“This Process Of Blending Our Minds With Our Devices Has Forced Us To Take Stock Of Who We Are”


Larry Page and other Silicon Valley technologists would like it very much if you would eventually have the implant. You know, the implant in your brain. The one that will automatically feed you information when you think about something you don’t now much about.

Brain implants that boost intelligence while making us, quite literally, inseparable from our computers seems a significant threshold, but that crossing isn’t as vital as we might believe. What we need to fear–or at least be cognizant of–doesn’t spring at us from the dark but remain there growing without notice. Once we’re fully integrated into the information machine we’re gradually building, a process that’s already begun, a chip will be just one more intrusion. We might think the machine is in our pocket, but in reality we’re inside of its.

In an excellent Aeon essay “Embedded Beings: How We Blended Our Minds with Our Devices,” Saskia K. Nagel and Peter B. Reiner speak to this point, writing that “we don’t actually need to plug ourselves in: proximity is a red herring.” An excerpt:

This process of blending our minds with our devices has forced us to take stock of who we are and who we want to be. Consider the issue of autonomy, perhaps the most cherished of the rights we have inherited from the Enlightenment. The word means self-rule, and refers to our ability to make decisions for ourselves, by ourselves. It is a hard-earned form of personal freedom and, at least in Western societies over the past 300 years, the overall trajectory has been towards more power to the individual and less to institutions.

The first inkling that modern technology might threaten autonomy came in 1957 when an American marketing executive called James Vicary claimed to have increased sales of food and drinks at a movie theatre by flashing the subliminal messages ‘Drink Coca-Cola’ and ‘Hungry? Eat Popcorn’. The story turned out to be a hoax, but after attending a demonstration of sorts, The New Yorker reported that minds had been ‘softly broken and entered’. These days, we regularly hear news stories about neuromarketing, an insidious strategy by which marketers tap findings in neuropsychology to read our thoughts as they search for the ‘buy button’ in our brains. To date, none of these plots to manipulate us have been successful.

But the threat to autonomy remains. Persuasive technologies, designed to change people’s attitudes and behaviours, are being deployed in every corner of society. Their practitioners are not so much software engineers as they are social engineers.•

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