Disembodied Users: The Body Cost of Technological Progress

Photo by Max Cavallari.

When the first generation of the iPhone was released, there seemed to be a familiar phrase reverberating in businesses, homes, schools, and all other spaces suddenly enlightened by the possibilities of this new, shiny black screen: “there’s an app for that!” This exclamation accurately represented the optimism of the time, a period that epitomized the seemingly endless possibilities of the Digital Age.

The smartphone and similar highly networked personal devices have steadily developed in the name of efficiency and connection, promising to progress society by making lives easier. But in the 11 years since the first iPhone came out, this optimism has been more quietly tinged by those who question exactly what this progress is moving towards, and for whom.

Even though this “progress” has been vaguely defined and interpreted, it continues moving forward. We have allowed technological systems to realign our lives around the values that perpetuate a narrow definition of success within Western capitalist culture.

Progress is defined by what can be measured and by who benefits from those measured outcomes. This causes value to be placed disproportionately on what can be measured, the quantitative metrics of technology, over the qualitative human experience. However, these vague but widely-accepted definitions make it difficult to even articulate or move toward any authentic social or personal values.

Progress is generally understood as an advancement of some sort, a positive and linear development. However, as scholars like Jennifer Daryl Slack & J. Macgregor Wise suggest in “Culture and Technology,” progress necessarily represents movement toward something, even if it is not explicitly defined.

Whether it be progress toward democracy, education, or the right to participate in the digital economy, progress must have some end goal, along with a way to measure its advancement. Slack and Wise suggest that these goals can be categorized as either material betterment, which is usually associated with higher levels of comfort and convenience, as well as “hav[ing] more things,” or moral betterment, which is interpretive but usually has to do with creating personal, social, and spiritual meaning in life (Slack, Wise, 29). Progress in the United States is essentially defined synonymously with the growth of technology.

History is presented as a linear trajectory propelled by the technologies which advanced society, from the printing press to the Internet. Western tradition, particularly the United States, has co-opted this technology-as-progress story to support certain ideals and outcomes. Because technology is associated with Enlightenment values of scientific innovation, objectivity, and rationality, it has been solidified with a “religious-like reverence” into the fabric of Western culture (Slack, Wise, 37). These values are deeply rooted in capitalist ideals of the American frontier, which sees expansion and progress as an inherent right for Westerners, a Manifest Destiny as inevitable as the passage of time.

The Industrial Revolution further stamped the fate of the idea that technology implies progress. Because the development of technology is generally accepted as a scientifically pragmatic way to maximize profit through increased efficiency, it came to be associated directly with progress (Zinn, Slack, Wise).

Technology-as-progress has been so pervasive both because it aligned with Western capitalist ideals and because it can be easily quantified and reproduced. If technology equals progress, then the metric for progress is simply the presence of more technology. If Internet traffic, the number of gigabytes uploaded to Google Drive, or other computational variables have increased over a given period of time, progress has supposedly occurred. This metric of progress simply requires the ability to count.

Progress continues to be measured this way rather than by how valuable the technology actually is to those who use it. This limited definition aligns with goals for material rather than moral betterment, partially because it does not include a qualitative analysis that is able to encompass the experiences of the people who actually use the technology.

As Rosch and colleagues articulated in their exploration of cognition and the human experience in “Embodied Mind,” there exists no empirical method to understand and measure the human experience in the same way that science is evaluated. This can partially be explained by a cultural mistrust of human subjectivity in favor of a supposedly more accurate, removed analysis of data and figures, perpetuated mostly in Western spaces.

Throughout history, progress has predominantly been defined by those in power who benefitted from certain advancements. Much like tech giants who praise growing Internet traffic as a sign of social progress, interstate networking and high-speed transportation were touted as evidence of progress by those who profited from the railroad boom of the mid-nineteenth century (Slack, Wise, 44).

As technology comes to dominate social and economic hierarchies in much more intimate ways than, say, the railroad industry, the power dynamics of capitalism may be intensified by what Luis Suarez-Villa terms “technocapitalism.” He argues that even though creativity holds increased value today, it is only because it presents a promise for profit. However, Suarez-Villa recognizes that the commodification of creativity “often fails to produce its intended results” because it represents a steadfast attempt to exploit “this most elusive and intangible human quality” (Suarez-Villa, 54). In an economic landscape where the presence of the quantifiable outcome of profit defines progress, even something as qualitative and subjective as creativity is extracted to accommodate what can be measured and sold.

Explorations of corporatism in technology have been imagined through science fiction in the early days of technocapitalism’s reach, such as in Marge Piercy’s He, She, and It, where communities can only maintain their autonomy by outsourcing a creative commodity to the corporate elite. Such themes are becoming less and less hyperbolic, forcing societies to question whether or not the values of corporations align with their own values. Even as achievements of the mind are hailed above all else, they are still measured against values that corporations and other entities of power define, definitions which are based largely on efficiency and material results and therefore may discard the essence of a value such as creativity.

In what Shoshana Zuboff terms “surveillance capitalism,” a system which, much like Suarez-Villa’s notion of technocapitalism, exploits human behavior as its primary commodity, humans are becoming disempowered. Zuboff argues that “our dependency [on technology] is at the heart of the commercial surveillance project, in which our felt needs for effective life vie against the inclination to resist its bold incursions” (Zuboff, 17).

As technology has come to be associated with convenience, it is often confused with progress and, therefore a sense of empowerment. However, as social entrepreneur Jesse Weaver suggests, humans’ seemingly unlimited reliance on technology is, in fact, forcing us to give up control by yielding less resiliency and a weaker capability to perform basic cognitive functions, like spatial mapping, independent of technological machines. This reliance is partially why we have conflated progress with the expansion of technology; because technology is associated with favorable outcomes that can be evaluated concretely, like profit and convenience, the possibility for cognitive dissonance between the human value of control and our dependence on technology is diminished.

While certainly easier to measure, quantitative analysis does not provide a comprehensive evaluation of progress. The time users spend on technology has overwhelmingly been used as a metric for technological success, and therefore overall progress. In Tristan Harris’ article, “How Technology is Hijacking Your Mind,” the former Google Design Ethicist describes the ways in which personal, networked technologies subtly exploit human psychological vulnerabilities to increase the number of time users spend online.

Because the success of a given technology is based on quantitative analysis, it makes sense that longer online user engagement represents progress. However, as Harris elucidates from his years of experience behind the elusive doors of the tech industry, the goals which ensure their profit, like maximizing the time users spend online, usually only represent progress for the company facilitating the online experience, not the user. While the company is gaining more profit, the user is removed from their physical lived experience and is therefore more likely to experience depression, anxiety, and distracted thinking (Hoge, Bickham, Cantor).

In addition, Harris challenges the idea that an abundance of choices online, whether it be social contacts or links to informational articles, translates to greater user empowerment. While the user is flooded with options, which may appear to be freedom of choice, they may be distracted from their original need by the dizzying number of results. As Hubert Dreyfus asserts in On the Internet, our present construction of values is not conducive to “collecting what is significant but connecting to as wide a web of information as possible…Quantity of connections is valued above the quality of these connections” (Dreyfus, 12–13).

Although qualitative analyses of success are more elusive, they are necessary to accurately evaluate current technological systems and processes to define ideal models for the future.

The definition of progress matters because it determines how a society will move forward and define its goals for the future. Because we understand progress as the expansion of quantifiable values such as efficiency and convenience, we are actively designing and transforming our society under these values. What we label as progressive will continue to develop and will be seen as positive. In the technology-as-progress economic perspective, the human body has been understood as a hindrance to progress through its inefficiency and lack of standardization.

In The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, Shoshana Zuboff argues that this drives both technological development and everyday social and economic practices toward dehumanization by measuring success and modeling our experiences through the frameworks of machine learning. We strive to make humans more machine-like in an attempt to make the human experience more quantifiable and to minimize what is seen as unproductive excess — deviation from the mean, heterogeneity, and other “anomalies” (Slack, Wise, Zuboff). Thus, experiences that cannot be neatly categorized or incorporated into the framework of machine learning — which, much like capitalists of the Industrial Revolution, values standardization and mind over body — are labeled as irrelevant to the definition of progress.

Measuring the human experience through frameworks of machine learning contributes to a societal transformation towards dehumanization. If certain corporeal processes seem to get in the way of the mind’s Manifest Destiny, this thinking goes, they should be conquered and controlled. The mechanization of the human experience has largely been grounded in the attempt to streamline what is labeled “excess.” This usually means increasing homogeneity and security and reducing friction. If we define progress through stability and neatly-measured outcomes, “we will all be safe as each organism hums in harmony with every other organism, less a society than a population that ebbs and flows in perfect frictionless confluence…” (Zuboff, 385) Like Taylorism and other corporate “scientific management” techniques at the turn of the century, these tactics allow companies to standardize their output and maximize efficiency (Zinn). However, as Zuboff articulates, this system “renders all people, things, and processes as computational objects in an endless queue of equivalence without equality” by denying the very foundations of the human experience, which is largely dependent on friction and diversity to ensure a healthy society and body politic (Zuboff, 375).

The dehumanization process rests on the assumption of disembodiment. Debates on the relationship between the human mind and body have questioned the salience of the body, particularly as the mind gains more power and relevance in technological spaces. Some posthumanist scholars hold the potential for a mind-body split as a positive, citing its potential to free humans from their previously binding physical cells and access the limitless possibilities of the mind. The idea that humans are limited by their bodies and should therefore seek disembodiment is also supported by the previously discussed capitalist-centric mentality which seeks to maximize profit through efficiency.

However, many scholars have acknowledged the value of the embodied experience. Often, embodiment is necessary to perform more advanced cognitive functions. Disembodiment could potentially cause humans to “lose our sense of relevance, our ability to make maximally meaningful commitments, and the embodied moods that give life serious meaning” (Dreyfus, 7). Dreyfus asserts that machine learning in artificially intelligent systems requires not just the acquisition of “explicit knowledge,” like the facts and figures which can be found in an encyclopedia, but “commonsense” and “background knowledge” which can oftentimes only be understood by having a physical body (Dreyfus, 17).

It is these more advanced human functions, which require the spatial presence of a physical body, which could lead to moral rather than solely material betterment as a metric for progress. In the widely-regarded cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, William Gibson explores this mind-body balance through the protagonist, who adventures through cyberspace to assist an artificially intelligent entity gain autonomy over a global network. He describes cyberspace as an experience of being “totally engaged but set apart from it all, and all around you the dance of biz, information interacting, data made flesh in the mazes of the black market” (Gibson, 10). While situated in fiction, this description of disembodiment highlights how one can be both “totally engaged” while “set apart from it all,” how the dissociation of mind and body can indeed be counterproductive.

Thomas Foster’s response to the themes of embodiment in Neuromancer is that the development of new technologies presents the possibility of broaching previously rigid separations between humans and machines, creating unimagined possibilities for a “third space.” However, by modeling our current culture and economy on the principles of machine learning, simultaneously attempting to reject the body, we are contributing to what Thorstein Veblen observed as “the adaptation of the workman to his work, rather than the adaptation of the work to the workman,” which exploits the mind-body relationship rather than utilizing the possibilities of a “third space” (Marx, 572). Rather than seeing the mind and body as mutually exclusive entities that dominate over the other at any given moment, we should recognize the value in their intersection.

As Elizabeth A. Grosz contends in Volatile Bodies, such binary thinking between mind and body is often not even possible to exist in such highly networked, complicated systems as the body. We currently understand the body as an essentially predictable, mundane cell for the more sophisticated, sentient mind, and as something that is isolated, whose processes more or less exist in a vacuum.

Such a simplistic understanding assumes that the body can be easily conquered, that it can be measured and discarded without complication. However, through her exploration of sexuality, Grosz elucidates that bodies represent their own form of subjectivity, and, like sexuality, are “incapable of ready containment” and “can no longer readily succumb to the neutralization and neutering of its specificity” (Grosz, VIII-IX). Any attempts to compartmentalize the body in accordance with our supposedly optimized means of organizing our culture and economy will thus not be possible, and will instead contribute to the suppression of the natural processes which define the embodied experience, continuing to disempower humans by inaccurately representing our goals for progress.

By limiting our definition of progress to what can be measured quantitatively and thereby aiming to separate ourselves from the uncertainty and subjectivity of embodiment, we are making it much more difficult to define what progress means both descriptively and normatively. By overvaluing what can be measured quantitatively, we are effectively rendering “the scientific study of ourselves without a subject matter” (Rosch, Thompson, Varela, 13). What purpose, and for whom does progress serve if there is no defined, autonomous entity to receive its benefits?

If progress is defined by a steady movement toward the fulfillment of values, those who supposedly reap the benefits of progress must have the ability to define these values. However, human reliance on technology and movement toward the unquestioned mechanization of the human experience, which does not tolerate difference or friction, facilitates disembodiment and weakness to the point where it becomes almost impossible to even articulate and implement genuine values.

By rejecting difference and dissent, we are preventing ourselves from even conceiving the values in which to define progress, as “the means of behavioral modification elude our awareness and thus can neither be mourned nor resisted” (Zuboff, 385). If these systems are supposedly built to progress the human experience, then humans must be fully present, fully embodied to define the values in which to strive toward.

Presently, these values are recursively defined by those in power, largely through a mere measurement of technology’s supposedly inevitable acceleration. Rather than defining progress through what can be measured quantitatively and subsequently structuring our societal values and economic metrics around these so-called values retroactively, we must recognize the inherent value in qualitative analysis. The value of embodiment must be restored to realize human power in creating our own future.

As Suarez-Villa expresses, “society will have to play a central role in [ethical agendas for research] if life and dignity of all involved are to have meaning” (Suarez-Villa, 167). The future of progress must be defined by a socially engaged critical mass. A fictional character in Kim Stanley Robinson’s science fiction novel Aurora articulates the issue of complacency as a barrier to examining and redefining sociocultural landscapes:

“We like to blame life for the problems we make, we threaten to change, but it’s always fake; we bitch and moan that everything’s wrong, then we get right back to getting along.” (Robinson, 23)

At the spawn of the Industrial Age, humans strove to produce abundant outcomes through efficient means. Society was thus structured around these values as they were incorporated into every fabric of culture: education, the family unit, business, academia, and all other conceivable sectors of human existence (Zinn). However, today we conflate means with end, defining the desired outcome, progress, by the means, technology.

We have come to structure ourselves around the material betterment of society, all the while convincing ourselves through the way we frame history, marketing and branding, and other forms of cultural construction, that we are simultaneously participating in a collective moral betterment, in a mind-driven, technological Manifest Destiny.

We aim to overcome the physical body, existing solely by means of cognition, in an attempt to achieve “progress.” However, his framework of thought could potentially limit progress to the bounds which organize and articulate machine learning and other inanimate technological systems, driving humans towards increasingly compartmentalized, outcome-focused economic and cultural structures.

Rather than attempting to suppress, castrate, and manipulate the embodied human experience, we must recognize their value and the value of experiential and qualitative methods of evaluation. If we neglect these considerations, we will have no hope of defining societal goals toward a more holistic and representative framework of cultural “progress.”


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