A young man I know recently admitted to me that he had been struggling to come up with an HotMail username and couldn’t think of anything. So, he used UhhDuhh. As in, “Uhh… duhh… what can I use for a nickname?”
Obviously, he is off to a rough start in defining his internet identity. But, more importantly, he has recognized, and proven, a critical point. That is, using the internet fully involves the creation of a new identity. The new identity is formed from the relationship between the original identity and the internet. It is a cyborg identity, part machine, part human. And we are all, like my friend, building our new cyborg identities online. But, who is the internet cyborg? How is the internet cyborg different from the cyborgs of earlier technology? What do we all as internet cyborgs have in common?
First, let’s look back at the first cyborg; way back. Never mind stone tools or pointed sticks; they merely made fists a little tougher and fingers a little pointier, not much of a cyborg emerged from them. The original cyborg was the fire cyborg. Who knows for sure, but I believe art and language were in use by humans before fire. But, subduing nature’s wild fire and harnessing its power as a tool changed humanity forever. The fire cyborg had more light and more heat than any other creature. Using these, the fire cyborg was able to create and share stories far more than before. These are the main categories of technologies which define the cyborg then: Art / Media, Language / Communications, and Tools / Machinery.
The car extends our legs. The cyborg perceives physical space between locations as reduced. Any given destination is closer. The cyborg can be potentially anywhere. But, the car confines the individual within its physical boundaries. The driver cannot contact other drivers; he is in his own space, separated from all other space.
The phone extends our voices. The cyborg perceives social space between individuals as diminished. Any given person is nearer. The cyborg can contact potentially anyone. But, the phone confines the individual within the present time. The speaker cannot examine artifacts from the past; conversants are in a timeless present, separated from all other time.
The tv extends our eyes and ears. The cyborg perceives an increased density of events; more can happen in a shorter time frame. Any given event is more possible. The cyborg can experience potentially anything. But,TV is a monologue which forbids the individual to contribute to the development of the story. The viewer’s experience is defined by the production; separated from all other experience.
In recent modern history, the cyborg has evolved through three important technologies, one from each of these three categories. Tools and machines for transportation have evolved from horses to trains, planes and, most significantly, automobiles. The media of storytelling have evolved from handwritten manuscripts, sculpture and painting through the printing press to, photography, radio and finally film and (especially) television. Communications has evolved from face to face conversations through time-delayed letters to telegraph to immediate, long-distance, telephone conversations. So, we have the three most personal technologies of our time, the ones that most people have experienced, and the ones that have most changed the cyborg identity: the car, the phone and the tv.
The internet takes the technological extension of human capacity much further than past technology for many reasons. However, the fundamental reason is the nature of the computer and the connections between computers. Scott McNealy of Sun MicroSystems said, “The network is the computer.” He’s right. It’s not the individual computer that is the defining technology of our time, it’s the internet as a whole system. The internet, the global network of connected computers, is the first technology that belongs equally in all three major categories. It is a machine, a communications tool and a medium for story telling all at once.
The internet extends the mind. The cyborg perceives itself as a cell of consciousness in a global brain. Any given meme is closer to awareness. The cyborg can imagine or comprehend potentially any idea. Because it combines characteristics of art, machines, and communications, it supersedes the limitations of each. Using its car characteristic, the tv viewer can use the internet to navigate away from closed experience. Using its phone characteristic, the driver can use the internet to connect with other drivers. Using its tv characteristic, the conversant can use the internet to see what someone else expressed at any time in the past.
Furthermore, because it reflects characteristics of previous technologies, there is an easy evolution from earlier cyborgs to the emergent internet cyborg. Initially, the internet cyborg expresses internet experiences using metaphors drawn from all three technologies. However, new products born of the internet better reflect the mental extension the internet represents. The information highway, web chat, iphone, photo shop, painter, etc… Dreamweaver, neuroware, mindmapper.
Several characteristics of the medium further guide the development of the internet cyborg’s identity…
|The Internet is…||The Cyborg Developes…|
It’s a bidirectional medium: from ICQ, to web boards, to forms and DIY digital post cards; the internet permits interaction. The core content on many sites and in many parts of the internet is not produced but created by browsing, chatting and filling out forms.
Unlike earlier mass media, which are passive, the internet’s interactivity rewards active response and stimulates creativity. Millions of new personal home pages have been created and almost anyone can publish photography, sound and video recordings or animation of their own design.
Not only do web pages link to each other in infinite combinations, but beyond the web lie email, FTP, ICQ, IRC, etc…. And most of what is accessible is stored and available at any time.
The cyborg multitasks and is at ease being interrupted to change focus according to shifting flows of information and communication. Despite constant flux, security is rooted in knowing that previous threads can be rejoined at any future point – think bookmarks.
You can find anything on the Internet. This is a corollary of creativity – since it’s easy to add to the internet eventually everything will be added. The internet is both deep and broad. And, as a self-healing network, the internet routes around censorship – no idea can be supressed for long. The truth (and almost everything else) is out there.
Having learned interruptibility, the cyborg is calm in chaos and has no fear of loss. With a universe of experiences at the cyborg’s fingertips there is no incentive to reject anything in particular. The cyborg finds neither advantage nor comfort in polarized or hierarchical relationships and is free to embrace mutually contradictory positions. The internet cyborg is glue; that which binds opposites together.
The internet cyborg does not dream of lost perfection. Perfection is not even an ideal. For the internet cyborg, the power to survive depends not upon the pursuit of any abstract ideal but rather upon the power of imagination and expression. Hiding from nothing, rejecting nothing, the internet cyborg is marked by the world and makes a mark upon the world in return. The internet cyborg is connected.