Bodies and brains already merged with computer power

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Bodies and brains already merged with computer powerThe animated family conversation was becoming louder, and Archimedes anxiously began to look for signs that it was disturbing the other passengers. He needn’t have worried. On a Melbourne tram which was two-thirds full, almost all were staring into space, plugged into their iPods.

That was when it first struck Archimedes that a gap had opened between him and many of his fellow travellers in urban Australian society. While he still lived mainly on planet Earth, they seemed to be spending increasing amounts of time inhabiting an electronic world.

Not only were most of the people on the tram plugged into sound systems, so were many cyclists and joggers he could see from the window. In some of the passing cars, flickering screens displayed DVDs for the passengers. And then there were the people on the pavement yelling and gesticulating at someone totally invisible—on the other end of a mobile phone. What had happened to looking at scenery or the passing human parade, to listening to the city’s hum or birds singing, and to thinking one’s own thoughts uninterrupted?

This disappearance of people into an electronic world is starting to feed back into the “real” world in a big way, and not all the impacts are positive. A simple example; the sense of hearing presumably evolved in part as a system to warn of approaching danger. In urban traffic, blocking that sense with an iPod, as joggers and cyclists regularly do, could be a fatal mistake.

And in addition to the long-term concern about using mobile phones while driving, road safety researchers are now becoming increasingly worried over the distraction caused by the growing numbers of electronic gadgets in vehicles—satellite navigation devices, alarms to alert drivers to potential collisions or other emergencies, and screens displaying the position of other vehicles or the condition of the road or vehicle. All these compete for attention and tend to draw the driver’s concentration away from the road ahead.

There are bizarre stories from the world of internet gaming. Multiplayer role-playing games, such as Second Life, Everquest and World of Warcraft, allow people to inhabit electronic worlds where they can live vicariously as characters far different from their everyday lives. There are reports of some who spend more time in these electronic fantasy worlds than they do in the real one.

Bodies and brains already merged with computer powerThe real-world trade in the electronic characters, skills and possessions acquired in these cyberworlds on the web has topped A$130 million, and ranks with the economy of some small countries, according to US economist Edward Castronova.

Then there’s the exploding phenomenon of social networking—websites where you can contact and bare your soul to people worldwide in the form of biographies, pictures, blogs, videos or any other information you want to swap. MySpace, acquired by Rupert Murdoch in July, boasts more than 100 million members.

All this is beginning to make Archimedes uncomfortable. We live in a world facing serious and growing environmental and geopolitical problems—climate change, emerging diseases, terrorism, shortages of food and water. That’s reality. In order to solve these problems, we will need access to the smartest electronic technology we can muster. But resolving the issues will also demand careful negotiation, and a common sense knowledge of how the world functions.

Bodies and brains already merged with computer powerTake the simple issue of curbing water use as an example. Archimedes worries that adherence to restrictions may not be a priority to someone who spends much of their time in a flashy, oversimplified electronic world. In cyberspace, when you run out of something, you just find, fetch or buy some more.

Modern electronics has already changed the whole process of growing up and learning to make decisions independently. The mobile phone has fast become an electronic tether, tying young people to parents, family and friends—in the suburban mall, the city nightclub or even bushwalking—so they’re never truly alone.

In a recent article on the future of human beings in the international science news weekly New Scientist, American bioethicist James Hughes suggests that within the next 50 years “our bodies and brains will be surrounded by and merged with computer power”. Perhaps before that happens we need to give some serious thought as to how best to integrate the human and electronic worlds.

 

 

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As a newly-minted bike rider, I find it amazing that a number of my fellow cyclists are content to cycle along with iPods plugged into their ears. Because I'm so uncoordinated, I can barely take my hands off the handlebars to signal left or right - let alone swivel my head to check for cars coming up behind me. I have become conscious of relying very heavily on my hearing as a way to gauge my own safety; I figure I'm more likely to hear an engine about to mow me down than to see it with the eyes in the back of my head.

Thank you Archimedes for calling our attention to the disappearance of people into the electronic world, and pointing out that we should remain cautious.


Aurora Lowe | 28 November 2006


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