Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer

Overview

cyborg, n. a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.

Steve Mann is a cyborg. He sees the entire world, including himself, through a video lens. He can control what he sees, liberating his imaginative space from the visual stimuli -- billboards and flashing neon signs -- that threaten to overwhelm us. While recognizing the danger that human beings could be controlled by technology and the corporations that produce it...

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Overview

cyborg, n. a person whose physiological functioning is aided by or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.

Steve Mann is a cyborg. He sees the entire world, including himself, through a video lens. He can control what he sees, liberating his imaginative space from the visual stimuli -- billboards and flashing neon signs -- that threaten to overwhelm us. While recognizing the danger that human beings could be controlled by technology and the corporations that produce it for profit, Mann is also fascinated by the vast possibilities presented by the wearable computer.

In Cyborg, Mann articulates a vision for a future in which humanity is freer, safer, and smarter in ways most of us can only imagine. Part biography, part breath-taking manifesto, part startling look into the very near future, Cyborg is a powerful book that challenges preconceptions and invites readers to enter the mind of one of the most fascinating thinkers of our time.

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780385658263
  • Publisher: Doubleday Canada
  • Publication date: 9/17/2002
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.55 (w) x 8.69 (h) x 0.78 (d)

Meet the Author

Steve Mann has a Ph.D. from MIT and is currently on the faculty of the University of Toronto. Having invented, designed, built, and worn the WearComp device for 20 years, he is, to date, the world’s only cyborg.

Hal Niedzviecki is an award-winning journalist and cultural critic. His articles and essays have appeared in magazines, newspapers and journals in the United States, Canada, and the UK.

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Read an Excerpt

PROLOGUE: Why should you care about the wearable computer?

It is traditional for a book about technology to open with an earnest fictional scene depicting the grim future. Whether the book goes on to discuss technology in general, or some particular technological advance, the bleak tone reminds us that nothing short of “life as we know it” will be at stake in the coming pages.

In beginning this particular book about a particular kind of technology — wearable computers and other personal electronic appliances — I could not help wondering about the effectiveness of the standard apocalyptic-scenario opening. After all, how can we continue to sound the alarm when, according to every best-selling future shock tome since technology made book printing possible, we should already be living on a wasted planet populated solely by robot roaches? And if we do sound a warning, won’t that cry be lost in the aural pollution of alarms, cellphones, bleating pop tunes, and car horns? How many times can the alarm be sounded before we start to ignore it? What story can I tell you that will cause you to seriously reassess not just the technologically altered future but also the looming present?

It’s not that I am an incompetent science fiction writer. Instead consider it this way: as many of the technologies discussed in this book will make clear, science fiction has been eclipsed by reality; thus any book that successfully hopes to chart the intertwined paths of technology and the future must be prepared to take its cues from actuality rather than fantasy. Hidden cameras, instantaneous Web broadcasts, corporate tracking devices, virtual friendships — that stuff isn’t new, is it? When discussing a technology as wide ranging as the wearable computer, or a concept as vast as the cyborg, we start to wonder — What already exists? What is in the making? And what has been with us since the beginning?

The truth is always more complicated than the shocking opening. The book harping on the dangers of the latest technological trend starts by painting a truly ugly picture, then disintegrates into hypothetical eventualities that could be good or bad, depending on this, that, or the other thing. Ten years later, the books are usually wrong anyway. Thus, I have deliberately left out of these opening remarks the final scenario, so terrifying, so removed from the way we live, that there can be no question: the very fabric of our lives is at stake in the pages to follow. But if I’m not trying to scare you into paying attention to the rest of this book, I suppose the question becomes: Why read on? Why should you care about the wearable computer?

To fully answer that question, I would have to find some way to quickly and simply define what a wearable computer is and could be. I would have to explain the potent meaning of the cyborg, and conjure up some quick image of how these intertwined ideas function in the world today and will function in the world tomorrow. I would have to summarize the complicated series of questions I attempt to address and answer — as well as they can be answered — throughout the course of this book. In other words, I can’t begin to tell you what you need to know about wearable technology in these waning opening pages. All I can do is assure you that the cyborg is not to be found in the realm of hypothetical eventualities and hyperbolic horrors — it is real; it is now. Each scenario in this book encounters wearable technology; each scenario postulates a new interface, a new relationship, between the human being and technology; each scenario demonstrates how present day extensions of human ability through technology affect the shape of society; and each scenario speaks to the way we live our lives now, as opposed to the way we can expect to live our lives in some potentially disastrous future.

As you read this book you will, I suspect, become more intrigued — and perhaps alarmed — by the “reality” depicted, than by any pseudo-parable I could have constructed. In reality, substantive societal change occurs incrementally, moment by moment, inch by inch, run-of-the-mill triumphing over spectacle. One moment you swipe your card; the next moment you are faced with an improvement: simply wear a wristband that will automatically open the door; then, sometime later, the wristband becomes an implanted microchip that can keep track of what floors you are permitted to access, how many pens you’ve picked up from the company supply depot, and exactly how many seconds every day you spend in the company toilet.

One moment you are capable of communicating with other countries instantaneously via the computer stationed on your desk. Two weeks or two months or two years later, you find yourself capable of sending your brain, or your gaze, or your virtual image, anywhere at any time from any place.

Why should you care about the wearable computer? Not because it is some dangerous new bugaboo with the potential to destroy all life on the planet with the flip of a switch, but for precisely the opposite reason: Because it is everywhere, as ubiquitous as it is invisible, capable of changing the everyday minutiae of how we go about our lives, permeating our consciousness, altering fears, desires, and ways of being. You should care because the wearable computer is at once strange and familiar, alien and domestic, a dangerous foe and your new best friend. You should care because, unlike the doomsday opening scenario you might have been expecting, soon our lives will be dramatically changed by the wearable computer. But the world will look pretty much the same — and most of us won’t even notice.

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Table of Contents

Prologue: Why should you care about the wearable computer? ix
Introduction: The Reluctant Cyborg 1
1 Imaging the Cyborg Revolution 9
2 Owning the Cyborg 29
3 Reinventing the Cyborg 77
4 Shooting Back: Privacy in the Cyborg Age 129
5 The Mediated Cyborg: Toward Community 175
6 The Right to Think - Imaging the Cyborg Community 215
Appendices 241
Glossary 261
Notes 267
Acknowledgements 277
Index 281
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First Chapter

PROLOGUE: Why should you care about the wearable computer?

It is traditional for a book about technology to open with an earnest fictional scene depicting the grim future. Whether the book goes on to discuss technology in general, or some particular technological advance, the bleak tone reminds us that nothing short of "life as we know it" will be at stake in the coming pages.

In beginning this particular book about a particular kind of technology -- wearable computers and other personal electronic appliances -- I could not help wondering about the effectiveness of the standard apocalyptic-scenario opening. After all, how can we continue to sound the alarm when, according to every best-selling future shock tome since technology made book printing possible, we should already be living on a wasted planet populated solely by robot roaches? And if we do sound a warning, won't that cry be lost in the aural pollution of alarms, cellphones, bleating pop tunes, and car horns? How many times can the alarm be sounded before we start to ignore it? What story can I tell you that will cause you to seriously reassess not just the technologically altered future but also the looming present?

It's not that I am an incompetent science fiction writer. Instead consider it this way: as many of the technologies discussed in this book will make clear, science fiction has been eclipsed by reality; thus any book that successfully hopes to chart the intertwined paths of technology and the future must be prepared to take its cues from actuality rather than fantasy. Hidden cameras, instantaneous Web broadcasts, corporate tracking devices, virtual friendships -- that stuff isn't new, isit? When discussing a technology as wide ranging as the wearable computer, or a concept as vast as the cyborg, we start to wonder -- What already exists? What is in the making? And what has been with us since the beginning?

The truth is always more complicated than the shocking opening. The book harping on the dangers of the latest technological trend starts by painting a truly ugly picture, then disintegrates into hypothetical eventualities that could be good or bad, depending on this, that, or the other thing. Ten years later, the books are usually wrong anyway. Thus, I have deliberately left out of these opening remarks the final scenario, so terrifying, so removed from the way we live, that there can be no question: the very fabric of our lives is at stake in the pages to follow. But if I'm not trying to scare you into paying attention to the rest of this book, I suppose the question becomes: Why read on? Why should you care about the wearable computer?

To fully answer that question, I would have to find some way to quickly and simply define what a wearable computer is and could be. I would have to explain the potent meaning of the cyborg, and conjure up some quick image of how these intertwined ideas function in the world today and will function in the world tomorrow. I would have to summarize the complicated series of questions I attempt to address and answer -- as well as they can be answered -- throughout the course of this book. In other words, I can't begin to tell you what you need to know about wearable technology in these waning opening pages. All I can do is assure you that the cyborg is not to be found in the realm of hypothetical eventualities and hyperbolic horrors -- it is real; it is now. Each scenario in this book encounters wearable technology; each scenario postulates a new interface, a new relationship, between the human being and technology; each scenario demonstrates how present day extensions of human ability through technology affect the shape of society; and each scenario speaks to the way we live our lives now, as opposed to the way we can expect to live our lives in some potentially disastrous future.

As you read this book you will, I suspect, become more intrigued -- and perhaps alarmed -- by the "reality" depicted, than by any pseudo-parable I could have constructed. In reality, substantive societal change occurs incrementally, moment by moment, inch by inch, run-of-the-mill triumphing over spectacle. One moment you swipe your card; the next moment you are faced with an improvement: simply wear a wristband that will automatically open the door; then, sometime later, the wristband becomes an implanted microchip that can keep track of what floors you are permitted to access, how many pens you've picked up from the company supply depot, and exactly how many seconds every day you spend in the company toilet.

One moment you are capable of communicating with other countries instantaneously via the computer stationed on your desk. Two weeks or two months or two years later, you find yourself capable of sending your brain, or your gaze, or your virtual image, anywhere at any time from any place.

Why should you care about the wearable computer? Not because it is some dangerous new bugaboo with the potential to destroy all life on the planet with the flip of a switch, but for precisely the opposite reason: Because it is everywhere, as ubiquitous as it is invisible, capable of changing the everyday minutiae of how we go about our lives, permeating our consciousness, altering fears, desires, and ways of being. You should care because the wearable computer is at once strange and familiar, alien and domestic, a dangerous foe and your new best friend. You should care because, unlike the doomsday opening scenario you might have been expecting, soon our lives will be dramatically changed by the wearable computer. But the world will look pretty much the same -- and most of us won't even notice.

Copyright© 2001 by Steve Mann
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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 6, 2002

    Cyborg in real life and in philosophy

    We take our tools for granted. Even those that we carry on our bodies such as eyeglasses or palmtops, we consider as add-ons, foreign objects. I guess contact lenses or pacemakers acquire a degree of intimacy, however, they are still merely perceived as ¿add-ons¿, not part of our organic flesh or mind. Should we be made aware of the hidden effects of technologies both on body and mind or continue in the blissful ignorance of our own transformation ? Two books by Canadian authors and explore that question in complementary ways. Ollivier Dyens¿ Metal and Flesh (translated from the French in this publication by MIT press) practices ¿depth philosophy¿ (as in ¿depth psychology¿) to find out what makes us human with or in spite of technology. Steve Mann does the experimental grunt work. Cyborg is a detailed analysis of the tools themselves and of their present and predictable consequences. Both writers take McLuhan very seriously and quote his lesser known paraphrase of ¿The medium is the message¿, ¿We shape our tools and hence after, our tools shape us¿. The objective of Dyens, a professor and author living in Montreal, is stated with a poetic fervor that you will find throughout the book and is worth in itself the price of the book, that is to explore ¿both the strange readings of the world offered by new technologies and the transfer of life from the organic to cultural manifestations¿. Indeed that is the object of study: the limit that separates the organic from the cultural, the personal from the collective, the material from the virtual, the cognitive from the physical. All these limits are plying and all affect deeply our psychological autonomy as well as our political status. There is some urgency in recognizing that, at least at the level of scientific research and genetic engineering applications, the balance of power has begun to shift from a control by nature to a control over nature by knowledge, that is, culture. With that kind of divine power, we do need to reflect upon our responsibilities. Dyens pays attention to the role of intelligence in developing the technological condition. He suggests that we are now in ¿the Intelligent Condition¿. This is a condition that puts intelligence and planning at the helm of our destiny instead of blind circumstances. Dyens¿ book helps greatly in that direction. Likewise Cyborg is about limits and their transgressions. WearComp, as Mann, , a professor of Computer Science at the University of Toronto, calls the complex interfacing between clothing, sensory extensions and connections to the world wide web, is about the limit between the body, the mind and the world. Mann reports on his experience with a camera eye and a wireless Internet connection permanently on. He has been wearing this kind of equipment experimentally on a permanent daily basis since adolescence and made this research what appears to be a life cause. He has made himself a cyborg to understand technology, a mission that he tends to proclaim with the occasional messianic overtone that takes nothing from the value of the commitment. The book makes his motivations and also the world he experiences very clear. That is where its value lies. It is as if Mann had done a huge amount of homework for us by really putting them on¿He puts us on too in the sense that we too can take part in that strange and yet soon-to-be real world. ¿Soon, comments Mann, our lives will be dramatically changed by the WearComp, but the world will look pretty much the same, and most of us won¿t even notice¿. However, Mann, a self-professed ¿activist¿ urges us to read the fine print of that unspoken social contract because we risk loosing privacy and ¿the right to think¿. I believe that is indeed a danger, having spent much of my own research in finding out how, we the readers of texts, had acquired both at great costs in human lives since the invention of the printing press and the Reformation. Indeed, what Mann calls ¿the right to think¿

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