What’s Wrong With Borgdom?

Lately, I’ve had superorganisms on the brain. My initial plan for my post this week was to do a piece comparing earthly superorganisms like the Leaf Cutter Ant with the most well known of science-fiction superorganisms- the Borg. Two things happened that diverted me from this path. First,  the blogger and minimalist beekeeper, James Cross, shared with me an article he wrote that largely said what I wanted to say about the Borg and insects as well or better than I could have. Second, during the course of my research I ran into a recent article that stuck in my craw, which I felt compelled to address.

Someday I will return to the Borg, but now for that article I mentioned. The article, by the author, Travis James Leland, I found on the Institute for Ethics and Emerging   Technologies website, and is entitled We Are the Borg, And That is a Good Thing.”.

Leland’s point in the article is that many of the positive changes from technology that have been brought to our lives in recent decades have first been imagined in science-fiction, and one of the most powerful of these visions has been that of Star Trek.
But, while Star Trek has this incredibly powerful vision of a hopeful technological world it also has a “dark-side” in the form of the Borg. This darker view of technology, Leland thinks, leads to neo-luddism: the phrase “resistance is futile”- with which the Borg “introduce” themselves to species they are about to assimilate, now greets every new technology, and frankly scares people into seeing our technological future in a much more dismal light than should be the case. Leland hopes to cast doubt on this pessimistic vision:

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.

Leland completely embraces the cyborg- transhumanist ideal of the merger of human beings with their technology. In other words, he wants to be a cyborg:

I have been keeping up on the research into Google Glasses, Augmented Reality, implanted microchips, prosthetic limbs, brain uploading and more and I have to say “bring it on!”

For Leland, opposition, or fear, of cyborg-transhumanism isn’t a matter of ethical, egalitarian, or spiritual objections- it’s all about bad “PR”, and we have Star Trek’s Borg partially to blame. If opposition to cyborg-transhumanism is all about spin, then what is needed to undo such opposition is spin in the opposite direction to make cyborg- transhumanism “sexier”. He states:

This one will all come down to advertising, I think.

Leland then shares two videos that he thinks make the positive case for cyborgs. The first one is of a young woman, deaf from birth, who has been granted the ability to hear via a cochlear implant. It is a very touching video. It may be a little too harsh to characterize Leland posting it as an advertisement for cyborg-transhumanism as despicable, but it was certainly disturbing enough for me to feel inspired to write this post.

The second video is, ehem, an advertisement for Corning Glass that pictures a near human future in which a family is blissfully connected to one another via technology, all embedded in glass, of course.

Let me first tackle the issue of social media. The best counter to Leland’s Corning Glass video, with its happy family and their augmented reality bubble, is a dark and frankly brilliant piece of design fiction called Sight  that was brought to my attention by the Atlantic blogger Kasia Cieplak-Mayr von Baldegg (that’s a mouthful).

Sight  is a very short film that shows us the potential dark side of a world of ubiquitous augmented reality and social profiles- a world in many ways scarier that the Borg because it seems so possible. In this film, which I really encourage you to check out for yourself, a tech- savvy hotshot, seduces, and we are led to believe probably rapes, a young woman using a “dating app” that gives him access to almost everything about her.

Sight  gets to the root of the potential problem with social media which isn’t the ability to interconnect and communicate with others , which it undoubtedly provides,  but the very real potential that it could also be used as a tool of manipulation and control.

Sight  is powerful because it shows this manipulation and control person to person, but on a more collective level manipulation and control is the actual objective of advertisement. It is the bread and butter of social media itself. It is quite right of us to wish to limit the ways our personal information can be used, and to ask questions of it such as: Does using a social media website mean that all my “friends” are bombarded with advertisements for product X because I recently bought X? Do social media companies have the right to sell to third parties my “social map” revealing my friends, my interests, my location? What the advertisement Leland shared from Corning Glass showed was a world of ubiquitous video displays against the backdrop of loving families almost without advertisements- the just as, if not more likely scenario, is the kind of nightmare of manipulation found in Sight  and a world of almost constant bombardment by personalized advertisements based on our location, what we are doing, and our “social map”.

Corporate abuse of social media goes well beyond targeted advertising. Upwards of 37% of  hiring managers use social media to prescreen applicants. Even if one would argue that such screening is merely due diligence on the part of corporations one must be aware of the extremely negative knock-on-effects this might be having on American democracy. I can’t tell you how many bloggers I have run into who are afraid to reveal their own names out of fear that what they might say could have a negative impact on their “employment prospects”. This leads me to wonder how many people are dissuaded from blogging or engaging in other forms of publicly accessible speech at all. What this means is that, on some level, people are beginning to become afraid of actually saying what they think which means social media, which should have the effect of facilitating democracy, is instead sucking the very lifeblood out of it.

If individuals or corporations with such deep information about us make some of our skin crawl, governments themselves in possession of such knowledge is just as, or even creepier. As an article in the Economist recently pointed out wiretapping laws have not kept pace with social media. What this means is that the governments essentially have open access to not merely our publicly accessible profiles, but all the background information such as where we went, who we called, emailed, SKYPED with etc. all without need of a warrant.

Conta-Leland being wary of the potential for abuse of social media, and fighting to short-circuit such abuse  is not neo-luddism, but a prerequisite for freedom in a world in which social media is here to stay- for good and for ill.

Leland engages in the very sort of manipulation that seems to underlie the dark side of social media when he essentially appropriates the private, even if shared,  experience of the young deaf woman regaining her hearing for his own ends.

His posting of this video as a form of “advertising” for the kind of cyborg-transhumanism he wishes for the future raises a whole set of questions: Are we supposed to think that questions, concerns or even opposition towards cyborg- transhumanism would mean keeping people deaf and blind? Why is this video so moving for viewers, and the experience of regaining her hearing bring such joy to the woman in the first place? 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.

One thing is clear, pressures are building among medical technology companies to extend the sort of technology that has brought the joy and wonder of sound to this young woman well beyond bringing people within the range of normal human experience or curring debilitating diseases, but first for the good news.

As a recent article in the Financial Times, Health Care: Into the Cortex , by Clive Cookson points out, at least some in the pharmaceutical industry think we are on the cusp of a bioelectronics revolution. Moncef Slaoui, head of research for the health care juggernaut GlaxcoSmithKline believes according to Cookson that:

…this is a moment comparable to the birth of the modern pharmaceuticals industry at the end of the19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, when chemical companies began to realize that they could design drugs with compound effects.

Here are some of the wonders of bioelectronics that have either already come down the pike, or are in process according to Cookson:

  • Paralyzed persons with bioelectronic implants being able to control robots with their just their thoughts.    
  • Bioelectronic communication with persons in a comatose state.
  • Robotic “suits” that give tetraplegics the ability to walk.
  • “Smart-Skin” implanted under the skin of epileptics to diminish/prevent seizures.
  • Deep brain stimulation to reduce the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, and although Cookson doesn’t mention this, clinical depression that is not responsive to existing treatments.
  • Stimulation of the peripheral  nervous system, outside of the brain, to treat conditions such as obesity.

All of these actual and potential inventions promise to reduce or end human suffering, and in that respect, are certainly a good thing. The danger, I think, will come from the fact that the shear economies of scale necessary to sustain medical bioelectronics is likely, as it has in the areas of pharmaceuticals and cosmetic surgery (the latter which began as a way to repair the horrendous scars of war suffered by some injured soldiers, and to help ease the emotional burden of women undergoing mastectomies), to demand the creation  of a mass market for bioelectronics, which will mean taking it beyond the treatment of disease.

I can imagine it working something like “plug-in-play” devices do now with people being able to essentially dock their brain into computerized systems to access networks instantly, or to communicate “telepathically” or to gain instant access to a new skill. I can see these products being aggressively marketed to quite healthy people, much as pharmaceuticals are aggressively marketed today. I can imagine all kinds of intense social pressures to use these products in order to effectively compete in the corporate world or the dating game. I cringe at the thought of how such hyper-expensive “enhancements” will further exacerbate an already pernicious social and economic inequality.  And I can lament like the words in the Arcade Fire song We Used to Wait, “that I hope that something pure can last”.

The ethical questions this type of cyborg-transhumanism will open up are real and are likely to be legion: questions about equity and individual rights and forced competition and peer pressure and morality and who decides what kind of world we live. The current field of bioethics, which currently deals with the ethical dilemmas posed by biological technology, will probably need to spawn a whole new subfield, or even new field of ethics itself, that will deal with the specific problems posed by bioelectronics. Let’s hope that the forums for discussing, debating, and deciding such issues are more open and democratic than the current ones for bioethics, which tends to be locked up in universities and exclusive publications. And let’s be fast in creating such forums because it seems very likely that we are about to plunge ourselves headlong into the dreams and nightmares of Leland’s borgdom.