From smart watches to sensors in our clothes – machines move closer and closer to our skin and soon, perhaps, all the way into our bodies. How does a society look in which digitally enhanced bodies become the norm?
In what ways will we live and interact, and how can we manage a future in which economic inequality and differences in ability might become synonymous terms? What does it mean to be a ”cybernetic life form”, containing both organic and technological components?
The term cybernetics was first coined in 1948 by the researcher Norbert Wiener. Originally, it means something like steersmanship or control. The term was meant for technological systems bigger than simple machines. Over time, it has come to describe the integration between human and machine, technology and biology. Simply put, it applies for the communication and feedback between various kinds of components.
Of course, humans have been modifying their bodies since long before 1948. Prosthetic body parts, tattoos and mind-altering drugs have been with us since our very earliest history, and if anything has been indicative of human progress over the past ten thousand years, it’s an ever-closer integration with technology and with our tools. As technology gets more sophisticated, we also become more dependent on it – and it becomes ever more part of us. Especially, it becomes an expected part of society. How does one manage in modern society without a smartphone? It’s possible, but society is increasingly structured to make it very difficult.
Today, many businesses and researchers work on ways of reinforcing or developing our biological bodies with functions from the world of technology. Subdermal NFC-chips, exoskeletons for the elderly, sensors for insulin levels, the list is extensive. However, most of these solutions are today meant to address specific problems. That was also once the case with the mobile phone. Today, it seems almost absurd that it was designed solely to make phone calls.
Solutions that begin in limited forms, meant for isolated circumstances, sometimes end up growing over time and transforming society. There are numerous examples of this: Some innovation, known for a long time, is suddenly scaled up when there’s a market ready to receive it. If only one or two cybernetic innovations has the same economy of scale as the mobile phone has today, well, we can count on a society in rapid transformation, perhaps reimagined from the ground up. Today, a subdermal chip is a curiosity, but if a powerful actor gives strong enough incentives to use them, it’s possible businesses and the public sector will need to take a stance on the issue in as little as five or ten years. Perhaps even earlier.
We don’t know how a society built for cyborgs might look. In part it will depend on technological developments, but it also depends on to what degree technology becomes accessible or inaccessible given questions of economics, legislation, etc. Perhaps many of these solutions will be too expensive for use by the general public, or they will be considered so dangerous to privacy and integrity that they’re outlawed. We can in any case be certain that digitalization will continue to develop as it has today – and if it does, we can count on digitizing our own selves, in one way or another. If you think about it, given how we already communicate, work, and entertain ourselves– we already have.
The shift towards a cybernetic society will not happen today or tomorrow, but there’s much to be gained from a general stance of preparedness – especially as the technology is intimately connected to AI and other developments in the digital field. Everything is becoming digital anyway – from schools to healthcare to work life.
Keep a close eye on what happens, welcome that which helps solve real problems and can be scaled and be prepared for a process of digitalization that will continue to reshape society. How does your organization address these questions today? The question is equally worth asking whether the technology is in your purse – or under your skin.