The Cyborg Brain: Data is Experience

Our increasing reliance on the internet, on social media, and on our phones, has made us into a curiously literate species. In the past humans lived a physical existence, through their senses. Our identities were nuclei: the co-ordinating centres, and accumulation, of swirling sense impressions, thoughts, social roles, relationships, and face to face interactions with other warm-blooded, full-nerved identities, physically embodied and present. We could read and experience them not only through their words, but through their tone of voice and inflections, their body language, facial expressions, even their smell. 

Now, however, our selves are mediated by symbols: typed words made of letters, emojis, our senses of humour demonstrated by gifs and memes constructed by others. We live through communicating symbolic representations of other things, rather than just being, in our skins. 

Phones and the internet are prizing us out of the here and now. The physical aspect of experience is dwindling away, leaving us with the purely cognitive. We are increasingly comfortable with theorising and the abstractions it generates. We are so glued to our devices as to be virtual cyborgs, with our phones’ programming picking up or enhancing our intellectual functions (starting with something as simple as autocorrect). So, reading and absorbing (consuming) streams of symbols on a phone has become an essential part, perhaps the dominant part, of our experience. After all, as Sam Harris points out, even “the world you see and hear is nothing more than a modification of your consciousness, the physical status of which remains a mystery”[1], so why should sense data have primacy over internally generated, self-referential thought?

This move towards the-abstract-as-experience has wide-reaching consequences: as long as a version of events has internal plausibility, in your eyes, it can be treated as true; it can be felt as true, passionately and sincerely, without the need for supporting, concrete evidence. 

Entirely fabricated news stories; weird, unsubstantiated pseudo-science and social theories; wild, paranoid rumours, labelled as God’s honest truth – all have become entirely free-floating entities, completely un-anchored to the real world. They have become “my truth”, equal in power to the real things, and demanding a response with as much conviction. And anyone who dares to question your system, or to suggest that it doesn’t fit the facts, is a dangerous heretic who may destroy the very fabric of your world. They must be burnt at the stake.

More subtly, to merely read about discrimination against your ethnic group has become to experience it first-hand. The killing of George Floyd has been experienced by Black British people as a blow against each of them personally – an attack and affront, despite being a completely foreign event with no connection to Britain at all: an American man murdered by American police in America. Time and again, British people have dated their struggle against racism from his death, saying such things as, “Since the death of George Floyd, has anything truly changed?”, even accusing the (London) Met of racism and then referring to this American murder as evidence! This is nonsensical, a bit like accusing Jack the Ripper of organising the Manson killings: the Met doesn’t need fitting up for crimes it didn’t commit – the charge sheet is long enough, already! (Sorry, Met! I’m sure the Modern Metropolitan Police are squeaky clean!)

[1] Sam Harris, 2005: The End of Faith: Religion, Terror and The Future of reason, London: Free Press, p41 – an intolerant secularist rant, but erudite, entertaining and studded with wise saws, although his prose is overly complex.

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