EH Out Loud
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
The podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human.
Season 1, Episode 4: Woman as Cyborg
In this episode, we join Literature professor and director of Bard’s Center for Experimental Humanities, Maria Sachiko Cecire, as she chats with two students from her Woman as Cyborg class— Ariel West and Bird Cohen. Their discussion is followed by a rebroadcast of the episode “Our Quantified / Cyborg Selves,” from Maria’s podcast “In Theory,” which she hosts with Noorain Khan.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Hello and welcome to Experimental Humanities Out Loud, the podcast where we investigate how technology mediates what it means to be human. I’m Maria Sachiko Cecire, a professor here at Bard College and I’ll be taking you through this episode. I’m the Director of the Center for Experimental Humanities, and teach courses in literature and media studies at Bard. I’m hosting this episode because I teach a course called Woman as Cyborg, an EH and Literature seminar that explores why mechanized creations that perform physical, emotional, and computational labor have been routinely identified as women in both fiction and reality. A few years ago, I talked through how wearable technology is helping to blur the lines between human and machine with my friend, and fellow In Theory podcast host Noorain Khan. Today, some of the experimental humanities students in my Woman as Cyborg course are joining me in the studio to refresh and update that conversation. Hello?
Bird Cohen: Hi, I’m Bird Cohen. I’m a junior at Bard and a music major with a concentration in experimental humanities.
Ariel West: And hi, I’m Ariel West. I’m a sophomore at Bard who is majoring in film and also has a concentration in experimental humanities.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: First, I wanted to ask what got you interested in thinking about how technology informs the human experience– our big EH question.
Bird Cohen: The generation that we are in is like the first generation to be completely entrenched visually, or visibly, in technology and it really manifests in your life and your relationships from, like, day one. So when I think about my artistic practice or my academic practice everything is informed by technology and that’s just like the more direct stuff you can see. I mean, obviously we make art and we write and we learn on a computer, but clearly things go a lot deeper than that now that technology’s kind of changed from, like, steampunk-y levers and gears to more organic systems. So it’s really hard to unmesh yourself from that so I think it’s just something that’s important for everyone to think about.
Ariel West: When I first got interested in thinking about technology and how, like, it evolves in society was probably last year when I took your Intro to Media— also Maria’s Intro to Media class. [laughs] I was a little bit— like I was definitely afraid of like those technologies and, like, what they’re doing to society and I think that that class helped me think about technology as something that is not just a phone or computer. It’s like glasses and like a pencil, how even writing— and how that made it so society evolved in these other ways that I cherish. So that helped me think about why I was scared of these technologies and, like, the good things they can do.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: You know, building off what you both are talking about just now— do you see yourself as a cyborg?
Bird Cohen: I think I do and if you would have asked me that ten years ago, I think I would’ve thought that you were talking about something from Star Trek. And, you know, still I— it took me a while to realize that the way that we look at technology is not really what it means. Because I think when we hear the word technology we think of really flashy things— which is, um–
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Digital technology?
Bird Cohen: Yeah, yeah. So I mean— I remember reading a long time ago about how like IUDs are considered like cyborg— like cyborg-y?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Like intrauterine devices?
Bird Cohen: Yeah, and then I thought about how I’m wearing glasses. I think just like any— any device that has been, like, created by us to enhance our lives in any way is– what’s a good, like, adjective to describe it— “cyborg-y?”
Maria Sachiko Cecire: I would go with cyborg-y. I think that’s the official term starting right now.
Bird Cohen: Cyborg-y, yeah? OK, it’s the official term. Perfect.
Ariel West: I guess from my perspective, like thinking about the ways me using, like, data-collecting technologies I guess and apps and platforms— is the fact that I’m using those technologies mean that I’m a cyborg? Or is it the fact that these structures like capitalism is collecting data and using it for their own things— is that what being a cyborg is? Is it being a cyborg being within a structure that is like using your data and like your body as technology, kind of.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, that’s great. So there’s a kind of distinction between thinking about yourself as an autonomous cyborg being or as part of a much larger system that draws upon your body and your data and your work in the world as part of a bigger machine.
Ariel West: Exactly, yeah like—yeah, exactly.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: So these are both fabulous questions. So—but, for now, why don’t we start off for people who might be new to some of these questions by listening to the In Theory episode that Noorain and I put out several years ago. And, we’ll start out by thinking there about wearable technology and things like FitBits and to the extent to which the Quantified Self movement— the movement towards quantifying yourself, breaking yourself down into the kind of data that Ariel was just talking about now, might make us into cyborgs. So let’s listen.
Noorain Khan: Hello, and welcome to “In Theory,” the podcast where we talk about the theories that help us make sense of the world. I’m Noorain Khan.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: And I’m Maria Sachiko Cecire.
Noorain Khan: Today we’ll be talking about the Quantified Self Movement—the movement to gather data about ourselves and use it in the quest for self improvement. Improvements in technology have been key to the expansion of the Quantified Self Movement and the mainstreaming of some of its ideas over the past five years. Sensors are smaller and cheaper than ever, our ability to store large amounts of information has been enhanced many times over, and easy borrowing for tech companies and startups has led to the proliferation of tracking devices and apps.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: In today’s episode, we’ll start off with some background on the Quantified Self Movement, including the good, the bad, and the ugly. We’ll then—no joke—move on to a discussion of whether we’re all cyborgs. Finally, we’ll examine what the future looks like in light of our quantifiable, data-driven inclinations.
Noorain Khan: So Maria and I thought it would make sense and also be fun to start off by sharing some of the ways in which we track ourselves and why. I can start off by sharing some of my favorites—
Maria Sachiko Cecire: OK, go for it.
Noorain Khan: If I don’t scare you—OK, so I will reveal myself to be the person that likes loves all personal tracking—I always have. So okay, there’s like lots of little different bits of this. The ones I use or have used are the Fitbit Moment, the billable hour tracking that we used to have at my law firm, my period tracker and Gmail meter. The app Moment, which was kind of an endorsement recommended by a podcast that we listen to called “Note to Self,” which used to be called “New Tech City,” and they had a movement where they’d encourage you to kind of be online less, and one of the ways in which they told you to do this was using this app that tells you how much you’ve been using your phone. So I look at it periodically, and it’s not very helpful to me, because there’s so many different ways in which I use my phone that it’s not helpful to know. Like I’m just streaming a ton of TV because I’m tired and bored, I don’t think that’s bad because I’m just tired and bored.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: [laughs]
I think that’s kind of the point of moment, Noorain. Because you’re supposed to be, I don’t know, painting a picture while you’re tired and bored or something; stretching.
Noorain Khan: Totally fair, though the kind of program that led to their recommendation of this was called “Bored and Brilliant,” and the idea was that you are supposed to be smarter if you get bored, so maybe I’m just a bad audience for that. For a while I used this thing called Gmail Meter, which fetches your email and tells you who you email with the most. I wanted to pull up the very first one I found because for some reason I stopped doing it, but the first one I pulled up was from May of 2013 and two of the four top threads I had that month had to do with your 30th birthday party. So, yeah, I thought that was always such a fun way to see you like which of my friends I was communicating with. This reminded me that I want to pick that up again.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: That’s cool.
Noorain Khan: I forgot to say that I haven’t been working for the last couple of months and I also found a way to keep track of my activities every day, and I kind of color coded them. I wish I was kidding, but I’m not. I have social, job networking experience which is stuff I wouldn’t do if I was working normally, but it’s fulfilling. I have one for In Theory, etc. I will say I did look and at some point I thought, “Oh I’ve been hanging out too much and not really focusing on my job search; I’ve got to do that” just by glancing at my unique color-coding situation. How about you, Maria? How do you keep track of your life?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Well, I mean I’m a user of the Google Calendar and I have different kinds of tasks that are color coded. And I make lists and I check them off, but otherwise I’m not a very active pursuant of the Quantified Self Movement. I don’t have a Fitbit, I did download Moment to see my cell phone usage but then it took up too many megabytes on my cell phone which I wanted to put music on instead, so I deleted it. I don’t really do it very much. I’m definitely obsessed with data in the same way a lot of people get, so for example, our “In Theory” website metrics: I’m always checking them and interested in how they fluctuate depending on different things that we do, and different days of the week, and what’s happening in people’s lives, so I find it fascinating. But, in terms of my own kind of output, I don’t know if I’m just like, lazy. I mean I also have some kind of philosophical concerns about quantifying myself in all of these ways, so I try not to do it too much. But I do like the normal stuff; like I weigh myself when I remember to.
Noorain Khan: Great, so we both have different ways we find this to be useful, but I would love to hear more about your reservations and thoughts as we go along, for sure.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Cool.
Noorain Khan: Maybe I’m being a little reckless and overly zealous.
Noorain Khan: It might be useful just to understand what we’re talking about when we talk about the Quantified Self Movement.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, I didn’t actually know what it was; I knew that there all these things out there that you could use to quantify different parts of your life, but I didn’t know it was a whole movement.
Noorain Khan: It’s a whole thing. Well before we started calling it that, you know, people tracked different things about themselves for a long time. Women tracked their period and fertility thousands of years ago—that was useful information. Training logs for athletes have always been a really big deal, but there have always been ways in which people have been gathering information about themselves and their bodies toward a particular end.
But, the term “Quantified Self” was created by Gary Wolf and Kevin Kelly, who were writers for Wired Magazine in around 2008, and it basically spawned a global movement of meetups and conferences and meetings of both users of this information and the people who created this technology to determine best practices, share methods, and to give advice on self-improvement through this data/metrics.
I’d say more recently, it’s a term used to describe—and it’s just been mainstream, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that that particular, specific movement or individuals—just the movement of us gathering information. Apple launched its Health Suite in 2014, so people were able to track their steps and their weight and other things through that. There other fitness trackers that have gained pretty serious traction like Jawbone UP and Fitbit and Nike Fuel, so the technology has gotten better, more and more people are talking about it, and there really is this swelling of the movement. I mean I’ve even heard, and we talked about industrial complex is so much, we’ve heard lots of people talking about the Tracking Industrial Complex, so there’s lots of different ways to describe it. But, we’re going to use the term the “quantified self” in a very loosey-goosey way, probably not necessarily aligned with that specific group of people who are meeting up all the time about this more recent movement.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, like I bought my grandfather a Fitbit for Christmas with my siblings last year, and he’s super into it. Which is adorable. But, he’s definitely not attending any kind of event in Silicon Valley.
Noorain Khan: Yet. You never know. He’s going places. Some people think this is all super great, it helps people document, diagnose, and improve their health and actual social behaviors. They feel more control over their well-being, they feel more empowered to make change. I mean, I don’t know if that’s how you feel about any of the ways in which you document yourself, but there’s a lot of language around this and certainly the marketing of these products—especially in respect to sleep and other stuff.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah. The language of that stuff is precisely what freaks me out about it.
Noorain Khan: Yes, yes! Talk about that.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: [laughs] I feel like that kind of portioning out of the self in the idea that everything ultimately can be broken down into factoids or bits of information and, you know, the idea that data or information at the end of the day is kind of the true composition of everything, I just don’t agree with that. And the more that we use those metaphors as a way to break up who we are into these discrete pieces, I think the easier it is to believe that and to lose sight of the fact that a lot of parts of our life bleed into each other and influence each other, and that also we’re more than maximization machines. Although I definitely at times need to maximize more! But I also think it’s kind of, especially amongst over-achieving people, it can get really out of control and, for other people, it can legitimate behaviors that seem really oppressive, where we just have a culture that expects everyone to be at maximum productivity all the time, like, for what? For what are we at maximum productivity all the time?
Noorain Khan: Right. It’s super unforgiving if you have that documented.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah! It’s like we’re trying to have the hottest bod and produce the most billable hours and do all these things for other people’s money making? For? There are definitely benefits to it but I think there’s also needs to be some kind of stepping back and asking questions.
Noorain Khan: Your intuitions put the finger on the pulse of a lot of public criticism about a lot of this stuff. You’re totally on point. I’ll list off some of the concerns people have about this. First and foremost, the quality of the data. It’s not all it promises to be, and we assume at all times that these things are operating at their at their best and they may not be. The time and effort that goes into capturing the data assumes a level of privilege. If you’re living paycheck-to-paycheck and working multiple jobs, you don’t want to stay till 3 a.m. inputting the food that you ate during your 15 minute lunch hour. So, it just assumes a level of privilege to be able to devote time to this stuff. It causes you to prioritize things that may not necessarily be the best, just because they’re more quantifiable. And so much of these criticisms span over a lot of other things. There was a really great New Yorker article this week on criticisms of the GDP and the term the “GDP”. It’s super ubiquitous, but it’s also super arbitrary and kind of absurd if you assume the growth that we’re at right now; like in X number of years we’ll be a billion times more productive than we are right now. So, they don’t capture everything and we don’t necessarily think about the limitations of these things when we’re using this data. The goals you’re pointed to might not be the best for you; like, is 10,000 steps really the right thing for everyone regardless of their age, weight, and gender? I’m sure you’re familiar with a lot of the gender criticisms of a lot of this technology because they were developed by men.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: For men.
Noorain Khan: Yeah. In the bigger picture, are we confident that the data that we’re so willing to gather about ourselves is going to be safe and not misused by others? This is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of criticism, but I guess— it’s just not stuff you think about regularly. So on the whole is this stuff good or bad?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: That’s a really big question—I can’t answer it right away, but I think that on the whole, it’s got both in it. What concerns me is the way it shapes our culture, and I think that there’s so much valuable stuff that we can do with quantifying apps and that sort of thing, but everything has to be approached with your brain screwed on, you know? I think that a lot of times because of the way that these companies make money, it’s not in their interest to ask us to think carefully through what happens to our data. For a lot of these companies, that’s what they really want—it’s not to sell us hardware. Right? That’s all fine and good, but what’s more exciting is how many steps a day do these people in these demographic groups take in these parts of the world? And where do they go? That’s information that’s so useful to them. So there’s that. At the same time, its can be empowering to have a sense of yourself in a way that is kind of a snapshot. So—meh.
Noorain Khan: Meh. [laughs] So let’s wrap up this background section. You know people have been gathering and using data about themselves for thousands of years, but rapid technological changes have enhanced our ability to do this today. Like so many things in life, this is probably not necessarily singularly good or bad but it probably depends on how you do this and your approach. And, frankly, it also depends on security and who has access to the information about you.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Indeed it does.
Noorain Khan: So, Maria, are we all cyborgs?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: So a cyborg is a combination of organic and cybernetic being. So part human and part machine, basically, which is how we would think about it when comes to talking about ourselves. Why did we take this sudden left turn to cyborgs from Fitbits? Because it seems a little bit extreme. [laughs] But, I’m really interested in this question, because I think it’s kind of one of the most fun aspects of all of our wearable technology now is that a lot of our sci-fi dreams about the future are starting to come true. I think a lot of times we don’t really notice how quickly it’s happening.
Noorain Khan: At all. Yeah.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Exactly, right? So there’s a theorist that I definitely want to talk about because she’s so important and so interesting. Her name is Donna Haraway and she wrote something called “A Cyborg Manifesto” which she published in 1985 originally and then was a part of this book that she published in the 90s. At the time, she argued that we are already cyborgs — in part because we do wear and carry around technologies on us… and she wrote this in the 80’s….
Noorain Khan: Yeah! I can’t believe she said that in 1985—I wonder what she would say now. Now we’re fully robots.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Exactly! And for her, it’s not just the stuff that we wear but, more importantly, the leaky distinction between humans and machines that came about in the 20th century.
Noorain Khan: OK.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: And that grows out of work she was doing on the distinction between humans and animals. So Darwin — our friend Darwin — really shook up the way everybody thought about what it means to be human with his theories of evolution, because you go from being divinely created, placed on Earth by God to, you know, evolved from animals.
She’s saying how, by the time she was writing in the 80’s, the distinction between humans and animals is pretty much completely broken down and people see themselves as animals, as a kind of animal distinct from other animals, but also an animal. But what was really special about the later part of the twentieth century and totally true now is how much we’ve started to think about ourselves as machines. So really it’s a metaphor thing. There is the thing where we actually have all these extensions of ourselves that are made up of machinery, but then there’s also the way that we imagine ourselves. One of the most obvious ways to think about that would be the metaphors that we use when we’re talking about ourselves. We’ll talk about “processing” information or a need to “reboot” something, so we start to borrow the language of machinery and especially computers now to talk about ourselves and our minds.
Noorain Khan: Oh my gosh like “shut it down!” I’ve never thought about that before.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah! I find it so interesting. And then we start to shift over to use the language of industrial machinery following the Industrial Revolution and the 20th century and talking about our bodies as machines in that way. And we still kind of use that kind of language, especially when talking about working out and that kind of stuff. “He’s a machine!” for example. That way of thinking about ourselves is really important because it throws into question — by deciding that we’re happy to use Fitbits all the time and that we’re happy to quantify all these different parts of ourselves — it throws into question what we even think it means to be human, which is like the biggest question.
Noorain Khan: Especially because this creeps up on us right over time. It’s nothing that happened overnight and it’s certainly not like the encounters that people envisioned when they were sci-fi fantasy-ing about this, right? A lot of those movements were the creation of an artificial being at a particular moment that forced the hand of imagining or reconciling the situation and instead it’s like bit-by-bit, microprocessor by microprocessor, and item-by-item this is happening to us. It’s just really interesting because given how much I engage with this stuff I’ve thought very little about the bigger picture.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: It’s really fun. I taught a couple classes around these topics and it’s just like my brain was exploding every day. It was so fun to read about and so interesting. There’s actually a lot of physical “cyborg-ism” around, so we see internal things like pace-makers, cochlear implants, etc. More and more we’re seeing that as a part of medical practices and we’re taking for granted that that’s happening, but we don’t treat those people like cyborgs and it’s also not that super common. But some of the really interesting theory also is looking at things that can be put on and off like eyeglasses or even like carrying around an extra little brain that you can put in your pocket which has all kinds of information out there that more than you ever be able to carry inside of your own brain.
Noorain Khan: Oh my gosh, like Google glass!
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah! Or just like your phone, right? There’s another theorist—another important media theorist—from the 60’s. I mean, let’s talk about people thinking ahead of their time! He was writing about electronic media; Marshall McLuhan is interested in the idea of media as extensions of the self, so every time every time we adopt a new media as something that we’re really kind of reliant upon and is totally entered into our lives, it rearranges what he calls our “sense perceptions,” and so the way that we engage with the world shifts because now we have this extended part of ourselves that makes it so we engage with the world differently. So, like, how many people, when they wake up in the morning and if they leave for work and realize they forgotten their phone, about-face, run back in, and grab it?
Noorain Khan: Yeah, totally, because you feel like some part of you is missing.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Exactly, because if we’re used to having an extended brain and extended ear and extended mouth so you can talk to people far away and you can hear from them and you can find out information on-the-go, and all this other stuff, and suddenly you’re expected to go your whole day without this part of your body, it feels crazy. Like, I’m not doing that. So I mean, all this Quantified Self Movement stuff is really interesting to me because it is a very much an adoption and embracing of thinking about ourselves, at least in some ways, machine-like. Which I don’t actually think it’s necessarily bad, but it is something that we should know that we’re doing.
Noorain Khan: Right! Well, so many of the imagined encounters like this historically have been terrifying and alarming, so it’s hard not to put that value judgment on it and to feel like it’s a real encounter with basically aliens or something.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: I totally agree, and Donna Haraway was actually really into cyborgism and the Cyborg Manifesto is actually a feminist text and her argument was basically, “Ladies, time to embrace cyborgism. This is the answer we’ve all been looking for” because it breaks us free from biological determinism; we’re no longer bound to the expectations of our body.
Noorain Khan: That’s real, wow.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, because once you see yourself as a part-machine being that is not defined by family connections, marriage connections, reproduction, then now all these opportunities open up to women that weren’t open to them before. And, in fact, can transform society not just for women, but for everybody. So she actually saw this as this a really hopeful possibility. Although whether or not that has actually come to pass, I can’t say. So hearing about this, does this affect the way that you think about yourself as someone who is, you know, kind of part of the Quantified Self Movement in a way?
Noorain Khan: I think I, at least initially, found this to be like a little scary because the bigger picture had escaped to me. I was so in tune with my phone and figuring myself out. But, I am someone that is in love with self-help and self-improvement. So I think I probably—once I got over my initial ignorance and the shock of that, I actually feel okay about this. I think that my main fear relates to the misuse of my own information—like someone else will understand me better than I understand myself—someone who has access to this stuff. I think other than that, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with becoming, like, half-cyborg, mostly cyborg.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: That’s so interesting. I think that’s awesome, because basically what you’re saying is you don’t mind being a cyborg—being part-machine—as long as no one else is holding my controls.
Noorain Khan: 100%. The Borg in Star Trek—I could just go on and on about that. The Borg are only scary in that they follow the mission of the person in charge.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Exactly. Yeah! That’s so true.
Noorain Khan: What about you?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: I think at the end of the day, what’s so scary about these visions of cyborg futures is often that we will be programmable from the outside. I know I forced you to read this YA novel Feed by M.T. Anderson, which I just adore. I teach it and I recommend it to everyone. Basically, it’s about being part cyborg and thinking that you have control over yourself, but the ways in which consumer culture actually, totally infiltrates your mind makes it so that what you want has been —
Noorain Khan: –fed into you, essentially!
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Exactly. Fed into you by outside influences and that’s not what you want.
Noorain Khan: We should totally link the book, it’s a great read, and thank you for bringing that into my life.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Well, we have been collecting data on ourselves for a long time as human beings. Our time now is special in that we not only have access to so much more information about ourselves, but we’ve actually started to think of ourselves as machines in a sense—particularly as computers. This has huge ramifications for what it means to be a person today, and can seriously influence people on what it means to be a person in the future too. So we’ll get to that next.
Noorain Khan: So all of this is leading to the biggest question of them all—and is today is totally a macro day. What does the future of all of this look like? How does us putting on a Fitbit and checking our phones incrementally lead to something bigger?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, I love the way that today has gone from the most micro—which is like, one step marked on our little tally on our phone—to the super macro which is what does it mean to be human and where are we all going? And I feel that we cannot talk about cyborgs and quantifying ourselves without talking about the singularity. So, you may have come across at some point Ray Kurzweil who is a futurist, inventor, and a thinker. He now works for Google, of course, and he suggests that the end game to all of this that we’re talking about is—you got it—immortality. He’s working on the possibility of maximizing the body’s health potentials and working with artificial intelligence to eventually merge with machines so that we will never die.
Noorain Khan: Yes! …No. [laughs]
Maria Sachiko Cecire: It’s kind of a logical conclusion of wanting to be the most in-shape, and the most healthy, and the most mindful, and “the most” of all these other things is to be so maximal that you never die.
Noorain Khan: It also sounds like such a “dude thing”—like a “dude dream.” [laughs]
Maria Sachiko Cecire: [laughs] Don’t even get me started on the demographics of the community that is involved in this kind of futurist thinking. Yeah… Oh my god, there’s an amazing Tumblr called “White Dudes Wearing Google Glass”—I recommend.
Noorain Khan: Yeah, no, it’s so real! So, so real.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: So basically the idea of the singularity is that in the very near future, based on the exponential rate of technological development, we are going to merge with computers and be— permanently from here on out—part and potentially completely, machine. Yeah.
Noorain Khan: Living the dream. Of some.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah. He builds off of something called Moore’s Law which talks about the rate of computer advancement. He’s looking at things like computing speeds, memory storage capacity, global telecommunications reach; all of that stuff is increasing and speeding up so rapidly that he’s arguing that within less than 30 years, between 2030 and sometime around 2045, we’re going to be merged with machines completely. So here’s what creeps me out about it the most. There’s this story about how he’s trying to bring his dad back to life and I think it really relates to the quantified self because basically what it is, is that he’s gathering up all the output from his dad’s life, like letters, documents, photos, and is taking all of this information and trying to recreate his personality and his mind from all of these bits of information, and he wants to make a clone from his DNA also so he can kind of whack that mind into the body. And there’s this one article where he gets interviewed about it and he says, “You can certainly argue that philosophically, that is not your father, that it’s a replica, but I can actually make a strong case that it would be more like my father than my father would be were he to live.”
Noorain Khan: That’s so creepy.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: I know! Exactly, because — but, it’s not your father. So all it does is make you feel good about the idea that you’re around your father. Maybe it would have made your father feel good to think that there will be some legacy of him that lives on but he wouldn’t know anything about it.
Noorain Khan: It’s just so interesting because we’ve been jokingly saying that this is forcing our hand and making us talk about who we are, what are we—whatever, but that question is clearly the next thought that comes to mind after you hear something like that. Really, truly, who are we? We can’t be that—we can’t be the product of our quantifiable outputs and our DNA. There’s more to our souls than that—or maybe that’s the spiritual me talking.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: No, totally. It’s like that question of if you have a ship that leaves a port and you replace every single item on the ship over the course of its travels, is it the same ship when it gets back, you know? I don’t know!
Noorain Khan: Woah! Amazing.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: So yeah, I don’t know. There’s definitely a lot of raced, classed, and gendered stuff going on with this particular community and, like you said, it does feel like the concerns of people who have a lot of things going for them worrying about mortality—which, sure, people worried about for a very long time. But I do think there’s something kind of beautiful in the human striving to live forever, but I think part of what makes it beautiful is it’s inevitable tragedy and to me there’s something kind of perverse in the idea that they might succeed. It just seems uncanny to me. But, maybe I’m just too bound to my animal self.
So okay. While we are in the midst of our day-to-day of trying to gather and use data to understand ourselves individually, there are a lot of folks out there who are thinking about our society’s broader future. For some, like Ray Kurzweil, that means merging with machines. Really, all of these questions are nudging us to the bigger questions at hand, so who are we? What are we? Where do we want to go? Do we want to live forever? I don’t know. I bet you didn’t put on your Fitbit this morning thinking it was turning you into a robot, but maybe it is.
Noorain Khan: It’s likely that we will continue to have more access than ever to technologies that will help us gather information to improve ourselves. It’s so easy to get an iOS update and start to use a new kind of application, but in the aggregate it’s also super useful to think about what you want to get out of any one of these applications or technologies, and to really think about the bigger picture of where we’re headed as a society if we continue to use them. It’s also important to think about the limitations of any given piece of technology.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: I totally agree. I also think it’s worth pausing and asking ourselves how does this culture of the quantified self contribute to the frantic need to be productive? Why do we even want to maximize ourselves? There are some serious overlaps here between the most intimate, personal parts of ourselves, and capitalist theories of maximization. This is especially true since a lot of these technologies feed directly into a corporate system that totally monetizing our data. We live in a society that prizes production and maximization, goal-setting and achieving—you know, these aren’t bad things, but what about contemplation, learning for its own sake, compassion, generosity, pursuit of art and beauty? I think it’s worth taking the time to think about that stuff and making sure we have space for it in our lives too.
Noorain Khan: Totally fair and thank you Maria. That totally, totally resonates.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: But also, you know, feminist robots: good.
Noorain Khan: Great, all right, want to shut this down?
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Totally.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Questions, comments, ideas— we’d love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find past podcasts and more info about us at intheory.us or on our Facebook page. Please subscribe to us on iTunes and recommend us to any and all of your friends. Seriously. Please.
Noorain Khan: “In Theory” is produced with the support of Experimental Humanities and Human Rights Radio at Bard College. Music composition and art design by the unrivaled Aaron Taylor Waldman. Thanks for listening!
Maria Sachiko Cecire: So, thanks for listening. Back to Bird and Ariel— for the two of you, being in the Woman as Cyborg course, which kind of departs from some of the discussions in the episode we just listened to. Being in this course, what’s one thing you’d want to add to this conversation for our Humanities Out Loud listeners?
Bird Cohen: So one thing listening to this episode, like, now in 2019, I think one thing that has changed is that the whole Quantified Self movement which felt very revolutionary and very like kind of out there, very present. In 2016, it has kind of become a lot more ubiquitous, a lot more hidden, and lot more integrated I think. I— it may be partially because all of the features of these, like, devices that people used to buy really, like, all the time, like Fitbit’s have just been integrated into your phone. And even— even like the Apple watch which was I think first marketed really is a lifestyle device or a piece of jewelry has now kind of switched to be marketed more as a device for athletes and for people to monitor themselves. So, it’s an interesting shift that I’ve noticed in the past three or four years.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, so the idea that the Quantified Self movement is not so much of a thing, not because people stop doing it but because it’s so everywhere that you don’t even need to talk about it as a movement, it’s just life.
Ariel West: Yeah, exactly and the fact that you don’t even know what used to be on a Fitbit is just, like, in your phone and it has been in your phone for, like, what— two years? So you can look back look at something that’s been and tracking you, but you didn’t realize it. And also your phone also becomes somewhere where you’re self-policing because you— OK, like, for me I go on Instagram— I decided too much so I have like a timer that turns on and it tells me if I’ve been on Instagram for more than thirty minutes and then I always ignore it which is really bad. But, it’s supposed to make me stop doing it. [laughs] One, it used to be tracking the outside world and what you were doing in the outside world has also become tracking what you’re doing online. And then two, like it’s all within one device I guess. So it’s just a part of what we’re doing everyday.
Bird Cohen: Yeah, I think our data is being collected all the time and we’ve grown—just like we were allowing it. It’s okay like–
Maria Sachiko Cecire: We’re acquiescing.
Bird Cohen: Exactly, we’re acquiescing to it and it’s out there and it’s influencing our relationship with capitalism, with what we buy and people were up-and-arms about that for a hot second and then it just kind of became subdued.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: And that kind of speaks to what you were saying earlier, Ariel, before we were listening to– Thinking about how we end up inscribed in systems that are using us all the time and that we acquiesce to being used inside of, but that makes us inside of something much bigger than ourselves something often very intensely digitized in a way that you can certainly argue makes us part of a kind of cybernetic machine.
Bird Cohen: You talk in the episode about Kurzweil and I don’t know a lot about him, but I think it might be fair to say that he’s probably not looking for a like communist, posthuman, utopia. Probably more like he feels super psyched to be inside of a computer and to lose his body and I think like comparing that to what Donna Haraway talks about in terms of being able to use the technology in place to kind of refresh, reimagine the systems that we have now and use our relationship to technology in a really empowering way, I think that difference really shows the way that feminist theory works with cyborg theory.
Maria Sachiko Cecire: Yeah, I mean this kind of hopefully reminds us of the kind of two sides of the cyborg that we’re imagining. Both where women end up becoming essentially machinery; the Stepford Wives situation, right? You’re, like, replaceable by robots and in some ways really are just kind of an extension of men’s, in many historical circumstances, need for labor. On the other side is this Harawaian version of the cyborg which is all about making connections and affinities where you want, letting go of old origin stories, and letting go of old structures and hierarchies and trying to imagine a whole new system being unfaithful to your military, industrial fathers and trying to make something new. Thank you both so much, this has been super fun and I’m looking forward to the rest of the semester with you and I hope you all will tune in for more episodes from Experimental Humanities Out Loud.