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Natural Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence

Author: Andy Clark
Publisher: Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2003
Review Published: March 2004

 REVIEW 1: Steven A. Benko

Andy Clark, in Natural Born Cyborgs, provides the reader with a thoroughly humanist vision of the cyborg and the future of biotechnological hybridity. Though he does not mention most of them by name, Clark is responding to cyborg theorists who locate cyborgs in a posthuman framework. Chris Hables Gray, not mentioned in the text but referenced in the endnotes, is an obvious target of Clark's, as is someone like the conceptual artist Stelarc who, despite Clark's appropriation of him, has proclaimed that the body is obsolete [1]. Clark, though enamored with the same technology as posthumanists and like posthumanists completely willing to gloss over the real suffering that comes with becoming a cyborg, reveals the tension within cyborg studies: humanist claims that cyborgs are a natural expression of human effort and consciousness, expanding consciousness but not altering it, at the same time that posthumanists (like Gray) claim that cyborgs are not 'natural' but instead reveal the political violence that comes with humanist claims about what is and is not 'natural' as they seek to move beyond humanism.

Clark argues against the post-human view of the self as, first, an immaterial essence that is, second, augmented by prosthetic devices that extend the reach and capacity of the individual for, third, the purpose of making that individual more than human or something other than human. Cyborgs are the result of these efforts. The popular depiction of cyborgs is that they are alienated from their humanity. Someone becomes a cyborg because he/she has been deformed and needs to compensate for that deformity, or has made a Faustian bargain with technology -- in the attempt to become more human, they accept technological prostheses that end up alienating them further from his/her own sense of self and from others (Darth Vader and RoboCop come to mind). Cyborgs, then, are symbols for alienation, intrusion, and a loss of control that Clark wants to "hijack . . . and reshape . . . revealing it as a disguised vision of (oddly) our own biological nature" (5). For Clark, cyborgs and biotechnological hybridity are natural and complete expressions of human existence. His purpose is to demonstrate that cyborgs are the latest example of human-tool interaction and as a result, Clark is less concerned with showing that cyborgs are not the monsters they are made out to be than he is with showing that we are all already cyborgs. By showing how the human brain has always responded to, co-opted, and used tools, Clark believes he can respond to post-human critiques of humanist visions of self, community, technology, and morality. There would be no need, then, to become post-human:
    There has been much written about our imminent "post-human" future, but if I am right, this is a dangerous and mistaken image. The very things that sometimes seem most post-human, the deepest and most profound of our potential biotechnological mergers will reflect nothing so much as their thoroughly human source … My goal is not to guess at what we might soon become but to better appreciate what we already are: creatures whose minds are special precisely because they are tailormade for multiple mergers and coalitions. (6-7)
We are natural born cyborgs because of the way that our brain has always used tools. Clark argues that like other animals, we have a "natural proclivity" (10) for tool based extension, but that unlike other animals, human use of tools leads to a re-drawing of both geographical and psychological environments. Humans use tools to create their environments at the same time that they are created by the environments in which they find themselves. Clark seeks to correct the mistaken notion that what goes on inside the mind must only be in the head. Instead, the brain orients itself outside of the skull "in order to collaborate with external, non-biological sources in order to better solve the problems of survival and reproduction" (5). Tools are picked up by the hand but are made a natural extension of the body by the brain. After a period of time, the brain ceases to distinguish between the organic and the mechanic. The ease with which humans use pens and hammers, moving not the hand to move the pen or swing the hammer, but instead coordinating muscle movement and vision to move the pen or swing the hammer, is a low tech example of the naturalness towards which Clark thinks all human-technology interactions should aspire.

Chapter 1, "Cyborgs Unplugged," deals with the type of technology Clark feels best allows the brain to extend its reach in the world and therefore express a more complete human life. That technology that intrudes the least -- both literally in terms of not penetrating the body, and pragmatically in terms of transparency of use -- is the technology that Clark feels will populate our cyborg, though human-centered, future. This leads Clark to make the rather surprising claim that in order to be a cyborg, one does not need to be penetrated by technology, or to utilize a prosthesis that replaces or compensates for either a real or perceived lack (lost limb or deafness). In fact, according to Clark, it is a mistake that cyborg research has gone in this direction. Non-penetrative cyborg technology is all around us and the brain is -- by nature -- primed to utilize it: "It is the presence of this unusual plasticity that makes humans (but not dogs, cats, or elephants) natural-born cyborgs: beings primed by Mother Nature to annex wave upon wave of external elements and structures as part and parcel of their own extended minds" (31). Based on Clark’s definition of a cyborg, a Mesopotamian peasant with a digging stick is a cyborg, albeit a low-tech cyborg. In order for technology to allow for the fullest, most natural expression of what it means to be human it must be seamlessly integrated with both the body and consciousness.

More is made of cyborgs because the tools that make an individual a cyborg are bigger, heavier, and more expensive than other tools. That is what contributes to the unnaturalness of cyborgs, but going a step further, that has also obscured the naturalness of human-tool interaction. Yet if humans best interact with tools when tools are used as if they were part of the body, then we would do better to pursue cyborg technologies that, in Clark’s words, humans can "bond" with. In Chapter 2, "Technologies to Bond With," Clark distinguishes between transparent technology ("technology that is so
well fitted to, and integrated with, our own lives, biological capacities") and opaque technology (technology that keeps "tripping the user up, requires skills and capacities that do not come naturally to the biological organism"), calling transparent technology more human centered as it becomes "almost invisible in use" (37). A watch is an example of a technology that started as opaque (clock-towers), became transparent (pocket-watch), and is now invisible (wrist-watch). Technologies become transparent and invisible over time and through an evolutionary process during which they are engineered to respond to human needs. The wearable computer is poised to become that next technology that started as opaque and through miniaturization will become transparent and invisible enough to be as taken-for-granted as a wrist-watch.

In Chapter 3, "Plastic Brains, Hybrid Minds," Clark gives his most complete explication of what he has hinted at in the previous chapters: the natural ability of the mind to adapt to the environment, co-opt tools to make them an extension of the human body, because this is the most natural activity of the brain. What distinguishes the human brain from the brains of other animals is the human brain’s ability to re-draw the image it has of the body to include changes in biology and to integrate non-biological components. Like a pen in the hand, tools are integrated into the body’s image. The brain is poised to use information stored inside or outside the head to recreate body image so the self can be relocated in space, and relocated culturally and technologically.

The human brain needs to redraw its image of the body and relocate that body culturally and technologically because the brain's ability to make non-biological tools a natural part of the body constantly alters the individual's sense of place and self. This is the theme of Chapters 4 and 5. Because the brain is constantly extracting information from the world and establishing new correlations between objects (keeping them ready at hand) the brain must constantly re-draw its own map of the world. What we learn from this activity -- and the technologies that force this activity -- is that "we are essentially active, embodied agents, not disembodied intelligences that simply manipulate or animate our biological bodies" (114). What this means is that the self is never static and is always forced to adapt to -- and grow with -- those technologies that have been added to the biological body. Who are we then?
    External, non-biological elements provide still further capacities and contribute in additional ways to our sense of who we are, where we are, what we can do, and to decision making and choice. No single tool among this complex kit is intrinsically thoughtful, ultimately in control, or the "seat of the self." We, meaning human individuals, just are these shifting condition of tools. We are "soft-selves," continuously open to change and driven to leak through the confines of the skin and skull, annexing more and more nonbiological elements, as aspects of the machinery of mind itself . . . Such extensions should not be thought of as rendering us in any way post-human; not because they are not deeply transformative but because we humans are naturally designed to be the subjects of just such repeated transformations. (137, 142)
A narrative understanding of the self allows Clark to position the individual as part of a larger story (the story of technology) and to include non-biological tools as part of the story by making life the story of projects undertaken and goals achieved by the organic body with the aid of technology.

The rest of the book deals with the way technology not only transforms our sense of place and world, but also our sense of community and morality. The vision of self that Clark imagines is necessarily outside of itself, and as a result, responsibility for others and the world is spread beyond the singular individual. Clark writes, "The task is to merge gracefully, to merge in ways that are virtuous, that brings us closer to one another, make us more tolerant, enhance understanding, celebrate embodiment, and encourage mutual respect" (194). Only by realizing who we are, "always hybrid beings, joint products of our biological nature and multilayered linguistic, cultural, and technological webs" (195), can we assure that human-centered technology continues to benefit humans.

Natural Born Cyborgs is an important book more for the perspective it takes than what it says. Clark's position is so anti-post-human, and his conclusion so thoroughly humanist, that he strengthens the resolve of anyone committed to the post-human critique of humanism. Clark's understanding of self and the ethics that grow out of that vision lacks any appreciation for the value of the other and otherness, and what they require of individuals and communities in terms of respect for uniqueness and singularity. In Clark's vision, the natural activity of the brain is to colonize the external world, making the unfamiliar familiar, reducing that which is other to same. Post-humanism, while it misrepresents its promised disembodiment (we are always embodied, either biologically or technologically), is more humane than Clark's humanism in its respect for the singularity of others. As cyborg technologies continue to be developed, cyborg studies needs a more clearly articulated theoretical framework. Clark's able use of cyborg imagery to advance a humanist agenda, compared to someone like Chris Hables Gray's (2000) thoroughly post-human cyborg, renders the field confused, and the term cyborg irrelevant.

1. Stelarc (2000) is quoted as saying that the human body is "obsolete."

Gray, Chris Hables, Cyborg Citizen (New York: Routledge, 2000).

Stelarc, "From Psycho-Body to Cyber-Systems: Images as Post-Human Entities," in David Bell and Barbara M. Kennedy, eds., The Cybercultures Reader (New York, Routledge, 2000): 561-62.

Steven A. Benko:
Steven A. Benko is an adjunct instructor at Meredith College in Raleigh, North Carolina where he teaches courses on Ethics. He has a Ph.D. in Religion from Syracuse University.  <sbenko@bellsouth.net>

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