Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence
Clark (Andy)
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BOOK ABSTRACT:

Inside Cover Blurb

  1. From Robocop to the Terminator to Eve 8, no image better captures our deepest fears about technology than the cyborg, the person who is both flesh and metal, brain and electronics. But philosopher and cognitive scientist Andy Clark sees it differently. Cyborgs, he writes, are not something to be feared - we already are cyborgs.
  2. In Natural-Born Cyborgs, Clark argues that what makes humans so different from other species is our capacity to fully incorporate tools and supporting cultural practices into our existence. Technology as simple as writing on a sketchpad, as familiar as Google or a cellular phone, and as potentially revolutionary as mind-extending neural implants - all exploit our brains' astonishingly plastic nature. Our minds are primed to seek out and incorporate non-biological resources, so that we actually think and feel through our best technologies.
  3. Drawing on his expertise in cognitive science, Clark demonstrates that our sense of self and of physical presence can be expanded to a remarkable extent, placing the long-existing telephone and the emerging technology of telepresence on the same continuum. He explores ways in which we have adapted our lives to make use of technology (the measurement of time, for example, has wrought enormous changes in human existence), as well as ways in which increasingly fluid technologies can adapt to individual users during normal use. Bio-technological unions, Clark argues, are evolving with a speed never seen before in history.
  4. As we enter an age of wearable computers, sensory augmentation, wireless devices, intelligent environments, thought-controlled prosthetics, and rapid-fire information search and retrieval, the line between the user and her tools grows thinner day by day. "This double whammy of plastic brains and increasingly responsive and well-fitted tools creates an unprecedented opportunity for ever-closer kinds of human-machine merger," he writes, arguing that such a merger is entirely natural.
  5. A stunning new look at the human brain and the human self, Natural Born Cyborgs reveals how our technology is indeed inseparable from who we are and how we think.

BOOK COMMENT:

Oxford University Press Inc (Jun. 2003)



"Erickson (Mark) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'"

Source: The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer, 2004), pp. 471-473


Excerpts
  1. What does it mean to be a "natural-born cyborg"? asks Clark in this popular science account of recent trends in the world of the cyborg. His answer, which is firmly stated and located in the realm of cognitive science, is simply to be human. We have a natural proclivity for tool-based extension, and this, coupled with the development of recent smart technologies, explains why we are beginning to resemble the cyborgs of fiction. Our lives are becoming increasingly connected to "non-penetrative cyborg technologies," and these are poised on the brink of a revolution, becoming smarter. This will allow us to have a more focused and enhanced relationship with technology in the future.
  2. […]
  3. This is a strange and partial text, written from a distinctly one-sided perspective. Clark's analysis of cyborg technology and its relationship to the human mind comes from positivist cognitive science. At no point does Clark offer any kind of social, cultural, political or economic analysis of cyborgs, nor does he take time to consider why it is, if we have always been cyborgs, we are only just noticing now. This gives his book a rather breezy, cheery feel. Technology just happens, and this technology that is emerging now just happens to be really good technology. It's all great fun, as we think about how we can use the internet to enhance our research skills, our mobile phones to help us to communicate and our PDAs to extend the range of cultural choices available to us. Making sense of cyborgs and what "cyborg" means in contemporary society, from this perspective, is largely a matter of understanding the rather neat devices that are popping up all over the place. Although Clark promises that "this is not primarily a book about new technology" (7) it is. Cyborgs, from this line of analysis, don't exist; what does is "cyborg technology" which means, ultimately, gadgets that we can deploy in our everyday lives. It would appear that understanding cyborg culture is largely a matter of keeping up to date with developments in new consumer technologies: toys for boys, cyborgs for boys.
  4. […]
  5. This is certainly an interesting, readable book and one that may be of some use in cataloguing recent trends in ICT and other technological developments. However, Clark's avoidance of any social, political or cultural theory, his avoidance of feminism (whether cyber- or otherwise) and a general lack of any contextualisation provides a very meagre read for those interested in understanding technology and what it means to be (post)human in contemporary society.

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. The reviewer basically objects that the author – Andy Clark – is a “positivist1 cognitive scientist” rather than a sociologist. It seems that Clark misses off all the important social stuff. But the reviewer also omits all serious engagement with Clark.
  3. Clark also omits mention of Donna Haraway and her A Cyborg Manifesto, thereby side-stepping feminist post-humanism. What a loss. The reviewer had earlier complained that all this “non-penetrative” cyborg technology lauded by Clark is just “toys for the boys”. As far as I’m aware, mobile phones are used as much by “the girls”, and are far from “toys”, though I doubt they make us cyborgs in a meaningful sense.
  4. The reviewer complains about “the startling omission of almost all of the major themes of analysis that other writers have encountered when considering cyborgs: key concepts such as hybridity, nature-culture, the body, identity are hardly mentioned.” I’ll have to wait until I’ve read the book before commenting on this, but note that Chapter 7 “Bad Borgs?” deals with “Some of the spectres that haunt these hybrid dreams. They include Inequality, Intrusion, Uncontrollability, Overload, Alienation, Narrowing, Deceit, Degradation and Disembodiment2.” It’s the last chapter, and maybe an afterthought rather than the focus of the book, and currently I don’t know quite what’s being considered, but it looks more than “positive science”. However, I would like to see some discussion of most of the topics mentioned by the reviewer.
  5. The reviewer also complains “Cyborgs are combinations of the biological and the technological, but they are also much more: they are transformations of what being human, and being non-human, means. The cyborg breaks boundaries, challenges assumptions and categories, breaks rules and confronts our prejudices. In Clark's analysis none of this is visible; quite the reverse.”. It is probably the case that Clark sees his role as descriptive rather than prescriptive, and isn’t interested in all this revolutionary activity. Good on him.
  6. See "Shipley (G.J.) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'" for a more “positive” appraisal!


COMMENT:




In-Page Footnotes ("Erickson (Mark) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'")

Footnote 1:
  • For Positivism, see Wikipedia: Positivism.
  • It seems to be a sociologist’s term of abuse for “scientists”, or those impressed by the scientific method.
Footnote 2:
  • The reviewer does mention that Clark covers this topic, but doesn’t say what it deals with, or how it relates to Cyborgs.



"Shipley (G.J.) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'"

Source: Mind - 113/450 (April 2004)


Excerpts
  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.


COMMENT:




In-Page Footnotes ("Shipley (G.J.) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'")

Footnote 1:
  • This is an important and interesting point.
  • Is it correct? I feel inclined to reject cyborg status to those silly people who are trying to jump the gun and have smart devices implanted under their skin when they would work just as well in their pockets.
  • So, I’d like to read careful argumentation that persistent use of non-integrated technology does make us cyborgs, and doesn’t leave another category outstanding for when integration arrives.
Footnote 2:
  • Why language?
Footnote 3:
  • These are “Inequality, Intrusion, Uncontrollability, Overload, Alienation, Narrowing, Deceit, Degradation and Disembodiment
  • What does “Disembodiment” deal with, and how does it relates to Cyborgs?
Footnote 4:
  • I strongly agree with Clark against Shipley here.
  • Firstly, if such an information transfer were to be possible, we’d just be swapping one body for another – in the case considered, (part of) a digital computer.
  • Secondly, such a “possibility” would not be identity-preserving. Our psychology might “live on” – or at least “survive” as “life” would not be an appropriate term – but “we” would not, on account of the reduplication objections amongst many others.


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