Before reading any further, take a moment to consider what you see when you hear the word “cyborg”. Chances are, a person with a bionic endoskeleton like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s character in The Terminator will be the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe, if you’re really thinking outside of the parameters of science fiction, you will picture yourself—an everyday, run-of-the-mill, human.
By definition, a cyborg is a person whose human capacities are enhanced through mechanical devices. If this is the case, then I would argue that anyone with a smartphone in their pocket is, in fact, a real-world cyborg. Although not physically embedded beneath the surface of your skin, your smartphone serves as a sixth sense—another lens through which to see, and an extended version of your limited capacity for continuous memory and knowledge.
To what extent have we come to treat the smartphone as an augmentation of our senses? Let’s put it this way: the very act of learning to operate technology has become as much of a fundamental milestone in a young child’s life as learning how to walk. We are more aware of our smartphones than we are of our own bodies most of the time. In fact, I bet that reading this is making you want to check your smartphone right now, much like the irresistible urge you get to move your leg when you become aware of its positioning.
Smartphones have become so prevalent that the expectation to turn them off in spaces that have traditionally discouraged their presence is gradually becoming obsolete. Take the most recent TEDxRyersonU conference, for example. Like most intimate events of the new millennium, the conference had a designated Twitter hashtag so that delegates could extend their experience beyond the confines of their immediate presence. It meant that the act of being engaged on social media during each talk was just as expected from the audience as having them quietly face the stage. But it also meant that during each talk, there was an undercurrent of Twitter activity buzzing between the delegates and the rest of the world, like notes being passed in class under the nose of an oblivious teacher. Speaking as a member of the TEDxRyersonU committee, it was exciting to see the fruits of our labour extrapolated into the global Twitter-sphere, but upon deeper reflection, I now wonder if we should have considered our capacity to divert our delegates’ attention from the talks that they had paid to see as a measure of success.
On the one hand, our smartphones allowed us the cyborg-like ability to capture and preserve all of our favourite moments from the day, and the speakers will be able to refer back to the tweets that their quotes inspired and reminisce about impactful things that they said during their twenty minutes. On the other hand, the speakers must also recon with the fact that a significant percentage of their audience was only partially listening to them. Instead of being fully immersed in the essence of each talk, delegates were attempting to spread their attention across two mediums: the real and the virtual.
The mechanical extensions of the cyborgs that we see in films allow them to experience the world at a heightened level and, through our smartphones, we seek to emulate their superhuman abilities. Yet, in the process we have overlooked two fundamental truths—that cyborgs do not feel, and that their experiences hold no meaning for them. In an attempt to enhance our experiences through technology, we have instead dulled them. Our desire to share everything that transpires sacrifices the depth of our very existence. Through the screen of our smartphones, we become second-hand recipients of everything that occurs, even when we are sitting right there.
Thinking back to the day of the conference, we boasted our Twitter figures, yet they had nothing to do with the quality of the talks. If teachers banned notes from being passed in class because they infringed on our ability to concentrate on the lesson, then why were we promoting Twitter during the conference? How far can ideas spread when the immediate recipients are preoccupied with condensing the highlights of each talk into 140 characters? As a committee, did our desire to project our ideas and brand overshadow our dedication to the first-hand experiences of our delegates? Was it wrong for us to deny the speakers our undivided and respectful attention?
Let’s tweet on it.