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Metal and Flesh, and: Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer (review)
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Perspectives in Biology and Medicine 46.3 (2003) 454-456

Metal and Flesh. By Ollivier Dyens. Translated by Evan J. Bibbee. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2001. Pp. 178. $24.95.
Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer. By Steve Mann and Hal Niedzviecki. Toronto: Random House Doubleday Canada, 2001. Pp. 304. $34.95.

We take our tools for granted. Even those that we carry on our bodies, such as eyeglasses or palmtops, we consider as add-ons, foreign objects. Although contact lenses or pacemakers acquire a certain degree of intimacy, even they are still perceived as mere "add-ons," not part of our organic flesh or mind. Should we be made aware of the hidden effects of technologies both on body and mind, or should we continue in the blissful ignorance of our own transformation? Two books by Canadian authors explore that question in complementary ways. Ollivier Dyens' Metal and Flesh (translated from the French in this edition by MIT Press) practices "depth philosophy"—as in "depth psychology"—to find out what makes us human with or in spite of technology. Steve Mann does the experimental grunt work: his Cyborg is a detailed analysis of the tools themselves and of their present and predictable consequences. Both writers take McLuhan seriously and quote his lesser known paraphrase of "The medium is the message": "We shape our tools and hence after, our tools shape us."

Dyens, a professor and author living in Montreal, states his objective with a poetic fervor that you will find throughout the book—and which in itself is worth the price of the book: he wants to explore "both the strange readings of the world offered by new technologies and the transfer of life from the organic to cultural manifestations." The object of study is the limits that separate the organic from the cultural, the personal from the collective, the material from the virtual, the cognitive from the physical. All these limits are plying, and all affect deeply our psychological autonomy as well as our political status. There is some urgency in recognizing that, at least at the level of scientific research and genetic engineering applications, the balance of power has begun to shift from a control by nature to a control over nature by knowledge—that is, culture. With that kind of divine power, we do need to reflect upon our responsibilities. Dyens suggests that we are now in "the Intelligent Condition," a condition that puts intelligence and planning, instead of blind circumstances, at the helm of our destiny. Dyens' book helps greatly in this enterprise.

Cyborg is about limits and their transgressions. "WearComp," as Mann, a professor of Computer Science at the University ofToronto, calls the complex interfacing between clothing, sensory extensions, and connections to the World Wide Web, is about the limit between the body, the mind, and the world. Mann reports on his experience living with a camera eye and a wireless internet connection permanently on. He has been wearing this kind of equipment experimentally on a permanent daily basis since adolescence, and has made this research what appears to be a life cause. He has made himself a cyborg to understand technology, a mission that he tends to proclaim with the occasional messianic overtone that takes nothing from the value of the commitment. The book makes his motivations and also the world he experiences very clear. "Soon," comments Mann, "our lives will be dramatically changed by the WearComp, but the world will look pretty much the same, and most of us won't even notice." However, Mann, a self-professed "activist," urges us to read the fine print of that unspoken social contract, because we risk losing privacy and "the right to think." Having spent much of my own research in finding out how, since the invention of the printing press and the Reformation, we the readers of texts have acquired both these values at great cost in human life, I believe that this is indeed a danger.

What Mann calls "the right to think" is directly equivalent to what the philosophers of the Enlightenment called "tolerance" and the right to worship whosoever in the privacy...

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