Monday, October 04, 2010

Post #250 (hoooray!): What Alcoholism Teaches Us About Being Cyborgs

I step out of the classroom to switch from the brain amp (for as much as it augments my cognition, it also exacerbates the less helpful aspects of my brain) to the muscle amp. Actually, I don't get very far. I hit up the Tim Hortons around the corner for a muffin and a liquid stimulant suspension, which I hope will serve to temporarily increase my physical and mental performance - albeit with side effects (man, have we not figured out how to counteract the diuretic effects of caffeine yet?). I've been reading about cyborgs yet again. I guess I'd like to say that it's blowing my mind, but really I'm coming to realize that the story of the cyborg is the story of all Popular Science (capitalization intentional); we're sold one story by people whose job it is to froth at the mouth and speculate wildly and inventively...and then we're sold products by people whose job it is to make devices which are nominally durable and actually usable (and most importantly available without an additional ten years and ten thousand in R&D).

I'm about to step into the elevator (ok, done with the futuristic euphemisms) on my way down to the bike and I think "computers and bikes are pretty sweet, but where's my cybernetic enhancement that makes me less socially awkward?". A beat, and then: "ALCOHOL! Durrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr....". The "original" cyborg was a pretty heavy drug user, in theory. Drugs to keep awake, drugs to go to sleep for extended periods of not much to do. There's something in there about periods of intense sensory stimulation to combat the boredom inherent to long space voyages, and I'll give you three guesses as to what probably turns out to be a pretty energy- and mass-efficient means for "intense sensory stimulation". Alcohol-as-cyborg-enhancement is a wonderful thought experiment, as I'm discovering. I tripped some balls when I found out that cooking was an artificial, external organ...and that also applies to brewing! It's going to be pretty weird referring to "the brewery" as a human external organ (which we should totally start compiling a list of, guys?), but it's a fusion of living matter and technology which performs a chemical transformation so that our bodies may make "better" use of raw materials! Sweet!

Through this lens, alcoholism is a kind of technological dependence. I think this is particularly interesting...and also scary. I have been quick in the past to dismiss terms like "internet addiction" and "video game addiction" as unsubstantiated, products of an aging culture that refuses to understand mine and instead condemns it. But while the levels of physical and mental compulsion may be different, can we really draw a moral distinction between two kinds of technological over reliance? I think that texting-and-driving bans are just the first wave of realization that we're going to have to say "no". And that's uncomfortable for a lot of us, we who depend upon pervasive computing, who feel the loss of an internet connection like it's blindness, deafness, and laryngitis all in one (albeit temporary). Scary is good, though. Scary is important. Alcoholism is a clear, concrete, not-Hollywood example of what we don't want to be as cyborgs, which is to say helpless. Cybernetic enhancement is supposed to leave "[People] free to think, feel, and create" (not an exact quote) without having to worry too much about what amounts to bookkeeping. The enhancements taking control is a pretty straightforward nightmare scenario - and Alcoholics live it every day. They ARE the Borg.

I have two potential conclusions that I'm drawing from this so far. One is that when you see those ads (as in old Archie comics or what-have-you) that say things like "you don't need drugs to enjoy music", that's about as true as "you don't *need* shoes to enjoy walking". Drug policy also starts looking kind of weird, like you're being imprisoned for the crime of being a cyborg. I'll bet that's pretty small consolation to the frankly absurd number of people languishing in prison for such "crimes". Also, William Shatner's TekWar doesn' Olympic (and other) doping scandals start looking even dumber; why are drugs necessarily so different from the latest, greatest piece of sporting equipment? Drug paranoia boils down to luddism and future-phobia; these policies are based not on good logic and good sense, but as some kind of imagined bulwark against a tomorrow when the particulars of ones birth no longer govern the limits of his or her success. And isn't it funny that in fiction, that's what the BAD GUY's talking about (viz. The Incredibles; Harrison Bergeron)?

Now, lumping all drugs together for the purposes of this argument certainly does strain credibility. Legalizing pot is not really the kind of cybernetic revolution that we're particularly excited about (maybe it would help us mellow out and forget how much we're disappointed that stupid, dangerous, impractical, fuel-inefficient flying cars haven't happened yet?), nor does legalizing cocaine really seem like "human enhancement". This is where the second possible conclusion comes in. The idea of a drug using cyborg comes from the 1960s (surprise, surprise). Did they really expect that even when their proposed drugs became a reality that they would be free of negative side-effects? Pull out a US magazine and look at the mountainous fine-print on the back of the drug ads (illegal in Canadian publications)! Remember what I said about Caffeine earlier? Maybe we CAN'T remove the side effects. Biochemistry is already exceedingly complex and incompletely understood, not to mention that it varies demonstrably between individuals: some are more predisposed to become addicted to alcohol or tobacco, others less, for instance. Do I have things backwards? Is the dream of the drug-fueled cyborg just another dream from the past whose reality is much more dangerous and much less glamorous than we would have liked to believe when we dreamed it? Of course, if we can become addicted to devices and services (phones, internet) just as much, is there really a reason to see drugs as any different? Steroids shrink your balls, paper and digital records shrink your memory, right? So in which direction is it most correct to err on the whole oevre of human enhancement, in the end? Dangerous addiction is a proven and real danger of ubiquitous availability, but it's a lottery. Prohibition and proscription are unsustainable and have proven impossible time and again. So it seems that in enhancing ourselves we create - inevitably, though without any malice - an underclass of people who are controlled, rather than take control. Of course, we can suggest careful genetic manipulation to reduce the possibility for addiction...but think for a moment. Before genetic technology, what would be the comparable suggestion? More drugs to combat addiction.

"as much as it augments my cognition, it also exacerbates the less helpful aspects of my brain"

As the cyborg was at the time of its inception a construction designed to make humans MORE human, it seems appropriate that an amplification of our faults is perhaps inextricable from the process of being cyborg. So I guess, Etarran, that as much as you hate internet culture, it could be that you cannot have the transformative powers of the web without 4chan after all?

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