Prosthetic Gods

A cadre of people decked out in half space suits, half combat armor walk through a desolate, arid wilderness toward a bunker.  A door opens revealing a passageway into an abandoned underground installation.  On a platform elevator they descend hundreds of feet.  As they continue through hexagonal corridors they notice a helmet, not unlike theirs, lying ominously on the ground.  Finally, they enter a room where a solitary metallic object suspended in mid-air spins on its axis.  One man removes his armor from his right arm and extends his now bare arm into an opening in the object.  The object stops spinning.  His comrades look on with apprehension; the man pulls out his arm.  As he does so his arm morphs into a mechanical, cyborg arm.  Then, and this is the climax, from the palm of his newly mechanized arm, the Droid X emerges.

Now there’s a commercial, and if you haven’t already seen it, you can watch for yourself at the end of this post.  I first saw this commercial sitting in the theater waiting for Inception to begin, only I didn’t immediately realize it was a commercial.  Had I walked in just then I would have assumed the previews had started.  A bit over-the-top perhaps, but maybe not.

There’s a lot that can be said about this elaborate piece of sci-fi marketing, but let’s take it at face value.  It is actually a rather straightforward dramatization of an important and intriguing metaphor:  technology as prosthesis.  Marshall McLuhan, patron saint of media studies, popularized the concept that our tools or technologies function as prosthetic extensions of our bodies.  For example, the hammer functions as an extension of the hand, the wheel as an extension of the foot, or electric technology functions as an extension of the nervous system.  McLuhan, however, was neither the first nor the last to employ the metaphor.  In Civilization and Its Discontents, Sigmund Freud suggested that,  “Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic god.”   But man also wore his prosthetic divinity awkwardly.  Freud goes on to say, “When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times.”

Technology as a prosthetic enhancement has been a rich concept deployed by a variety of philosophers and critics including Martin Heidegger, Jacques Derrida, and Donna Haraway.  In her “Cyborg Manifesto,” Haraway in particular argued that our technologies have been making the line between natural and artificial, machine and organism, cyborg and human more than a little fuzzy.  Often the idea of technology as prosthetic is paired with the related metaphor of amputation — something gained, something lost — so that on the whole there is a certain ambiguity about our prosthetic tools.  You can read more about the concept in a well-written overview here, but I want to focus on the very simple idea that our technologies became a part of us.

Think about this in light of the question that I asked in yesterday’s post, “A God that Limps.” Why do we react so defensively when we hear someone criticize our technologies?  The concept of prosthesis suggests a compelling response:  because we take it not as a criticism of some object apart from us, but rather as an object that has become in some sense a part of us.  We hear such criticism as a criticism of ourselves.

The more seamlessly a technologies blends in with our bodies, the more attached we become.  Take the Blue Tooth enhanced cell phone, for example, responsible for all those people seemingly talking to themselves.  Notice how this metaphor helps explain that odd development.  The device has become transparent, we forget it is even there.  This makes the communication seem almost unmediated consequently causing us to act as naturally as if we were in the person’s presence (and only that person’s presence).  Or take the iTouch/iPhone/iPad that allows us to magically touch the Internet; now that is an extension of the central nervous system!  Gone is the clunky mouse or keyboard, we now appear to be touching the information itself, the layers of mediation seem to be peeling away.

The better these tools work, the more invisible they become; or, as the Droid X commercial suggests, the more they become a part of us.  Tweaking Arthur C. Clarke’s Third Law just a little, we might say that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from our bodies.  Naturally, we are pretty defensive of our bodies; not surprisingly we tend to be pretty defensive of our technologies as well.

26 thoughts on “Prosthetic Gods

  1. You can often hear car enthusiasts talk about their automobile being an extension of themselves and sometimes even athletes who speak about there being no discernable line of seperation between them and the equipment they use. This may be another example of the same kind of thing.
    It is fascinating and, perhaps even a halmark of being human–the ability to create, use and refine tools.

    1. that comment has reminded me of the older times before the industrial revolution, when simple working tools (such as hammers) could mean so much to the worker, whose craft have been passed to him through generations that it could be reffered as his second hand- if not his second soul (I am exaggerting here but, for my opinion, that aspect should be studied more).

  2. It is interesting to think about technology as the apogee of human prosthesis. I am one of the first generations to grow up entirely surrounded by technology. I think nothing of using my iphone as an extension of myself, I use it to share my thoughts, search for what interests me, call my friends to share what I like, and checking in to see what my social network is doing around me.

    The idea that our technology becomes our god is thought provoking, but to see how much of a reality this already is, just look around. It is not unusual to see people engrossed by something on their smartphones, it is annoying to be in an area without 3G or wireless available, and it is almost unthinkable to be separated from our social networks for any length of time.

    The intersection of humanity and technology is here and growing everyday, and it certainly is something to think about.

  3. Hey Michael, nice work again here. I’ve continued reading your stuff as I’ve worked through my own.

    It’s not just gadgets that people get attached to. When I’m not studying, I sell running shoes to people who “need” the custom fit and support that our vendors provide. The shoes are sculpted to the foot and correct movement where needed. These materials fit and flex with the foot, they react as you hit the pavement every time. You can actually feel it move in some of them. They’re not quite prosthetic limbs, but they’re close. Go look at a Chaco sandal for a simple and clear representation – the sculpted heel cup intended to support the arch because it “can’t do it on its own,” the adjustable straps to make sure your shoe fits “you,” and a versatility that makes the product ideal for warm weather-wear across the board. Buy a Chaco, you just bought a new foot.

    Also, take a look at what happened when people started figuring out that their bodies weren’t intended to need artificial support. Science provided yet another solution.

  4. I think you have a great point here, fortunately for me my phone is not attached to my body, I have the cheapest phone out there and I never use it unless if I’m making calls. I am rather connected with my lap top, but I can’t bring it everywhere with me.

  5. Good post. Very thought provoking. However, I see it a little differently – the video that is. It’s a reminder to not become too dependent on technology to the extent of emasculating oneself. Retain independence and aptitude.

  6. “HEXagonal corridors!”

    is what someone would reply if they didn’t have anything intelligent to say about MacCluan and Haraway and et al. (Probably not funny coming from a total stranger. I’m sorry.)

    It is interesting how the sacrifice of one’s own organic arm is shown to be a good thing. Technology as an extension of our bodies is one thing; replacing our bodies is something else.

    1. We already do….replacement hips, replacement knees, pacemakers, etc. all of it is technology even if a joint replacement in stainless steel doesn’t connect to your facebook.

  7. It seems that this commercial and all the technology that we all have come to love and depend on sends us all one step closer to having a chip implanted into us to communicate, search info, be geo tracked, ect. Luckily, it’s still outside of our body….for now!

  8. Technology has been a part of ourselves for a long time. We define ourselves through wall papers, car brands, cell phone colours, clothes et cetera. And there’s no reason to draw the line where the skin ends, mainly because it’s a fuzzy line that can’t be drawn even if you wanted to define yourself as a unitary being. You can cut a thumb off and you’d still be you.

    In cognitive science the mind is often talked of as extended beyond the brain. The brain functions like a command central that fetches information from the memory and brings it to awareness. Similarly, a library and even the internet is accessible to this brain function and the only difference is that you’re getting the information from outside the brain instead of from the memory. The library, if you have index knowledge of it, is a part of your mind.

    What I find interested is how we will modify our bodies in the future. There’s no theoretical problem in changing the DNA to produce a 500 ft tall metal human. At the same time there’s no theoretical problem in building a 500 ft tall metal exo-skeleton with a driving seat fit for a human connected directly to the brain (Brain-Machine Interface). And similarly there’s no theoretical problem in building a 500 ft tall metal robot with a learning artificial neural net as complex over even more complex than a human brain.

    The philosophical problem for those who believe in a soul and other metaphysical phenomena would be to explain why these three beings are all self-conscious. A materialist would not face this problem. A deconstructivist would say the metaphors of soul and self-consciousness are misleading. A Buddhist would say that the material reality is a delusion. But a dualist and a transcendentalist would have to say that the robot was programmed to say it was self-conscious and that in reality what the robot is saying are just words. I’d say, in reality, that’s exactly what humans are already doing. Language is confusing our understanding of existence.

  9. I found your article both interesting and insightful, and well written enough to be considered an essay of sorts.

    I particularly liked your references to Freud (though personally, he’s not too popular with me in certain view points) and how he states that we wear our “God-hood” awkwardly when it comes to our technologies. I think this was true in his time, but it’s becoming less and less the case every day.

    The tech which is developed on all fronts by human beings daily becomes more and more important and intertwined in all of our lives every second we exist around it.

    That commercial was just the tip of the iceberg as far as Verizon’s thoughts on this very subject, because the commercial was stating something they reiterate on their site, and ties in with the idea that “a better person is one that is melded with cybernetics”. The statement they make in regards to the Droidx is a very blunt: “It’s not just a better phone. It’s a better you.”

    I’m not sure that I like where that thought process is going, but I do completely get that the makers of the Droid phones see the line we are crossing when we enable a device to allow us to connect so intimately, not just with each other, but with our technology (www, social networking, business connections/conversations, online and offline media such as music, movies, gaming). Our tech is becoming part of us. Whether this makes us “better” or not is debatable, but one thing is for certain…

    There are people that believe that a better phone equates to a better you. That better tech equates to better people. And there’s one more element that believes this to be true:

    Droid Does. :-}

    Sorry, had to throw that in. Great article. Loved the commercial and echo the sentiments of the giddy when I saw it. Had to reqatch that transformation a few times. Gotta wonder though. Wouldn’t that hurt? LOL


    P.S. I’m subscribing now, I like the way you put your ideas out.

  10. Really thought provoking ideas here. I think you’re right, we’re heading in a direction where technology is not only more interactive but we see it as an extension of ourselves rather than just a desirable gadget.

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