The Age of the Cyborg is upon us

And they’re nothing like what the movies make them out to be. Today’s (and tomorrow’s) cyborgs are not a random and gruesome mix of metal and flesh out to destroy the rest of us. Rather, today’s cyborgs are… us. Each and every one of us, in some form or another. So what am I talking about and how did this come to pass?

For starters, technology, especially computer technology has permeated every aspect of our lives. And along with the computer has come the network. Within the next decade mobile broadband will become ubiquitous (at least in urban areas) meaning that we will always be connected to the full knowledge and collective intelligence of the internet. As a direct result we are all gradually becoming cyborgs: our machines, especially in the form of mobile network connected devices are becoming an inseparable part of us. Sure, we may not be jacking in with our brains as a part of the regular morning routine, but connecting to the global network of computers (and hence indirectly to everyone else using those computers) is already a routine occurrence which we don’t give a second thought.

A recent Wired article talks about how average chess players combined with the right machine assistance can beat out better human players as well as other players with better software. The key is in the human’s ability to make the most of their machine assistants: figuring out which machine results to accept, which to reject and how to ask the right questions. Our currently technology is in exactly the same position. The talent of the person using a computer or the computational power of the machine is less important than being able to combine the two properly.

Leaving chess aside, there are more practical areas where this combination of man and machine is producing great payoffs. Successful blogger and author Tim Ferriss makes no secret of the fact that he uses analytics extensively to fine-tune how his website operates and is viewed in order to maximize his earnings. In earlier days, Paul Graham created effectively the world’s first web application, Viaweb and successfully beat out better funded competitors by placing powerful tools (Common Lisp) in the hands of experienced users (himself and his team).

People my age and younger have never lived in a world when we couldn’t connect with people across the globe at the click of a mouse. All that has ever stood before us and the vast stores of information on the Internet has been a single text box with a button titled some variation of “Search”. We’re cyborgs in the sense that the use of our machines is natural and reflexive, requiring little explicit mental bandwidth. Who needs a port in the back of the skull when you have a copy of Google Hacks tucked into your brain?

Of course, not all cyborgs are made equal. Even among people my age there are both those who revel in technology and its gifts and those who would prefer to keep it at arm’s lengths. And I’m not talking about the difference between computer science graduate students and theater majors. I’m talking about the people who are content to use the Microsoft Word’s default font and paragraph spacing and those who spent hours tinkering with their websites to get things looking just right. I’m talking about the people who tweet a dozen times a day and those who log in to Facebook once a week. I’m talking about those who have three different emails and those who pull all their email into Gmail. I’m talking about… you get the point.

On the flip side there’s a careful balance between using technology to achieve a further goal (Tim Ferriss’ website tweaks) and technology for technology’s sake (the hours spent tweaking the CSS on a blog only your mum reads). The Wired article says that there is a difference between people who use technology productively and hence feel smarter and more focused and the people who seem lost and intimated by online life. I would add a third category: those who feel smarter, but really aren’t better than the baseline. Cyborgization may be becoming ubiquitous, but that doesn’t mean that it’s easy.

The growing cyborgization of our society is also the reason why I’m excited about the second coming of tablet computers: the iPad and whatever Chrome-based offering Google throws its weight behind. Take a few minutes to check out the new guided tours of the iPad and you might get a hint of what I feel. The interface is completely different from how we use computers today and I think that’s a great idea. Let’s face it: most people today don’t really need a real computer. They need basically two devices: a internet connection device and some sort of glorified typewriter/calculator for writing reports and spreadsheets. Of course the iPad doesn’t excite those of us who type hundreds of words a minute or write code for a living. That’s because we’ve already crossed the line of cyborgization: we know (or are at least trying to find out) what we can do with our machines. The iPad is for the people on the other side, those who couldn’t care less about how many cores or how much RAM they have. It’s for people who are more than willing to trade their freedom (and their wallets) for a computing experience that they can relate to better and easier. It’s for the mum who wants to snuggle up in bed with her kid and Winnie the Pooh. It’s for the people who still consider reading a newspaper in the morning a holy rite. It’s for the people who have by and large been on the outskirts of the computer technology revolutions of the last few decades. It’s for a new generation of cyborgs who stop thinking of their machines as computers and rather view them as constant, unobtrusive, electronic companions.

With some luck, my children will be growing up in a world where they are surrounded from birth by the warm embrace of the internet. For them, actually sitting down in front of a computer will be quaint and outmoded in the same way we don’t go to a landline phone to talk to someone anymore. And it will be devices like the iPad connecting remotely to powerful servers running recommendation engines and personalized search databases that will be their first connection to the world of computation. As Pranav Mistry says, people don’t really care about computation, they care about knowledge and information. We’ve been able to bring people closer to information by erasing it’s physicality and making everything available remotely. Our children will be getting that information without the burden of thinking about a browser or keyboard or URLs. For them, all sorts of data will be all around them accessible at the tap of a touchscreen (or hopefully without requiring even that).

Here’s looking forward to the Age of Cyborgs, of which we are the heralds and first citizens. We live in exciting times.

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3 thoughts on “The Age of the Cyborg is upon us

  1. I think the cyborg “thing” is really something that’s *always* been a factor, and that we’re getting to a point with technology where it’s *easier* to see these kinds of phenomena. But they’ve always been a factor.

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