Part of The Circuit, a themed semesterly magazine produced by The Whitman Wire.
I think of the future as a monster–a beast. It is immense and unpredictable and ugly. It is something untamable with a will of its own. Very soon, many seniors will be graduating from Whitman and will have to confront this beast. As students, we are told that we must build our own lives, careers and relationships, and that we are responsible for our futures. I don’t think it would be a stretch to claim that the anxiety of our responsibility is felt unanimously.
One way to possibly relieve this anxiety is to consider the idea that today, we are all cyborgs. A cyborg, by definition, is a being composed of both natural biology and unnatural technologies. Some of us have mechanized parts integrated with our bodies through the likes of prosthetic legs and pacemakers. Even owning a smart phone, a mechanism maintaining our connection to information and communication networks, makes one a cyborg. And much like the future for soon-to-be graduates, the cyborg of today is nerve-racking. Technology, particularly in regards to cyborgs, is a topic of deep uncertainty. Many critics posit that an increase in machine dependency will make us less human and benefits only a select few; therefore, we should avoid it. Technological optimists argue the opposite; all societies receive a net benefit from an intimate relationship with machines, so we should continue progressing it. This article is about neither of these arguments. Instead, I want to focus on describing the ways in which we are cyborgs today, and how embracing this position informs the type of anxiety-clearing acceptance we must undergo in graduating college.
Technology has become a physical extension of our bodies in day-to-day survival. One of the obvious examples is the cellphone you most likely have in your pocket right now. According to recent estimations by The World Bank, 75 percent of the world’s population has access to a cellphone. Cellphones act as a physical extension of the voice reaching across the globe. Similarly, television and radio have become an extension of sight and hearing. I would even argue that the internet has extended of our emotions and our nervous system; we can sense and feel empathy for total strangers we meet online. Even in the banality of everyday, it is difficult to deny our body’s intertwined relationship with technology.
In some instances, technology is not only an extension of our lives but an authority over them. It has become something that is out of our direct control. When we fly in airplanes, for example, only about 10 minutes per flight are manually operated by the pilots, primarily for takeoff and landing. For the rest of the flight, the pilots rely on computers to automatically navigate and to provide assistance through fly-by-wire systems. As passengers, our position in the airplane cabins is vulnerable, impotent in the hands of airplane algorithms. Be reminded, however, that only 2.8 accidents occur for every million departures–one is thousands of times more likely to get into a car accident. We should approach flying without huge concern, and we should extend this manner of calmness to how we approach architecting our future. Even in the cases that we are the pilots of our lives, we don’t have total control of the plane. A pilot’s responsibility is to still maintain the aircraft, but there is less anxiety in having to micromanage its every pitch, yaw and roll.
Considering the cyborg can also free the mind from thinking in antagonistic dualisms. It helps us deal with the dread that the future is against us–that it is me versus the world. In 1997, the IBM computer named ‘Deep Blue’ beat the then world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a match of chess. It was a monumental feat in the artificial intelligence (AI) department. But the takeaway from this story is not that robots will suddenly gain sentience and then violently replace the human species. What’s important is how Kasparov dealt with his loss. He realized that if he had access to the same vault of information that ‘Deep Blue’ had, then he could defeat the AI. And he was right. He started a new kind of chess, called freestyle chess, where players are allowed to team up with a computer’s brute processing power, juxtaposed by their own intuition and cognition, to make a powerful ‘centaur’ player. In the present day the best chess player in the world is not a virtuoso or a computer on its own, it’s a ‘centaur’ player. Extrapolated to the metaphor of college students graduating into the future, this tale demonstrates how to stop perceiving the future as inherently hostile. Kasparov demonstrates embracing not only a literal black-box of uncertainty, but a black-box that outsmarted him. As students move towards careers and families, which are black-boxes in and of themselves, I think Kasparov’s approach is worth emulating.
I’ve touched on how we are cyborgs in our everyday existence, how our proximity to technology means that it can literally pilot our lives and an example of how to cope when external forces seem to overpower us. Under the barrage of responsibility where you are required to make employment decisions, you must please your parents and you must plan your future, it is comforting to know that not everything is under your control. Recognizing that external forces heavily shape our lives, even in something as pedestrian as flying, and that sometimes these external factors can beat us in a chess match, humbles us and makes us less anxious as we approach uncertainty. I am also not insinuating that we passively accept or resign ourselves. It is not that our lives are wholly determined by external factors–even as cyborgs we still have autonomy. But, to at least acknowledge the limits of our responsibilities is to begin to see the future as less of monster, less of a beast.