We the cyborgs

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We the cyborgs

The Brookings Institution has published a paper arguing that we might all be cyborgs and that it’s time for the law to respond to this transformation. I find the argument compelling: We have arrived at a stage where the devices we carry in our pockets or wear on our wrists are no less part of our being than they would be if they were implanted in our bodies.

The paper’s authors, Benjamin Wittes and Jane Chong, are not technologists: Wittes writes about law and Chong is a lawyer. Their argument is primarily legal and based in part on the Supreme Court decision in Riley v. California from June. In it, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote that modern mobile phones “are now such a pervasive and insistent part of daily life that the proverbial visitor from Mars might conclude they were an important feature of human anatomy,” and so police should not be able to search them without a warrant when making an arrest.

Back in 2009, the National Science Foundation tried to explain, in passing, what the ethical difference might be between simply carrying a device and having it implanted:

“Integrating tools into our bodies [and perhaps with our everyday clothing to the extent that we are rarely without our clothes] appears to give us unprecedented advantages which may be morally significant. These advantages are that we would have easier, immediate, and ‘always-on’ access to those new capabilities as if they were a natural part of our being; we would never be without those devices, as we might forget to bring a laptop computer with us to a meeting. And assimilating tools with our persons creates an intimate or enhanced connection with our tools that evolves our notion of personal identity, more so than simply owning things.”

The smartphone is such an integral part of us that we’re taking constant care of it as though it were a body part. Charging it is almost the equivalent of eating regularly. Forgetting one’s phone can lead to nomophobia - the anxiety of being offline.

Functions that we delegate to technology are also increasingly personal. I can’t even recall my own phone number without looking at my phone. A dyslexic woman I know, whose messages used to be comically undecipherable garbles, is now coherent and even eloquent thanks to speech-to-text. We outsource basic orientation to our phones’ navigation apps, trivial memory to ubiquitous Google and interaction to social messengers that set their own rules.

We have missed the moment of transition from mere possession of a device to incorporation of its capabilities into our nature. Although the discussion of whether smartphones and social networks have turned people into cyborgs is not new, the affirmative evidence is now overwhelming.

If almost every person - except a minority of conscious resisters - is now a cyborg, new rules are necessary to govern the way we function. According to Wittes and Chong:

“The more essential the role our machines play in our lives, the more integral the data they produce are to our human existences, and the more inextricably intertwined the devices become with us - socially, physically, and biologically - the less plausible will seem the notion that the data they produce is material we voluntarily turn over to a third party like some file cabinet we give to a friend.”

That means the data on our phones should enjoy the same protections as that in our heads, as Roberts essentially argued. Also, perhaps providers of cloud storage services should be no more or less responsible for our private information as our brain cells are. If we forget something or blurt it out in a bar, there’s no one to blame the way Apple is criticized for allowing celebrities’ naked photos to leak out.

Our desire to shift responsibility may be part of being, as Wittes and Chong put it, “baby cyborgs”: We have come to realize that communication and data storage technology are part of us, but we haven’t really taken control of these extensions. Similarly, we are angry at governments for tracking our electronic selves, but we are not ready to exercise reasonable caution the way we do with our physical selves.

Growing up is hard to do.

*The author is a Berlin-based Bloomberg View contributor.

by Leonid Bershidsky

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