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(Post)Human-Technology Relations
Phil Torres   Mar 29, 2010   Ethical Technology  

Understanding human-technology relations is a project of significant import, both for transhumanists aiming to overcome our limitations through technological means and for ethicists interested in questions concerning technology’s influence on the human condition.

Technology and Human Experience

The first technologies appear in the archaeological record some 2.5 million years ago. Since then, there has been an approximately exponential increase in the rate of technological innovation, according to something like the law of accelerating returns.

Today, of course, we are immersed in a rising ocean of increasingly sophisticated and complex technologies, which occupy regions of space both around and within us. An important philosophical task, therefore, is to map out the various kinds of human-technology relations that could be instantiated.

There are two general approaches to this issue: one assumes a subjective or phenomenological perspective, and the other a third-person or “objectivist” view. For example, Don Ihde proposes a four-way typology based on our phenomenological engagement with technical artifacts.[1]

According to Ihde, embodiment relations occur when a device becomes “incorporated” by a percipient as a medium of perception. Such technologies characteristically “withdraw” upon use, becoming experientially (quasi-)transparent to the user. This occurs with, for instance, the blind man’s stick [2], telescopes, and tools like the hammer [3], all of which become a phenomenological “part of” the human user.[4]
A second relation is hermeneutic. This involves “reading” a technology that provides a representation of the external world. Thermometers and compasses instantiate such relations. Third, Ihde recognizes alterity relations, or relations in which a technical artifact presents itself as something “other,” as when one confronts Boston Dynamic’s amazing Big Dog.

And finally, there are background relations; these happen when objects like refrigerators, or the HVAC compressor outside one’s window, fade into the background of conscious experience.

The philosopher Peter-Paul Verbeek has recently proposed an elaboration of this typology based on considerations of intentionality. ‘Intentionality’ is a philosophical term of art that refers to the state of being about or being directed at an object-referent.

Beliefs and desires are the standard examples of intentional psychology, since one always believes and desires something. Thus, Verbeek claims that considering this phenomenon leads to two additional human-technology relations: cyborg and composite relations.

The former occurs not when technologies, such as glasses, mediate perception, but when they become physically merged with the agent to form a single, cohesive hybrid. When one enhances one’s cognitive abilities with a nootopic, or physically embodies a cochlear implant, cyborg intentionality results.

In contrast, the composite relation is a “radicalized” version of Ihde’s hermeneutic relation: it occurs when technologies not only represent reality but effectively construct it as well. Radio telescopes, for example, produce images of the cosmos by detecting electromagnetic radiation frequencies outside the visible spectrum, thereby “constructing” reality (though not in the metaphysical sense).

Technology and the Human Body/Mind

This being said, I have not found much explicit discussion in the literature about the kinds of human-technology relations instantiable from the “objectivist” point-of-view. Nonetheless, we can identify three phenomena that closely correspond to a tripartite typology of “organ projection” articulated by Arnold Gehlen. According to Gehlen, technologies may involve what he calls “organ relief” (the wheel), “organ substitution or replacement” (the spear) and “organ strengthening or improvement” (the microscope).[5]

But we can refine this typology, both conceptually and terminologically. First, note that Darwinian theory assumes the existence of two distinct entities: organisms and environments.[6] Ever since Homo faber first appeared millennia ago, both relata have been targeted for modification. Neanderthals, for instance, made clothes (a bodily modification) [7] and produced fires (an environmental modification) [8] in an effort to solve the “adaptation problems” posed by the colder, higher latitude regions in which they lived.

Second, cutting across this distinction, the term “technological modification” is ambiguous between referring to (a) a means for inducing a change in the target, and (b) something that (to some degree) constitutes the target. With respect to (a), technology might be used to merely bring about change in (e.g.) an individual’s behavior, physiology or morphology.

Plastic surgery, for example, is enabled by technology, but the end-result need not have any technological components; the same goes for genetic engineering techniques that alter germlines via ooplasmic transfer. Or, most simply, clipping one’s toenails exploits technology as a means without incorporating technology into the final product: more hygienic feet!

This contrasts with (b), which involves technology becoming materially or functionally part of the target. A refined version of Gehlen’s typology could thus go as follows:

  • Extensions: this category includes technologies that, crudely put, somehow go beyond the traditional, intuitively defined boundaries of the body, mind or “organism.” This is the sense of “extension” employed in the extended phenotype, extended organism, and the extended mind hypotheses that have gained much attention in recent times.[9]
  • Substitutions: this type involves any technology that replaces a feature or capacity had by biologically normal individuals. Prosthetic limbs for Iraqi war veterans, like Juan Arredondo, are substitutions, as are objects like “glass eyes” and the hemofiltration machines used in renal replacement therapy.
  • Enhancements: this type is, of course, central to the transhumanist project. All enhancements augment or improve some feature or capacity of the individual; for transhumanists, the aim here is to overcome our perceived “biological limitations.” A neural implant that increases the speed of cerebration would thus count as an enhancement, as might substances like modafinil and (possibly) omega-3 fatty acids.

Now, while these categories do overlap, they are distinct. A prosthetic leg that is anatomically correct and performs no better than a normal leg would be neither an extension nor an enhancement. The same goes for a functionally identical artificial neuron implanted into someone’s brain to replace a single biological neuron that had died.

In contrast, a neural implant that replaced the hippocampus and augmented long-term memory (relative to normal functioning) would be both a substitution and an enhancement. And, finally, an invention like the bicycle, which both extends our bodies and enhances our locomotive abilities, would count as both a technological extension and enhancement. Overlapping but distinct categories.

Cyborgs and Posthumans

One final point worth noting is that this three-way distinction makes explicit why cyborgization is insufficient (in addition to being unnecessary) [10] for the realization of posthumans, or “possible future beings whose basic capacities so radically exceed those of present humans as to be no longer unambiguously human by our current standards.”

The reason is, of course, that only technological enhancements could provide the means for creating creatures whose basic capacities – in terms of healthspan, cognition and emotion – significantly surpass our own. And cyborgization need not involve enhancement.

For example, one could produce a “cybernetic organism” simply by replacing biological parts with technological parts (or, for that matter, by non-enhancively extending our bodies/minds beyond their traditional boundaries). Thus, if the replacing entities are equal to or less than the replaced ones in terms of functional performance (relative to some standard), then there will be no positive gain in “basic capacities.” Cyborgization provides one possible route to posthumanity, but it does not guarantee the realization of posthumans.

In sum, understanding human-technology relations is a project of significant import, both for transhumanists aiming to overcome our limitations through technological means and ethicists interested in questions concerning technology’s influence on the human condition – especially when technologies are mediating our perception, engendering new forms of intentionality and transforming our bodies/minds into hybrids of the “natural” and “artificial.”

[1] See Ihde’s Technology and the Lifeworld (1990).

[2] See Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception (2002, p165).

[3] See Ihde’s (1990, p31).

[4] See also Dennett’s Consciousness Explained (1991, p47) for an excellent example of how automobiles can be embodied.

[5] See this chapter of Philosophy of Technology: The Technological Condition: An Anthology (2003).

[6] Some “neo-Darwinian” accounts adopt a different dichotomy between replicators and vehicles.

[7] Dennett, for example, argues that “clothes are part of the extended phenotypes of Homo sapiens in almost every niche inhabited by that species” (1991, p416).

[8] See Odling-Smee et al.‘s heterodox theory of adaptation called niche construction.

[9] See, for example, this amazing paper on tool-use and bimodal neurons.

[10] Posthumans may be non-biological AI systems, for example.

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