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FleshFactor: The Special Zone

A E C  F O R U M - "F L E S H F A C T O R"

The Special Zone

Tom Sherman comments that "most of the thinking on the integration or
separation of these two natures positions the examiner, the wired human
that apparently still has the option of shutting down the second nature
whenever he or she wants...in a special place OUTSIDE or beside both
natures, a special zone reserved for humankind."

He has identified a serious problem with thinking on human nature in the
future. We are still debating within the fundamental mythical worldview of
humanity, its centredness and uniqueness. This overwhelming sense of
ourselves, developed by priests and philosophers and power brokers and the
institutionalized, has given us the age-old dichotomies that distinguish
us from 'the other': me and you, us and them, mind and body, art and
science, human and animal, human and vegetable, flesh and metal. These are
all Western philosophical conventions and classifications.

Human nature itself is our construct, charged with the historically
developed values, morals and beliefs of our culture. Other cultures, with
different worldviews, have their own concepts of human nature. This means
that we are really working at cross-purposes. On the one hand we think
about the effects on our worldview and our physical lives of new
environments that have stronger connections to the electronic world than
the world of flesh and blood. On the other, we speculate with an
anthrocentric and ethnocentric worldview. We think, therefore, that we
can break off our engagement with computer nature at any time. Go for a
walk, smell the flowers, feel whole again.

Can we?

The problem is that the new technology is also a physical environment, and
we are getting more and more involved in it. Our wholeness keeps
expanding, like the universe. The encounter does not simply change our
minds, it changes our very nature - not as humans (we can make up anything
we want about our life experience, and we tend to use the old-fashioned
conceptual dualities), but as organisms.

George Herbert Mead had a lot in common with William Blake, although he
probably didn't know it. Blake said in his down-to-earth metaphorical way,
'God becomes as we are that we may be as he is'; Mead talked about
organism-environment interaction. What I get from them is that none of the
dualities really mean anything. An organism adapts to its environment and
the environment adapts to the organism. One is nothing without the other. 

Our human environment has one nature in two aspects. From day one we have
been middle-sized objects rattling around in a large-scale world and
tramping on smaller objects. From day one we have had a mind and, over
time, we have extended its environmental range in many ways. We began to
make tools while we were still ape-like. By the time of the Upper
Paleolithic, we were already sophisticated thinkers, and the contents of
our brains flowed over the cave walls. I suppose we were forced to invent
because we had a brain that could do it (and we had a brain that could do
it because we were forced to invent). But even though some people claim
that we produced in those days out of fear or mystery, it is we
who are afraid (of the darkness of caves, of the wildness of animals, of
losing our central place in the scheme of things). In defense of our own
thinking lives we apply humanistic interpretations to outputs that are
purely natural, inevitable - simply Nature at work on organisms, organisms
at work on Nature. 

What all this comes down to is that the electronic extensions of our minds
are part of that nature, conceptual and perceptual activity more than
motor activity. Clearly, what we bump into is different from what we think
on. But that does not make one natural and one artificial. If we use the
old traditional definition of artifice, what in the world is purely
spontaneous, outside the reach of humans, except what is far beyond our
atmosphere? Thousands of years ago our ancestors were busily burning
forests and exhausting the soil, leaving us with our present picturesque
'natural' world. And we have always had machine extensions busily
dissolving the ancient boundaries of our bodies.

When we actualize a thought through production, it becomes part of nature
and subject to Nature's laws. It is only our desire to identify and extend
our human production, to justify and enlarge our centre, that divides us
from the rest of nature. Or art from science.

Think about time itself - take the millennium we are headed for. My
celebration (or fear) will be tempered by thoughts of the missing ten days
in October, 1582. By that year, Pope Gregory had had enough of the Julian
calendar (established by Julius Caesar) and so he changed it, ordering
that the day after October 4 would be October 15. Absolutely nothing
happened between those two calendar days. No births, no deaths, no
infinity. So what (and when) do we celebrate? It is not a millennium
according to the Russian Orthodox church, or to the Chinese or Australian
Aborigines. By astronomical reckoning, it will be Julian Day 2451545. But
this scientific fiction is no less a part of nature. Those in fear of the
gods, those waiting for some great millennial buzz on a mountain top or at 
some ancient site or geomagnetic anomaly, will assume that the spirits use
our calendar. And, of course, they do, because we are the gods. We will
all feel the anticipation, the fear, the rush, when this date comes, just
as we might when the odometer reaches 100,000 miles or kilometers. No
matter how unreal it actually is, this changing of magic numbers will have
measureable material effects. Some people will die, or channel more
intensely, or buy more crystals, or see more angels; we'll all have
hangovers the next day. A few computers will crash. The fiction becomes
reality. Art becomes science. Mind becomes nature.

We need to understand that as we change the world, it changes us. I can
walk away from the computer, turn off that electrical window, that moving
wall of information. But it is already too late. It surrounds me, no less
so than the world I walk through, because I cannot get outside it. It is
inside my skin, but outside my brain, because the brain (through its
sensory extensions) now makes the journey.

Molyneaux 5.4.97  16:36  [ 1 ]

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