IEEE Technology and Society Magazine - December 2016 - 45

The kinds of comparisons we
make when we talk about technology have huge implications for how
we regulate and value wearable
technologies and, by association,
the human body. Jawbone and Fitbit are recent examples of "lifestyle
tracking systems" that consist of a
wearable bracelet that communicates with an iPhone app to log
a user's physical activity. As these
products began flooding the market
in 2011, journalists and technologists struggled to talk about wearables without relying on the same
kinds of man-as-a-machine metaphors that we've been using for centuries: Your body needs tuning and
fueling. Your health is a number
that can be quantified, analyzed,
and improved. The words we use
to describe wearables reduce the
body to a "quantified self" dashboard, resulting in the depersonalization of data collection. The
human body and embodied reality
is removed from the equation.
The man/machine comparison is
not unique to modern-day conversations about technology. Reframing
the way we think about automata,
Rene Descartes in 1641 advanced
the concept of mind-body dualism,
which asserts that the mind and
the body are ontologically distinct
substances. He suggested that our
bodies are no more than complex
machines and as such, our bones
and organs could be replaced by
cogs and pistons. The brain, Descartes posits, is the seat of intelligence and consciousness; the mind
exists in the realm of the immaterial
and the body exists in the realm of
the material.
In Discipline and Punish, Michel
Foucault [2] responds to the manas-a-machine question, suggesting
that Cartesian ideas constitute "a
materialist reduction of the soul"
at the center of which is the notion
of "docility." While the man-as-aDECEmber 2016

machine metaphor might serve as
a useful heuristic, it also reduces the body to something that is
defunct, waiting for commands
from the brain before springing
into action.
Recent developments in neuroscience support a rejection of
Cartesian dualism, providing evidence that the brain and the body
are, in fact, co-dependent. Our
"higher" thoughts depend on our
"lower" body/bodily functions. If that
is the case, then popular theories in
artificial intelligence that advocate
"uploading" our consciousness onto
a hard drive would prove misguided,
since we can't comprehend existence without embodiment.
This Cartesian framework for
thinking about human consciousness has persisted and continues
to shape the way in which our bodies interact with technology. In
How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles [7] argues that modern
ideas about artificial intelligence
have given rise to dangerous fantasies of disembodiment. "If my
nightmare is a culture inhabited by
posthumans who regard their bodies as accessories rather than the
ground of being," she writes, "my
dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies
without being seduced by fantasies
of unlimited power and disembodied immortality."
The dualism we are trying to
overcome is embedded in the
metaphors we use. Thought grows
out of our bodily experience, and
yet so many conversations about
artificial intelligence are centered
on cognition as a distinct experience from embodiment. One
could argue that this de-valuing
of the body has helped fuel a curious obsession with self-mastery.
The "quantified self" trend that is
exemplified in wearable technology
∕

IEEE Technology and Society Magazine

feeds into a broader industry movement towards tools that encourage self-mastery over the body. By
talking about our bodies as empty
vessels, we subscribe to dangerous
fantasies of complete power over
the body.
Metaphors matter because they
carry baggage. When we elevate
consciousness above the body in
terms of importance, we begin to
view our bodies as prosthetic limbs,
empty shells waiting for orders from
the brain. We fail to acknowledge
the ways that our bodies are mediating our reality.

Author Information
Rebecca Ricks is a master's degree
candidate at the Tisch School of
the Arts' Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) at New York
University, New York, NY. Email:
baricks@gmail.com.

References

[1] G. Deleuze, and F. Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Penguin, 1977.
[2] M. Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The
Birth of the Prison. New York, NY: Random
House,1977.
[3] J. Gerber, "Beyond dualism: The social
construction of nature and the natural
and social construction of human beings,"
Progress in Human Geography, vol. 21,
pp. 1-17, 1997.
[4] W. Gibson, Neuromancer. New York, NY:
Berkley, 1984.
[5] D. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs and
Women: The Reinvention of Nature. London, U.K.: Free Association,1991.
[6] D. Harvey, and D. Haraway, "Nature, politics,
and possibilities: A debate and discussion
with David Harvey and Donna Haraway," Environmental and Planning D: Society and
Space, vol. 13, pp. 507-527, 1995.
[7] K. Hayles, How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics. Chicago, IL: Univ.
of Chicago Press, 1999.
[8] T. Hwang and K. Levy, "'The cloud' and
other dangerous metaphors," The Atlantic,
2015; http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/
archive/2015/01/the-cloud-and-otherdangerous-metaphors/384518/.
[9] D. Meyer, "Cyberspace must die," Gigaom,
2015; https://gigaom.com/2015/02/07/
cyberspace-must-die-heres-why/.

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