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IEET > Life > Enablement > Innovation > Implants > Vision > Futurism > Contributors > Travis James Leland

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We are the Borg… And That is a Good Thing


Travis James Leland
By Travis James Leland
Ethical Technology

Posted: May 22, 2012

Let’s be real. The majority of transhumanists, scientists, astronomers, computer specialists, etc. became interested in their fields of study through their interest in science-fiction.  We know the story of how cellphones were designed with Star Trek‘s communicators in mind, as were tablet computers, ebooks, and other new technologies. That has all been well-documented and I’m relatively certain that it is not news to most of us.  Star Trek has been very influential in my life, guiding my thought processes in many areas, like physics, astronomy, quantum mechanics - even politics and economics.  Part 2 of the Casual Transhuman.

I think that, more so than Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica and Babylon 5, the galaxy as envisioned by Gene Roddenberry has inspired people from all walks of life - scientist and layperson, politician and religious leader, male and female - to work toward creating a better future. The idea of this liberal, technologically-advanced, culturally-diverse near-utopia that has no further need for hard labor, resource mining, or even money has given people something to strive toward.

Yet there is a dark side to Star Trek.

The most feared villains of the 24th Century are a monstrous group of cybernetically enhanced organisms connected to each other through a collective hive-like consciousness. They have lost all semblance of individuality. They are the Borg, and their only desire is to “assimilate” every free being they see into the Collective, “adding their biological and technological distinctiveness to our own.” The Borg are cold, unfeeling drones, who speak as one in a monotonous cacophany. Their limbs are replaced with tools, specially designed for the work that that drone is expected to perform. Most have at least one eye replaced with an implant which allows them to see beyond the visible spectrum, and which also has a nifty heads-up display. When a Borg is killed another appears next to it, removes vital pieces of technology, then walks away. The dead drone then disappears. Beamed? Disintegrated? Who knows? But the other drones don’t seem to care, so neither do we. What people find most disturbing about the Borg is their loss of individuality. They are the zombies of Star Trek, and are popular for the same reasons.

Pretty terrifying, isn’t it?

Every time some new piece of technology is invented - every new social network that goes online - every breakthrough in human-computer interface is cause for alarm in many people who feel that we are becoming ever more like the Borg Collective. As is customary for my articles, a quick Google Search will come up with some insight into the thoughts of the non-transhumanists. 

As a rule, when some new gadget is introduced, like say the Oakley’s HUD glasses - a competitor to the Google Glasses, one of the first reader comments will be the familiar “Resistance is Futile.” refrain. It doesn’t even have to make sense to the article. There just has to be a report on a major (or not-so-major) news site about technology, and somewhere beneath it, you will see those words.

But is it such a bad thing for humanity to want to become a collective? Isn’t one of the main selling points of the internet, social media, etc. the fact that we are all now closer than ever? What I write on my Twitter account can be read by hundreds or even thousands of people instantly. They know what I am thinking, and I can see what is on the mind of all the people I follow. Facebook allows me to share videos, photos, music, status updates and more (although I rarely use Facebook anymore, but I plan on returning to it). Foursquare, Google+, LinkdIn, Skype, and all the other apps and social media are being used to keep us constantly “plugged in” to our peers, our favorite celebrities, causes, politicians, businesses and anyone or anything else we want. Anything I want or need to know can be accessed instantaneously through my various devices. I have been keeping up on the reasearch into Google Glasses, Augmented Reality, implanted microchips, prosthetic limbs, brain uploading and more and I have to say “bring it on!” I grew up in the 1980s and 1990s and have lived on both sides of the technology boom. As a child I listened to vinyl records and now I have hours of music loaded onto my Android phone. I used to go to the corner Blockbuster once a week to rent VHS tapes and now I can instantly Netflix anything I want on my laptop, phone or TV. As I write these articles, or my upcoming novel, if I need specific information about a topic, it is there for me, either online or through a friend or follower, and I find that to be incredibly exciting.

In other words, I grew up “free” and have been “assimilated” into the collective consciousness of humanity, which is increasingly digital. 24 hour news has given rise to instant political commentary, so I know where each side stands on a given situation. People from all walks of life give input on message boards, Twitter and Facebook. CNN often shows viewer Tweets in the scroll at the bottom of the screen. Yet I do not feel like I have lost my individuality, in a Borg-like stupor. I feel much more informed than I would be if I were disconnected. I feel like I am a part of a greater whole. And I feel like I can be heard. I am not a voiceless drone. I am not one of the millions speaking in unison. The technology that connects me to everyone else does not rule me. I rule the technology and I use it to better myself. After all, isn’t that what Transhumanism is all about?

So how do we spread the word? How do we make breakthrough technology “sexier” to the general public? It seems that as long as there is some distance between the person and the product, people aren’t as nervous. Cell phones, tablet computers, iPods and the like are ubiquitous. However, as soon as someone brings up microchip implants, HUD glasses or thought-controlled interfaces - wearable technoloogy - people are upset about the potential consequences. In other words, how do we let people know that can we make “cyborgs” without making “The Borg?”

This one will all come down to advertising, I think. Take a look at this video...

And this one

These videos show people who are becoming more and more integrated with their technology. The woman in the first video has received an implant that allows her to hear for the first time. Did she immediately lose all her humanity? No. She is now able to participate more in society. To hear music, laughter, and all sorts of other things. Her use of this technology gave her one of the most sincere and wonderful emotional reactions I’ve ever watched. Cyborg? Yes. Borg? Not even remotely.  The second video shows how currently developing technologies are going to integrate into the daily lives of people in the not-too-distant future.  Do these people seem inhuman? Do they walk around like mindless zombies? No. In fact, they appear to have more time for interpersonal communication and healthy relationships. Of course, this video was created to make everyone appear happy, wealthy and well-adjusted. The truth will probably be a little less pleasant, but the idea remains the same, and it’s a good one.  This video shows us that the future can be more like Star Trek, and that that future is not very far off.

A constant influx of these types of images - of happy people and their serene lives made possible through technology - might help to soften some of the Luddite reaction. Although, the comments sections beneath both of those videos on YouTube do feature debates and some very frightened people. We will never make everyone happy about the merger of man and machine, but with continued positive press and cheaper and more powerful devices, we will soon become linked together to spread our ideas, our beliefs, our lives with each other on a global scale, and we will be able to see, hear and do things that no humans in history have ever done. We are a collective species already, living in our big cities and longing to be part of groups with similar interests. We just need to take the next step - together.


Travis James Leland is a science-fiction writer and poet, currently working on a novel entitled "Singular," about a young man who becomes the world's first true posthuman. He lives in Llano, California with his wife and son. His Twitter is @TJL2080.
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COMMENTS


I think you have touched on a couple of key points. The first is the idea of consent. The Borg do not ask societies if they want to be assimilated, they just go ahead and assimilate them. They would be a much different concept (and more boring as a plot device) if they asked consent to assimilate all or part of a society.

In our day and age we think we have control over what we consent to and what we do not. I think it isn’t as clear cut as it used to be. I saw a cartoon on facebook that suggested if we are no paying for the product, then we are not consumers, but we are the product, or at least our information is. As we buy into more technology the issue of consent will become more important. Where do we draw the boundary line between the collective and the individual.

The second issue it the idea of individual existence. I think it is worth while exploring idea that most experiences of ecstasy involve a weakening or complete loss of individual identity in return for a feeling of oneness with the universe or God or the iPad. How many people would be willing to give up a little self-determination in return for a lot more joy?

I think the points you made about technology improving life is important, the reality is that we don’t always know at the outset what will be improvement and what loss.





Good points. And for any that use twitter frequently, they will recognise there is an addictive curve where literally your attention, your subjective free will, is subjugated by information overflow, and the addiction is further fueled by the anxiety that you may have missed some important information. This leads to “twitter brain” syndrome where you can’t withdraw yourself and log off, and when you do, you find yourself anxious to log back in to see if you missed something?

It took me some time to get over this syndrome, and a major side effect was, (and still is somewhat), increased short attention span affecting long duration concentration. For example, I could not sit through a movie or even half an hour, TV adverts taking up my primary focus of attention only, because they were short duration.

You can get over this, but it takes time and adjustment. As we humans integrate further online then it’s easy to forsee this voluntary acceptance of subjugation of autonomy and identity?





(cont..)

This future subjugation of autonomy and free will online in exchange for the benefits of interconnectivity and addiction to information will lead to the temporary “Self absorption” into the evolved “human online interconnected global consciousness”, (synonymous “Global Brain/mind”, and envisioned “noosphere”), and will also aid to evolve and perpetuate this next stage in evolution of planet and species?

As long as humans can disconnect there is no potential long term hazards or dangers and the online “hive mind” will be highly beneficial, (perpetual crowd sourcing and evolved democracy)?

The relinquishment of Self and free will to online information need not be dangerous as long as there is no malign control or malicious intent to manipulate minds online?

The original idea of the Borg was as a unified democracy, before a Queen was introduced as directive?

Q: Ask your-Self, for what price, (true), Unity? What price would you be willing to pay?





The problem of the Borg is not the melding of bio and tech (though I posit that the gracelessness of it says a lot about their mindset, none of it good), it’s the fact that they obliterate all trace of freedom in the final and ultimate devaluation of individuality. Subjugation of chaotic humanity into a smooth predictability has been a dream of despots and fascists for centuries. There’s always someone willing to step up and cry foul.

I could see connectedness evolving more as individual minds teaming up, but as unique individuals, sharing unique perspectives. After all, a group with a single mind is no different than one person, so why do it?





@ GamerFromJump..

Yes!

But notice this is how the Borg are purposefully portrayed? That loss of individualism to a despotic collective is also coupled with this fascist ideal to assimilate the entire cosmos? Why? It reeks of McCarthy-ism, fear of communism, (yes that old despotic legacy of yesteryear). Yet it rather hints to me that networks politics and govts need their “bad guys”, and that these “bad guys” are envisioned as an organised collective that opposes individualism in favour of unity?

I may be wrong.. but imperialism likes is citizens/subjects to remain indifferent, disorganised and distracted from unity and collectivism?

“I could see connectedness evolving more as individual minds teaming up, but as unique individuals, sharing unique perspectives. After all, a group with a single mind is no different than one person, so why do it?”

Yes again! How could we ever hope to contemplate/experience true unity and merging without some remnant of Self remaining to be conscious and aware of it?

Hence, in ST DS9 we see the introduction of a new species that can achieve both, individualism and complete merging of consciousness - the Dominion. (Still portrayed as bad guys however! These networks, powers that be, just don’t like the idea of unity, collectivism and folks aligning with common purpose?)

 





“Still portrayed as bad guys however! These networks, powers that be, just don’t like the idea of unity, collectivism and folks aligning with common purpose?”

Humans don’t normally function that way for long, except for a fairly narrow, immediate problem. And only long enough to deal with it.

And it flies in the face of the Federation philosophy of ‘Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations.’

It’s not hard to have villains fundamentally at odds with that. (Several Voyager episodes suggested a peaceful offshoot of the Borg, consisting of those who escaped from the collective, but nothing was heard from them since. No threat, no problem, no story.)





I find Leland’s use of the young deaf woman as a way to promote transhumanism troubling on several levels. First of all he has appropriated this woman’s very personal experience for his own ends. Are we supposed to think that questions or concerns regarding transhumanism would mean keeping people deaf and blind?

Why is this video so moving for viewers and the experience of regaining her hearing so moving for the woman? Is it not that she has been given the capacity to do what most of us take for granted? Would our reaction not be different if instead of being brought into the human world of sound the woman was instead given an implant to be able to hear high frequency sounds that could be heard by bats or dogs? I think it most certainly would be.

And that’s the point; technological enhancements to bring people into the realm of normal human experience is something upon which we can all probably agree. Enhancements that take people outside the realm of humanity open up quite reasonable questions about equity and individual rights and competition and morality and who decides what kind of world we live in that are not necessarily based on fear and that need to be addressed before we plunge ourselves, or allow other to plunge us, headlong into borgdom.





@Travis
It’s seriously disturbing that you’re advocating the Borg as a positive role model for humanity.
The fact that you “do not feel you have lost your individuality” only illustrates the insiduousness of the assimilation - it’s akin to slowing boiling a frog in water - it does not recognise the danger until it’s too late.

No matter how good you think it is for humanity to become a single entity with a common purpose, the end result will be a society that will have no problem conducting witch hunts to identify “deviant” thinking, and “repair” or eradicate defective drones.  Why you think this is a good thing is beyond me.  It is only good for either politicians (ie all of them), whose agenda is to seek ever more control and suppression of individual will, or for cowards who would trade liberty for security.  What a depressing thought - why would anyone want to bring children into such a world?

However, you appear to miss the point that whilst the Borg relentlessly assimilated other life forms, the current problem with the human masses, is that they appear to be volunteering to be assimilated, and are either ignorantly or deliberately oblivious to the danger.

Unfortunately, I agree with you that the future IS Borg. 
It is not a future I wish to be part of.





There’s another important point to make.

The Borg shares all knowledge within itself indiscriminately between all units.
With Google glasses some people will know massively more than others.

if all share all, it’s assimilation. The Borg.
if levels of sharing exist, it’s subjugation. 1948.





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