Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'
Shipley (G.J.)
Source: Mind - 113/450 (April 2004)
Paper - Abstract

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  1. You may very well baulk at the idea but, at least according to Andy Clark's illuminating new book, "Clark (Andy) - Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence", you are, and always have been, a cyborg. The fact that you are unlikely to have more than a very small percentage of non-biological components incorporated into your body (if any at all) is, we are told, rather beside the point. What it is that makes human beings cyborgs (or ‘human-technology symbionts’) is the very real sense in which human beings assimilate the tools they create into their own (ever-broadening) identities. Clark is quick to point out that a cyborg needn't be fully integrated physically1 with its technological scaffolding. What matters, what is paramount when determining the nature of a cyborg, is the extent to which someone's sense of self can be said to encompass, to extend to, both the biological and the non-biological. And as Clark is eager to show us, humans have been on this road since the birth of language2.
  2. […]
  3. Towards the end of the book Clark tackles nine of what he considers to be the primary causes for concern3 among those who are rather less optimistic than himself about the threat posed to humanity by its continued affiliation with technological advancement. On the whole Clark handles these worries very well and, without overstating his case, manages to assuage, or at least put into context, a good deal of them.
  4. If I had one criticism it would be the rather short shrift Clark gives to the possibilities for technological advances to provide us with the means for immortality (or at the very least, considerable life extension), which I feel, like the scientist Hans Moravec whose optimism he questions, is a crucial issue when considering our propensity to merge with our technology. As natural born cyborgs if indeed we are, and Clark certainly makes a good case for it, isn't one of our primary drives, in addition to streamlining and accentuating our lives, also to extend them through the manipulation of our non-biological resources? Clark is hostile to the idea that future advances in information transmission might eventually bring about a situation where the human body itself starts to look like a superfluous part of the equation, and where it will be possible for the self to enjoy immortality as transferable patterns of information4. As he puts it, 'I roundly reject the vision of the self as a kind of ethereal, information-based construct. There is no informationally constituted user relative to whom the rest is just tools' (p. 192). …
  5. Clark has written a very readable and well-balanced book, which, with an inspired use of anecdotes, a wealth of empirical data, and a commendable degree of clarity, more than lives up to its provocative title. I found it easy and fun to read, while also displaying a considerable depth of insight.

Further Notes
  1. The above excerpts are just top and tail, with a fairly random passage from the middle. I could have reproduced the lot.
  2. It seems that Clark thinks the key issue is the seamless integration of ourselves and “our smart worlds”. If the technology is “invisible in use” then we have become cyborgs.
  3. OK – but there’s an odd analogy. We can (correctly) be said to “know the time” if all we have to do is flip our wrist, but can’t say we “know the meaning of a word” if we have to look it up in a dictionary. But, what if we could look it up as easily as we look up the time? This is nearly the case, and certainly more so than when Clark wrote.
  4. But I doubt the analogy. There’s no universal time to know – I can only know it by looking it up now. But knowledge of meaning is pretty permanent. I don’t know the meaning of a word if I have to look it up on my smartphone, so ease of access isn’t the issue.
  5. Clark makes an analogy between the unconscious sub-systems of the brain that are so important in constituting the self. Isn’t it unprincipled to reject the non-biological subsystems merely on the grounds that they are automated?
  6. Clark discusses and supports Daniel Dennett’s work on the self5, which “fully allows for cyborg selves”, though he rejects Dennett’s attempt to sideline the self as an illusory central controller. Rather, he thinks the self can legitimately absorb invisible-in-use technology within its boundaries.
  7. See "Erickson (Mark) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'" for a much less enthusiastic review.


In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 1: Footnote 2: Footnote 3: Footnote 4:

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  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2021
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