Technology Gets Under The Skin

Aug 4, 2017
Originally published on September 6, 2017 10:59 am

The decision of a company to offer its employs the option to hack their bodies to function better in the workplace has raised eyebrows and, no doubt, generated publicity.

But it also gives us a chance to turn a light on hidden attitudes about the nature of the self.

Imagine that you could pay for your morning coffee with the swipe of your hand, or that you didn't need to have a key on your person to start up your car. Pretty convenient, huh?

And not really that futuristic at all. In principle, you could wear a chip-enabled ring or bracelet that would let you seamlessly navigate the walls and marketplaces of the electronic world.

Well, if that would work, then why not enjoy the extra added convenience of having the chip inserted into your body — the way we put finder chips into dogs and cats?

A company in Wisconsin made news last week by offering its employees the option of getting a chip surgically implanted so that they would be able to navigate electronic pathways at the company's headquarters more easily. The company's move has gotten tons of attention (including here and here at NPR).

Many concerns have been raised. Health is a big one: Do we know the long-term effects of having something inside of you emit a signal to an external receiver? And then there's privacy: Assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, how do you know a device like this won't be used to track you? It says on my Social Security card that it isn't meant to be a means of identification. But that's exactly how it is used in our daily life.

And then there are concerns about whether an employee is free to say "no" to a company initiative of this sort.

If we put all that aside, though, I find myself wondering: What's the big deal? Does it make a difference, beyond sheer convenience, that the transmitter is in your hand (like a splinter, say) rather than on your hand, like a ring?

If you think it does, this may be because you take for granted that to put something in you is to bring about a more basic alteration in who or what you are.

But is that really true? Just because something is inside you, that doesn't make it a part of you. My dental work isn't part of me, is it? The fact that it is cemented in place — and, so, that it is difficult to remove — doesn't make it me. Ditto, I would say, for the grain-of-rice-sized-chip-in-the-hand. It might as well be the stud of an earring as something inserted beneath the skin for all that it forces us to rethink our natural limits.

In fact, it is easier, I think, to find conditions on the outside that more truly get under our skin and change what we are. A blind person and her cane, or even the guitarist and her instrument, these seem to be examples where the true boundaries of a person — defined not by the limits of the skin, but by the limits of what a person can do — are altered. Consider the way learning a new language, or the way learning to read, can alter a person by, in effect, altering their reality.

The body and the person are different things. Just because something is in me doesn't mean, really, that it is in me; and just because something is outside me, doesn't mean that it isn't, really, part of what I am.

There may be interesting borderline cases. Drugs (e.g. medicines) are technologies that we consume to alter ourselves. This may be why we feel that athletes who use drugs as part of their training are only partially responsible for what they accomplish. What they have done, we some how feel, wasn't really done by them. We don't, in the same way, begrudge an athlete the benefits of good coaching, healthy diet, the best equipment and sports science. But is this rational?

Plastic surgery is another borderline case. Although some celebrities have proudly declared that they have had plastic surgery, there remains a lingering idea, I think, that surgically enhanced good looks is somehow inauthentic. Curiously, surgically enhanced achievements in sports is almost normal and is not associated with the stigmas of performance enhancing drugs.

Body hacking is "cool" these days. Despite the widespread practice of piercing and tattooing, the willingness to mark-up and alter one's body still somehow carries the air of individual freedom and daring. I suspect that one reason the Wisconsin story gets so much airplay is that it is tied to this kind of buzz.

But it is harder by far, and maybe more transformative, to build shared structures — tools, technologies, ideas, memes — on which we can rely, and thanks to which we can do new things and reach new heights.


Alva Noë is a philosopher at the University of California, Berkeley, where he writes and teaches about perception, consciousness and art. He is the author of several books, including his latest, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015). You can keep up with more of what Alva is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @alvanoe

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