2: We Were Always Human
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33 2 We Were Always Human Zeynep Tufekci “[The web] shares a strange feature with painting. The offsprings of painting stand there as if they are alive, but if anyone asks them anything, they remain most solemnly silent. The same is true of [the web]. You’d think they were speaking as if they had some understanding, but if you question anything that has been said because you want to learn more, it continues to signify just that very same thing forever. When it has once been [published online], every discourse roams about everywhere, reaching indiscriminately those with understanding no less than those who have no business with it, and it doesn’t know to whom it should speak and to whom it should not.” The above paragraph is actually not about the Internet. It is about writing , and it is attributed to Plato (Plato 1997, 552). The text in brackets originally read “the written word” or “written down.” Many new technologies are accompanied by loud protests of loss of humanity, and a common thread runs through them. Plato encapsulates the heart of the oft-repeated argument with his claim that writing robbed words of their soul by freezing them into an immutable medium rather than the flesh and blood human who can talk, DOI: 10.5876/9781607321705.c02 34 Zeynep Tufekci respond, and listen in context. As I will argue, this unease stems from the fundamental duality of being human: we are at once embodied and symbolic. Some technologies allow us to separate those two aspects, thereby creating the gap Plato laments: words without bodies. Once the thought and the human are separated, as in writing, the thought then enters a perilous territory. Disembodied meaning, it seems, cannot hold on to its context and can now be deconstructed, reinterpreted, misapplied, rewritten, and, even worse, used ironically, as I did above, to make a point that might in the end counter the original intent of the author, if one can still speak of authors and original intents. Even so, the reification of the word implies neither loss nor transcendence of humanity. The proliferation of digital technologies has made us no more posthuman than the invention of writing or the creation of those breathtaking Paleolithic cave paintings at Chauvet. Neither the first totem nor the typewriter , nor the telegraph, nor the pyramids, nor the libraries of Alexandria, nor the Internet, nor the cyborg-visions make us any more posthuman than before. The essence of humanity is that we have always been both symbolic and embodied. This, by itself, cannot be interpreted as post-, because there was never a pre- in which humans were not simultaneously and inseparably both symbolic and embodied. Or maybe, said alternatively, we were always posthuman. The symbolic capacity of humanity has always meant that it was possible to separate and extend the word from the body. Once separated, or more accurately, alienated, from the living creator, the word can now stand on its own—or, contrarywise , pace Plato, no longer attached to life, it dies. McLuhan (1962) famously compared all media to extensions of human capabilities—the eye, the ear, the hand, the skin. Finally, through information technologies, we have symbol manipulation technologies that allow us to extend our cognitive and social capabilities and do so in a networked manner. A related, but not identical question is about the extension of our capabilities . Unlike almost all other animals, humans intrinsically extended their abilities through the use of tools, social organization, and their ability to externalize the symbolic, as discussed in this chapter. Our symbolic nature directly supports our capacity for extension of our abilities. A corollary of the argument presented here is that we are no less human than the first time an ancestor picked up a stick to extend an arm. On the other hand, this extension , like all the others, is surely not without consequence. To understand the almost visceral reaction of Plato and many commentators after him in response to these technologies of extension, alienation, and replication of our symbolic and cognitive capabilities, we must return to the source of this unease. There are three interrelated dynamics at play: externalization and reification of the symbolic, mediation of human interaction, and extension of human capabilities. 35 We Were Always Human Externalization and Reification of the Symbolic As stated, a core tension of being human flows from the fact that humans are embodied creatures as well as symbolic beings. As embodied beings, we are necessarily finite...



Subject Headings

  • Anthropology -- Philosophy.
  • Cybernetics -- Philosophy.
  • Online social networks.
  • Computers and civilization.
  • Virtual reality.
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