. Dr. Chorost earned his B.A. at Brown University and studied computer programming, Renaissance drama, and cultural theory on the way to his Ph.D. at UT-Austin. He doesn’t draw sharp lines between programming, science, writing, and art; to him, these are all profoundly creative human endeavors. (Read more.)

Originally published March 28, 2011

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