US Supreme Court Says You’re A Cyborg!
In June of last year, the United States Supreme Court ruled decisively (see Riley v. California) that police may not conduct a warrantless search of cellphones seized in an arrest. The reasoning? According to Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for eight justices, this is because a search of cellphone data constitutes a kind of violation of the body. In his words, “modern cell 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.”
This statement sows the seeds for cyborg law, and our society’s long-overdue acceptance of the blurry interzone between our flesh and blood on one side and our digital devices on the other. The idea has a lengthy history. In 1982 the rockstar evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins argued in his book The Extended Phenotype that our technologies are inextricably a part of our behavior and bodies. Twenty years before that, cyberneticists like Norbert Weiner laid the groundwork for our digital environment by treating human beings as nodes within a system of mutually-defining parts – a fractal system-of-systems that includes our architecture, entertainment media, government, and even laws, all woven intimately into one vast self-creating super-organism.
Even earlier, in 1834, the physicist André-Marie Ampère coined “cybernetique” to describe the newborn paradigm of treating government as science. In order to regard the state as one big mechanism (and remember that the metaphor-du-jour in 1834 was of the body/cosmos as a clock) you must first regard the self as if it were a gear within a great machine. Since then, the notion of the individual has shifted; the rational-but-alienated modern man now seems to be a fiction we rely upon for mating and survival, but which has no ultimate reality. We’re “meat machines” according to the implicit religion of Silicon Valley – programmable computers that do not exist outside the network of our interactions. (The watch gear has no meaning or utility outside the watch. It only is because the watch is.)
Where does the person end and culture start? Or is that question nonsense in an era where the last remaining vestiges of our historical divorce from everything – our bodies, our technologies, and nature – all fade away in the cacophony of our postmodern digital society?
In order to discuss our hopes and fears for bodyhacking, we must first agree on where the borders of the body really lie. Do we accept the envelope of skin as more than just an arbitrary boundary…or do we honor the perspective of those scientists who brought us to this moment, and treat all of these devices as the modular “hot-rodding” of an organism that’s inherently both plastic and embedded in an even-greater body?
In StopTheCyborg’s statement on the Riley v. California case, the authors make the point that when we open definitions of the body to include our personal devices, we invite a kind of existential doubt regarding who is actually “in control”:
“If a technical part makes up your extended body then you should control it, not some corporation, but unfortunately the majority of medical and assistive devices are closed proprietary systems. Further no-one should be coerced by people, corporations or indeed wider economic or social forces into wearing or being implanted with any device. However it is clear that many people unfortunately are.”
Just like with law and architecture – two technologies that limit our available expressions, often subtly or invisibly – bodyhacking with remote-control devices, cloud-based services, proprietary software, and so on leave us not just philosophically exposed, but palpably connected to entire worlds of entities who may or may not share our values and decisions. To see the body as a thing that can be hacked, we’re faced with the unpleasant revelation that some “other” people could be hacking us right now. (See Avi Rubin’s TED talk for a better grasp on just how vulnerable we are when we weave our digital devices into personal identity…)
The paranoia is inevitable as we make the harsh transition from a worldview in which everyone is separate to one in which expanded definitions and expanded bodies overlap, then merge. Just past the paranoia lies an almost-mystical communion: the world-song of everybody-all-at-once, the revelation of a networked planet in which each of us is permeable to each “other” and to all. Perhaps, together, we can “bodyhack” our planet to sustain a larger population, “bodyhack” our government to cure immune disorders like the War on Drugs, et cetera. But first, as we approach this everyday experience of our non-separation – catalyzed by our increasing intimacy with cellphones, wearable devices, smart prostheses, and responsive internet-enabled homes – we’re dragging all our antiquated notions of the self and body in along with us.
Until the phase transition is complete, we’re likely to continue arguing about where we should draw “The Line” – but thankfully, at least this country’s highest court agrees that things are not as simple as they used to be. For now, your Fourth Amendment rights protect you from unlawful search and seizure of your Google Keep to-do lists, Tinder messages, and videos you just took of police brutality…