“I’m a cyborg? I thought I was just wearing glasses”: technology, agency and ontology

This is a quick attempt to elaborate on a thought which kept coming back to me during the Quantified Self seminar on Tuesday. It seems obvious to me that one of the key conceptual questions encountered in studying technology which augments human capacities (and this category is obviously much wider than digital self-tracking) is the nature of the interface between the human and the technological. One common response to this seems to be to conceptualise it in terms of co-constitution or co-evolution where the properties of the human become indistinguishable from the properties of the technological because both are changing in relation to each other. As I understand it the point being made is that the entwinement of the human and the technological has reached such a degree of complexity that it makes more sense to think in terms of hybridity rather than interaction between entities.

Is this a fair summary? If not input would be much appreciated. It’s one of those arguments I’ve encountered in conversations and listening to talks rather than having read about in any serious way  (one of many things on my post-phd to do list). But what appears to me (perhaps wrongly) to be a case of collapsing the conceptual distinction in the face of empirically observable interplay worries me. From my point of view the interaction between myself and my iPhone involves two distinct sets of properties and powers – my own as a reflexive embodied human being and those of the iPhone as a technological artefact. During the two weeks I’ve had my new iPhone I’ve changed its properties through modalities (e.g. apps, settings) encoded into the artefact by other reflexive embodied human beings whom I will never meet nor know. I’ve also changed its properties in ways which were not designed into it as an artefact: I dropped it and scratched it*, a change in its properties reliant on the material constitution of itself and the floor onto which it fell.

Has it changed me? I don’t think so. But my old iPhone changed me in all sorts of ways. Some of them are superficially dispositional, such as the oft cited tendency to rely on wikipedia rather than remembering information, though perhaps with long term neurophysiological correlates. Others are entirely deliberate, such as my experience of navigation using digital maps – I couldn’t navigate to begin with so I’ve not lost a capacity through failing to exercise it because of a technical substitute. It’s an affordance the phone provides which I deliberately draw on in specific situations rather than something that has changed me in a more substantive sense.

My point is that I’m not convinced it’s necessary to think in terms of hybridity to understand these trajectories of human <–> technological change. As far as I can tell I basically agree about what these processes are but I disagree about how these should be conceptualised. Input would be very appreciated on this, as would suggestions on where to start reading about the concepts I’m expressing suspicion of so I can stop predicating blog posts on conversations I’ve had & talks I’ve heard.

*I didn’t actually do this. I love my shiny new iPhone too much to be so careless. But the theoretical point stands.

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