Interview with a cyborg anthropologist

Jon Lebkowsky sez, "Former bOING!bOING! 'cyborganic jivemeister' interviews 21st century cyborg anthropologist Amber Case. A discussion of cyborganic mind and memory and the new world of digital tribes. In the SXSW Interactive issue of the Austin Chronicle."

Case spends a lot of time studying and thinking about how digital extension affects our brains and behaviors. "The brain doesn't really need that much stimulus in order to create a virtual reality," she says. In early computing, "we thought it would take much more to incite people into these realities," but text and good two-dimensional interfaces are enough to absorb us totally in virtual worlds. "It's mixed reality, where you can be anywhere and you have different virtual realities going on around you – the different tabs in a browser window, text messages you get, Facebook messages, Twitter messages. All of those are different realities in simultaneous time zones that people are living in all the time, and we switch rapidly between these contexts all the time. People are living multiple virtual realities while existing in one reality at a time."

I asked about the overhead for all the virtual switching we do as we bounce from one to another reality, referring to it as "virtual jet lag." "To be fully aware of an environment and take something in that is not fragmented is important for learning and embodying knowledge," she says. "But the problem on the Internet is, say you learn something on Wikipedia; you're not embodied in that knowledge. Rather than learning in a lab, you're reading something about biochemistry on Wikipedia, learning it there. And halfway through the article, you may be checking your email or looking at Facebook; it disrupts the writing of that memory to your brain." This leads to greater fragmentation of memory than we might otherwise experience. "By the time you've finished loading that memory, you've only loaded part of it," she notes. "And if you stay up late, don't get enough REM sleep, your brain can't get through the natural defragmentation process. And you wake up with a sloppy hard drive of a brain."

Man or Machine? Circle Option C. (Thanks, Jonl!)


  1. Sometimes I find that certain drugs remove certain anxieties I have about using the computer system. For instance, some days I may be able-bodied and prepared to work, but I genuinely feel that I would rather work in a field, or garden, or on material objects, rather than endure the cold, sterile, dryness of my terminal, commandline interfaces and shells.

    No really. Just think about it. Before going into work you ask yourself the very genuine question: “Would I rather stare at Terminal all day, or work under the charming rays of the sun?”

    No seriously. Fuck you — ask yourself that question. Fuck your repos. Fuck your deployment scripts. Fuck your cron jobs. Fuck your backups. Fuck your revenue streams. Code reviews. Forget the beauty of “simplicity” that we are drafting in this information aesthetic, and re-imagine the beauty of “simplicity” in nature, the nature aesthetic. The thing Hobbes, Pascal, Aquinas, etc, etc found themselves arguing on. The “divine watchmaker” argument reminds me of this.

    Some days, I simply need a drug to help me endure the computer system. I say this because sometimes I feel that I have “extended” myself too far. For instance, this is my Speed Dial:

    Some days, my mind cannot handle it. It’s something that is mine, a kind of looking glass into the “reality” you perhaps speak of. Anyone could produce something like that, but usually people don’t. I see it as an extension of my memory, yet I usually cannot endure my own creation. A module of my own mind that I created.

    It is interesting, I think, that we could ask questions like “Will cognitive enhancement hurt us in the way that introducing a vaccine to a human host might have negative biophysical conseuqneces?”

    How “natural” is cognitive enhancement? Do we have a linguistic framework for apprehending the concept of “cognitive enhancement failure”? What are the conditions for “successful” cognitive enhancement?

    1. If cognitive enhancement requires information, and you define the search for information as something we do these days simply to relieve the boredom of our lives, there is not much to say, really. If information is defined as a psychological requirement of the brain/body in order to find meaning then the quality and not the quantity of information and cognitive enhancement is paramount and your questions can be scarily interesting.

  2. Ideally technology shouldn’t take you out of nature, or away from your own nature. It should enhance, not diminish, your experience. I think one goal of cyborg anthropology could be a better mashup of what’s vibrant and human with opportunities for enahncement by digital technology. I never bought the vision of a grey dystopian future mediated by technology as some kind of post-singularity outcome.

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