Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.

8.29.2012

Lance Armstrong: Cyborg of the Future?

Now this is definitely a different take than most I've read.  Greg LeMond, cycling world champion and winner of the Tour de France in 1986, '89, and '90 and famous accuser of Lance Armstrong, talks about how he continued to improve his strength and fitness after 1990, but gradually became unable to keep up with the other riders as the sport was overrun with doping.  He--and others--point to wattage output data of the riders and a host of scientific indicators to make their case that the cycling feats the past 20 years just aren't humanly possible.  Maybe they aren't:

Making Peace With Our Cyborg Nature

 . . . Whether we think of knowledge, or communication, or perception, or medicine, or commerce, or the arts, we live in a vast web of organized human exchanges and shared practices. We are technologists by nature. Or to use philosopher Andy Clark's apt phrase: We are natural-born cyborgs. 

The point is not just that we couldn't do what we do without tools. The point is that we couldn't think what we think or see what we see without tools. We wouldn't be what we are without tools. Making tools, changing tools, is a way of making new ways of being. Technologies are evolving patterns of human organization. . . . 

So let us turn now to the case of Lance Armstrong. He is a trailblazer. One of the greats. He didn't win races on his own. No, like each of us in our social embeddings, he created an organization, one drawing on other people, and the creative and effective use of technology, the mastery of biochemistry, to go places and do things that most of us never will, and that no one ever had, before him.

That we now attack him, and tear him down, and try to minimize his achievements ... what does this tell us about ourselves?

It tickles a vague memory I have of having read something similar, that idea that we are our tools and our tools are us.  I think it's this section from that book on memory (Ha!) I've referenced a number of times: Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer.  He describes a scientist who has created machines that record--visual and audio--his every experience from his perspective along with a record of all documents he reads and more, an "external memory," if you will, so he can go back and find his every experience, no matter how banal and mundane and unremarked by his "internal memory."

With his custom search engine, he can, in an instant, figure out where he was and whom he ws with at any moment in time, and then, in theory, check to see what that person said.  And because he's got a photographic record of everywhere he's ever been and everything he's ever seen, he has no excuse for ever losing anything.  His digital memory never forgets. . . . 

For now, Bell's internal and external memories don't mesh seamlessly.  In order for him to access one of his stored external memories, he still has to find it on his computer and "re-input" it into his brain through his eyes and ears.  His lifelog may be an extension of him, but it's not yet a part of him.  But is it so far-fetched to believe that at some point in the not-too-distant future the chasm between what Bell's computer knows and what his mind knows may disappear entirely?  Eventually, our brains may be connected directly and seamlessly to our lifelogs, so that our external memories will function and feel as if they are entirely internal.  And of course, they will also be connected to the greatest external memory repository of all, the Internet.  A surrogate memory that recalls everything and can be accessed as naturally as the memories stored in our neurons: It would be the decisive weapon in the war against forgetting.

This may sound like science fiction, but already cochlear implants can convert sound waves directly into electrical impulses and channel them into the brain stem, allowing previously deaf people to hear.  In fact, they've already been installed in more than 200,000 human heads.  And primitive cognitive implants that create a direct interface between the brain and computers have already allowed paraplegics and patients with ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) to control a computer cursor, a prosthetic limb, even a digital voice simply through the force of thought.  These neuroprosthetics, which are still highly experimental and have been implanted in only a handful of patients, essentially wiretap the brain, and allow direct communication between man and machine.  The next step is a brain-computer interface that lets the mind exchange data directly with a digital memory bank, a project that a few cutting-edge researchers are already working on, and which is bound to become a major area of research in the decades ahead. . . . 

Perhaps instead of thinking of these memories as externalized or off-loaded--as categorically different from memories that reside in the brain--we should view them as extensions of our internal memories. . . . 

We Westerners tend to think of the "self," the elusive essence of who we are, as if it were some starkly delimited entity.  Even if modern cognitive neuroscience has rejected the old Cartesian idea of a homuncular soul that resides in the pineal gland and controls the human body, most of us still believe there is a distinct "me" somewhere up there driving the bus.  In fact, what we think of as "me" is almost certainly something far more diffuse and hazier than it's comfortable to contemplate.  At the least, most people assume that their sef could not possibly extend beyond the boundaries of their epidermis into books, computers, a lifelog.  But why should that be the case?  Our memories, the essence of our selfhood, are actually bound up in a whole lot more than the neurons in our brain.  At least as far back as Socrates's diatribe against writing, our memories have always extended beyond our brains and into other storage containers.  Bell's lifelogging project simply brings that truth into focus.

So just what defines us as selves, as natural, as "organic?"  I'm sure there are many writing about these exact questions.  I'm thinking about it today because of a book review I just read, one from the Unshelved Book Club.  Here is what they have to say about Amped, by Daniel H. Wilson:

The world has been transformed by the amp, a tiny device implanted in the skull that regulates and enhances brain activity. The injured become whole, and the healthy become smarter, faster, and stronger. Increasingly, those without amps cannot compete in school or the workplace. Things come to a head when the Supreme Court rules that the amped, having elected to make themselves more than human, are not entitled to basic civil rights.

Owen Grey doesn't consider himself particularly advantaged by his amp. His father, one of the early developers of the technology, implanted it to keep Owen's epilepsy under control. But it doesn't matter -- soon he is out of a job, out of an apartment, and then just trying to stay alive.

As the social rift becomes violent, Owen discovers that his amp has some undocumented features.

Why I picked it up: Nancy Pearl gushed about Wilson's Robopocalypse.

Why I finished it: This novel races along so fast I hardly felt I had the choice to stop. Owen joins the amp subculture, meets its superpowered leaders, and discovers a dark conspiracy. But the nerdy truth is that I was most intrigued by the issues of constitutional law Wilson raises.

I'd give it to: My son Theo, who will see the parallels between the amped and the super soldier threads that run through Marvel's comic book universe(s).

Is Lance Armstrong still human, or has he been rightfully disqualified because he has found a way to use tools and technology to make himself something else?  And if he is now a mild form of cyborg, should he be disqualified for that or celebrated for his pioneering work in biological enhancement?

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