A Survival Plan for the Wild Cyborg

Seven new rules for interacting with technology.

Friends, smartphones
In the near future, smartphones, watches, eyewear, and a growing circle of digital contacts will each demand more and more of our attention during everyday activities.

Photo by nensuria/iStock/Thinkstock

With smartphones, social media, sensor networks, robotics, virtual worlds, and big data analysis, our relationship with technology is becoming more and more intimate: We are becoming techno-people, or cyborgs. These changes are a subset of the Information Revolution, which in a new report my colleagues and I have termed the “intimate-technological revolution.” Whereas the raw materials of the Industrial Revolution were cotton, coal, and iron ore, the raw material of the intimate-technology revolution is us: our bodies, thoughts, feelings, preferences, conversations, and whereabouts.

As with the Industrial Revolution, the Information Revolution can destabilize the institutions and social arrangements that hold our world together. At stake here are the core attributes on which our social, political, and economic worlds are built: our individual freedom, our trust in one another, our capacity for good judgment, our ability to choose what we want to focus our attention on. Unless we want to discover what a world without those intimate attributes is going to be like, it is vital that we develop the moral principles to steer the new intimate-technological revolution, to lead it in humane ways and divert it from dehumanizing abuses. That is our moral responsibility.

I suggest this proposition: Let us accept that we are becoming cyborgs and welcome cyborgian developments that can give us more control over our own lives. But acceptance of a cyborg future does not equal blind embrace. We need to retain a healthy degree of wildness, cockiness, playfulness, and sometimes annoying idiosyncrasy. We should aspire to be wild cyborgs. The challenge will be to apply intimate technology in such a way that we become human cyborgs. I propose that we adhere to the following seven theses as a guide to our interactions with technology.

1. We need to keep our social and emotional skills on a high level.

We all know that if we don’t exercise our physical body we will lose strength and stamina. This is also true for our social and emotional skills, which are developed and maintained through interaction with other people. We are now entering a stage in which technology is taking on a more active role in the way we interact, measuring our emotions and giving us advice about how to communicate with others. To stay human, we have to keep our social and emotional skills, including our ability to have trust in people, on a high level. If we don’t do that, we run the risk that face-to-face communication may become too intimate an adventure and that our trust in other people will be defined and determined by technology.

2. The acts of loving, parenting, caring for, and killing must remain the strict monopoly of real people.

The history of industrial advance has also been a history of machine labor replacing human labor. This history has often been to our benefit, as drudgery and danger have been shifted from humans to machines. But as machines acquire more and more human characteristics, we must collectively start addressing the question of whether all the kinds of human activities that could be outsourced to the machines should be outsourced. I believe we should not outsource to machines certain essential human actions, such as killing, marriage, love, and care for children and the sick. Doing so might provide wonderful examples of human ingenuity but also the perfect formula for our dehumanization.

3. Without privacy, we are nothing. Our data should therefore belong to us.

Data about our actions and decisions are continuously captured and funneled by commercial companies, state authorities, and fellow citizens. Many people have unwittingly donated their social data to big companies in return for social media services. The large data owners say that’s not bad, and many users just parrot those words because they “have nothing to hide.” But if that is true, why do these same people lock their front door and not talk publicly about their credit card security code? Over the coming years, the way we will deal with our biological data, generated for example by smartphones and exercise monitors, provides the litmus test for whether we will be able to keep alive the concept of privacy and ensure that our physical and mental integrity are vouchsafed.

4. We must be aware of who is presenting information to us, and why.

With every click or search, we donate, to the Internet service providers, information about who we are and what we do. That type of information is used to build up individual user profiles, which in turn allow the providers to continually improve their ability to persuade us to do what is in their commercial or political interest, and to tailor such persuasive power for each individual. It can also be covertly prescriptive, pushing us to make certain choices. For example, psychology experiments suggest that we are particularly open to persuasion by people who look like us. Digital images of one’s own face can now be morphed with a second face from an online advertisement in ways that are not consciously discernible but still increase one’s susceptibility to persuasion. So to protect our freedom of choice, we have to be aware of the interests at stake.

5. We must be alert to the right of every person to freely make choices about their lives and ambitions.

Many markets thrive on a popular culture that challenges normal people to become perfect, whatever that means. As more technical means become available to enhance our outward appearance and physical and mental performance—our wrinkle-less skin, our rippling abs, our flamboyant sex life, our laser-like concentration—firms will pursue more effective ways to seduce us to strive for a perfection that they define. Are we really realizing ourselves if we strive to become “perfect” in the image created by marketers? We need to protect the right to strive for our own version of perfection and also nourish ways to accept our human imperfections.

6. We have the right not to be measured, analyzed, and coached.

The reach of the surveillance state has expanded tremendously over the past decade. At the same time, a big-data business culture has developed in which industry takes for granted, in the name of efficiency and customer convenience, that people can be treated as data resources. The state is surveying its citizens, companies are surveying their customers, citizens survey one another, and parents and schools use all the means available to survey children. Such a surveillance society is built on fear and mistrust, and treats people as objects that can and must be controlled. To safeguard our autonomy and freedom of choice we should strive for the right not to be measured, analyzed, or coached.

7. We must nurture our most precious possession, our ability to pay attention.

Economics tells us that as human attention becomes an increasingly scarce commodity, the commercial battle for our attention will continue to intensify. Many new communication media divert our attention away from everyday reality and toward a commercial environment in which each content provider attempts to optimally monopolize our focus. In the near future, smartphones, watches, eyewear, businesses, and a growing circle of digital contacts will each demand more and more of our attention during everyday activities such as shopping, cooking, or running on the beach. And since attention is a scarce resource, paying attention to one thing will come at the expense of our attention to other things. The digital age forces us to protect our freedom from continual intrusion and interruption, to guard our own unpolluted thoughts, our capacity to reflect on things in our own way, because that is what we really are.

The intimate-technological revolution will remake us by using as raw material data on our metabolism, our communications, our whereabouts, and our preferences. It will provide many wonderful opportunities for personal and social development. But the hybridization of ourselves and our technologies, and the political and economic struggle around this process, threatens to destabilize some qualities of our intimate lives that are also among the core foundations of our civil and moral society: freedom, trust, empathy, forgiveness, forgetting, attention. I offer the above seven propositions as a good starting point to further discuss and develop the wisdom that we will need to stay human by becoming wild cyborgs in the 21st century.

A version of this essay originally appeared in Issues in Science & Technology. Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University, and the New America Foundation; Issues in Science & Technology is a publication of the National Academies in partnership with Arizona State University and the University of Texas at Dallas.