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« An Impossible Squaring of the Circle? Normativity and Heterogeneity | Main | States, Cyborgs, Actants »

Some Thoughts on Cyborgs and Symbiots

Martin, thanks for the excellent responses; I'm getting a much clearer idea now of where we are in agreement, albeit using different concepts.  I'd like to play off of one of those if I may, since I think it also has some bearing on the issue of olives that is being talked about in some of the other threads.

I think the point here might be to separate humans using tools from humans acting in a feedback relation with surfaces of control. Your comments regarding the specificity of communication technologies are instructive in this regard. The cyborg is not simply a tool user but rather a subject in which technological capability is constitutive of a particular (distributed) way of life. Perhaps, though you can shed further light n this.

I have been looking at the rather sparse data on non-human tool use, partly as a way of trying to see if there is some qualitative distinction between, say, bird tool use and human tool use.  One of the truly fascinating things about the little that has been written on bird tool use (sorry, the references are at home, but the articles were in Nature in the late 1990's I believe) is that there appear to be distinctive patterns of tool construction that vary not by species but by geographic separation or, in other words, as a result of some type of exteriorized training and communication.

So, when I was pointing to tool use by Australopithecine of, say, 1.8 million years ago, I was invoking not only the fact of tool use, but also distinct practices of tools use, construction and training (including changes in eating patterns, mobility, etc.).  There's an interesting BBC article on one particular find, Hand Axe Hill (~2.34 MYA), that is particularly instructive of the shape of proto-hominid tool use but, basically, it would fall into your definition of "humans acting in a feedback relation with surfaces of control".

In many ways, I have been influenced in my thinking by Charlie Laughlin; in this case, by his paper on the Evolution of Cyborg Consciousness (RTF).  In particular, I really try and draw a sharp terminological distinction between "cyborg" and "symbiot".  For me, and this is following from Charlie's four stages in the evolution of a cyborg (table 1 in the linked paper above), I only use the term "cyborg" when it refers to replacement or augmentation of biological components of a human, whereas I use the term "symbiot" to refer to the external replacement / augmentation of human abilities. Part of the reason for this distinction is really to allow me to say that "culture" and "technology" are parts of a symbiotic system with humans, but are not necessarily cyborg replacements of humans.

Just tagging back into the comments I was making in an earlier post about shifts in communications technologies encouraging the development of diasporic communities, I would say that that is a shift in a symbiotic system, and not a shift towards cyborg status (now, where CrackBerry's will go in the future may be another story...).

Just a quick note on all the blitherings about music....

I would argue that music is one of these externalized symbiotic systems; highly symbolic but, also, quite capable of evoking particular recollections and affective states.  In the 17th century, we have a very interesting case of the structural system behind elite music; basically, it had to evoke states and emotional responses that the elites liked since they were paying for it and musicians were a dime a dozen.  Successful musicians, and both Victoria and Charpentier were very successful, were able to capture this feedback loop which allows us some ability to get into the mindspace of the elites at the time (the technical name for the methodology is the Study of Culture at a Distance).  While the methodology was originally developed to allow for Anthropological investigation of cultures that one couldn't get access to, it also works across time as well (that's an extrapolation based on some of Carlo Ginzburg's work, e.g. Clues, Myths and the Historical Method).  Being a professional Baroque singer in addition to everything else, I tend to focus in pretty heavily on the music and coding systems involved (wry grin).

Back to olive trees...

I would suggest that in a distributed, symbiotic system, symbols, symbol systems, tools, buildings, etc, etc., all act as part of the system much in the manner described in the Bennet quote.  I would also suggest that there is a characteristic of, hmm, let's call it "para-intentionality" that does not imply free will but does imply a set of boundary conditions for use.  Thus, while I can't say that my coffee "wants" to be drunk, I can say that it evokes an action in me towards drinking it.

In the case of the olive trees, I suspect that we are seeing what is generally called "magical thinking" (e.g. variants on the Syllogism of Barbara).  This would certainly be in keeping with the idea of material artifacts as part of a symbiotic system.  Just a thought, really, and I would be interested to see what your take on it is.

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