A few weeks back, I wrote a post about special pieces of technology (e.g., backpacks, glasses, a Facebook profile), which become so integrated into our routines that they become almost invisible to us, seeming to act as extension of our own consciousness. I explained that this relationship is what differentiates equipment from tools, which we occasionally use to complete specific tasks, but which remain separate and distinct to us. I concluded that our relationship with equipment fundamentally alters who we are. And, because we all use equipment, we are all cyborgs (in the loosest sense).
In this essay, I want to continue the discussion about our relationship with the technology we use. Adapting and extending Anthony Giddens’ Consequences of Modernity, I will argue that an essential part of the cyborganic transformation we experience when we equip Modern, sophisticated technology is deeply tied to trust in expert systems. It is no longer feasible to fully comprehend the inner workings of the innumerable devices that we depend on; rather, we are forced to trust that the institutions that deliver these devices to us have designed, tested, and maintained the devices properly. This bargain—trading certainty for convenience—however, means that the Modern cyborg finds herself ever more deeply integrated into the social circuit. In fact, the cyborg’s connection to technology makes her increasingly socially dependent because the technological facets of her being require expert knowledge from others.
Let us begin by further exploring why Giddens claims that the complexity of the Modern world requires a high degree of trust. Consider the experience of flying on an airplane. Perhaps the typical passenger has vague notions of lift and drag, but these passengers are certainly not privy to the myriad formulas used to calculate the precise mechanics that keep the craft airborne. Unlike the Wright Brothers and their famous “Flyer,” a single engineer can no longer be expected to understand all the various systems that comprise modern aircraft. In fact, the design team for a plane is likely so segmented and specialized that it would be impossible to fit a team capable of understanding a craft inside the craft itself. Giddens explains that complex technologies such as airplanes are “disembedded” from the local context of our lives and our social relations; that is to say we lack direct or even indirect experiential knowledge of modern technology. Instead, our willingness to, say, hurl ourselves 30,000 feet above the Earth in an aluminum cone, derives solely from our trust in expert systems. Importantly, this trust is not in individual experts, but in the institutions that organize and regulate their knowledge as well as the fruits of that knowledge.
Modern day cyborgs are characterized by profound trust in both technology and the expert systems that create it. That is to say, in order to make use of complex technology, we have to accept limited understanding of it and simply assume that it was properly designed and tested. However, trust is not merely passive acceptance of a lack of understanding; it also involves a commitment. Giddens (CoM, p. 26-7) explains:
Trust [...] involves more than a calculation of the reliability of likely future events. Trust exists, Simmel [a Classical sociologist] says, when we “believe in” someone or some principle: “It expresses the feeling that there exists between our idea of a being and the being itself a definite connection and unity, a certain consistency in our conception of it, an assurance and lack of resistance in the surrender of the Ego to this conception, which may rest upon particular reasons, but is not explained by them.” Trust, in short, is a form of “faith,” in which the confidence vested in probable outcomes expresses a commitment to something rather than just a cognitive understanding.
The use of complex technology involves an element of risk (e.g., crashing back to Earth). The cyborg’s confidence in the expert systems behind technology must be sufficiently strong to mitigate any perceived risks from use of that technology. Once we have equipped a piece of technology, we become dependent on it. We make decisions that assume its full functioning, and its failure can be perilous. A rock climber, for example, places her life in the hands of her harness (and the experts that engineered it) every time she scales a rock face. She cannot know with certainty that the molecules of her carabineer have been properly alloyed, but her confidence, and her life, rest on the belief that the expert system will not have failed. This trust in equipment demonstrates an existential commitment to technology. Giddens (CoM, p. 28) elaborates:
Everyone knows that driving a car is a dangerous activity, entailing the risk of accident. In choosing to go out in the car, I accept that risk, but rely upon the aforesaid expertise to guarantee that it is minimised as possible. […] When I park the car at the airport and board a plane, I enter other expert systems, of which my own technical knowledge is at best rudimentary.
Being a cyborg is risky business; we must depend on the expertise of others to ensure that our equipment is fit for use. This radical dependency on expert systems—and the societies that create them—makes cyborgs fundamentally social beings. In fact, it is through dependency on technology, and the subsequent loss of self-sufficiency, that we express our commitment to society. Technology has always been part and parcel to the division of labor. Think bows and shovels. In this sense, being a cyborg requires not only trust in technology producers, but trust in other technology users. There is no such thing as a lone cyborg. The birth of cyborg marks the death of the atomistic individual (if such a thing every existed). Donna Haraway rightly contrasts the cyborg to Romantic Goddesses channeled in small lakeside cabins. Cyborgs are cosmopolitan.
This is not to say that Modern day cyborgs are incapable of being critical of technology or expert systems. On the contrary, the cyborg’s humility in admitting her own dependencies leads her to acknowledge the importance of struggling to enforce certain values within techno-social systems, rather than plotting a Utopian escape (the sort that had currency with Thoreau and other Romantics and that continues to be idealized by cyber-libertarians who view the Internet as a fresh start for society). My favorite Haraway quote explains:
This is not some kind of blissed-out technobunny joy in information. It is a statement that we had better get it – this is a worlding operation. Never the only worlding operation going on, but one that we had better inhabit as more than a victim. We had better get it that domination is not the only thing going on here. We had better get it that this is a zone where we had better be the movers and the shakers, or we will be just victims.
Cyborgs always see the social in the technological; the “technology is neutral” trope is a laugh line.
Nowhere are mutual trust and co-dependency more apparent than with social media. Few of us have any clue how the Internet’s infrastructure delivers our digital representations across the world in an instant. This lack of knowledge means simply that we must trust that platforms such as Facebook or Google are delivering information accurately. As the Turing test has demonstrated, computers can easily fool us into believing we are communicating with someone who is not present or who does not even exist, if the system allows. Moreover, on platforms such as Facebook, we also must trust the system to enforce a norm of honesty. If we cannot trust that other users are honestly representing themselves, we become unsure of how to respond. Honesty and accuracy of information are preconditions to participation. And because, as individuals, we lack the capacity to ensure either, we must place our trust in experts. We users do not understand the mechanics of Facebook, we simply accept it as reality; that is to say, Facebook is made possible through widespread suspension of disbelief. Thus, use social media is a commitment to pursuit the benefits of participation, despite the risk that we could be fooled or otherwise taken advantage of. Facebook is not merely social because it involves mutual interaction, it is social because trust in society’s expert systems is a precondition to any such interaction.
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