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VI3: Philosophy of Computing and Information Technology

Philosophy of Computing and Information Technology

Philip Brey, Johnny Hartz Søraker, in Philosophy of Technology and Engineering Sciences, 2009

Philosophy has been described as having taken a “computational turn,” referring to the ways in which computers and information technology throw new light upon traditional philosophical issues, provide new tools and concepts for philosophical reasoning, and pose theoretical and practical questions that cannot readily be approached within traditional philosophical frameworks. As such, computer technology is arguably the technology that has had the most profound impact on philosophy. Philosophers have studied computer technology and its philosophical implications extensively. Philosophers have discovered computers and information technology (IT) as research topics, and a wealth of research is taking place on philosophical issues in relation to these technologies. The research agenda is broad and diverse. Issues that are studied include the nature of computational systems, the ontological status of virtual worlds, the limitations of artificial intelligence, philosophical aspects of data modeling, the political regulation of cyberspace, the epistemology of Internet information, ethical aspects of information privacy and security, and many more.

5.6 Cyborgs and virtual subjects

Information technology has become so much part of everyday life that it is affecting human identity (understood as character). Two developments have been claimed to have a particularly great impact. The first of these is that information technologies are starting to become part of our bodies and function as prosthetic technologies that take over or augment biological functions, turning humans into cyborgs, and thereby altering human nature. A second development is the emergence of virtual identities, which are identities that people assume online and in virtual worlds. This development has raised questions about the nature of identity and the self, and their realization in the future.

Philosophical studies of cyborgs have considered three principal questions: the conceptual question of what a cyborg is, the interpretive and empirical question of whether humans are or are becoming cyborgs, and the normative questions of whether it would be good or desirable for humans to become cyborgs. The term “cyborg” has been used in three increasingly broad senses. The traditional definition of a cyborg, is that of a being composed of both organic and artificial systems, between which there is feedback-control, with the artificial systems closely mimicing the behavior of organic systems. On a broader conception, a cyborg is any individual with artificial parts, even if these parts are simple structures like artificial teeth and breast implants. On a still broader conception, a cyborg is any individual who relies extensively on technological devices and artifacts to function. On this conception, everyone is a cyborg, since everyone relies extensively on technology.

Cyborgs have become a major research topic in cultural studies, which has brought forth the area of cyborg theory, which is the multidisciplinary study of cyborgs and their representation in popular culture [Gray, 1996]. In this field the notion of the cyborg is often used as a metaphor to understand aspects of contemporary — late modern or postmodern — society's relationship to technology, as well as to the human body and the self. The advance of cyborg theory has been credited to Donna Haraway, in particular her essay “Manifesto for Cyborgs” [Haraway, 1985]. Haraway claims that the binary ways of thinking of modernity (organism-technology, man-woman, physical-nonphysical and fact-fiction) traps beings into supposedly fixed identities and oppresses those beings (animals, women, blacks, etc.) who are on the wrong, inferior side of binary oppositions. She believes that the hybridization of humans and human societies, through the notion of the cyborg, can free those who are oppressed by blurring boundaries and constructing hybrid identities that are less vulnerable to the trappings of modernistic thinking (see also [Mazlish, 1993]).

Haraway believes, along with many other authors in cyborg theory (cf. [Gray, 2004; Hayles, 1999]) that this hybridization is already occurring on a large scale. Many of our most basic concepts, such as those of human nature, the body, consciousness and reality, are shifting and taking on new, hybrid, informationalized meanings. Coming from the philosophy of cognitive science Andy Clark [2003] develops the argument that technologies have always extended and co-constituted human nature (cf. [Brey, 2000]), and specifically human cognition. He concludes that humans are “natural-born cyborgs” (see also the discussion of Clark in Section 3.6).

Philosophers Nick Bostrom and David Pearce have founded a recent school of thought, known as transhumanism that shares the positive outlook on the technological transformation of human nature held by many cyborg theorists [Bostrom, 2005; Young, 2005]. Transhumanists want to move beyond humanism, which they commend for many of its values but which they fault for its belief in a fixed human nature. They aim at increasing human autonomy and happiness and eliminate suffering and pain (and possibly death) through human enhancement. Thus achieving a trans- or posthuman state in which bodily and cognitive abilities are augmented by modern technology.

Critics of transhumanism and human enhancement, like Francis Fukuyama, Leon Kass, George Annas, Jeremy Rifkin and Jürgen Habermas, oppose tinkering with human nature for the purpose of enhancement. Their position that human nature should not be altered through technology has been called bioconservatism. Human enhancement has been opposed for a variety of reasons, including claims that it is unnatural, undermines human dignity, erodes human equality, and can do bodily and psychological harm [DeGrazia, 2005]. Currently, there is an increasing focus on ethical analyses of specific enhancements and prosthetic technologies that are in development, including ones that involve information technology [Gillett, 2006; Lucivero and Tamburrini, 2008]. James Moor [2004] has cautioned that there are limitations to such ethical studies. Since ethics is determined by one's nature, he argues, a decision to change one's nature cannot be settled by ethics itself.

Questions concerning human nature and identity are also being asked anew because of the coming into existence of virtual identities [Maun and Corruncker, 2008]. Such virtual identities, or online identities, are social identities assumed or presented by persons in computer-mediated communication and virtual communities. They usually include textual descriptions of oneself and avatars, which are graphically realized characters over which users assume control. Salient features of virtual identities are that they can be different from the corresponding real-world identities, that persons can assume multiple virtual identities in different contexts and settings, that virtual identities can be used by persons to emphasize or hide different aspects of their personality and character, and that they usually do not depend on or make reference to the user's embodiment or situatedness in real life. In a by now classical (though also controversial) study of virtual identity, psychologist Sherry Turkle [1995] argues that the dynamics of virtual identities appear to validate poststructuralist and postmodern theories of the subject. These hold that the self is constructed, multiple, situated, and dynamical. The next step to take is to claim that behind these different virtual identities, there is no stable self, but rather that these identities, along with other projected identities in real life, collectively constitute the subject.

The dynamics of virtual identities have been studied extensively in fields like cultural studies and new media studies. It has been mostly assessed positively that people can freely construct their virtual identities, that they can assume multiple identities in different contexts and can explore different social identities to overcome oppositions and stereotypes, that virtual identities stimulate playfulness and exploration, and that traditional social identities based on categories like gender and race play a lesser role in cyberspace [Turkle, 1995; Bell, 2001]. Critics like Dreyfus [2001] and Borgmann [1999], however, argue that virtual identities promote inauthenticity and the hiding of one's true identity, and lead to a loss of embodied presence, a lack of commitment and a shallow existence. Taking a more neutral stance, Brennan and Pettit [2008] analyze the importance of esteem on the Internet, and argue that people care about their virtual reputations even if they have multiple virtual identities. Matthews [2008], finally, considers the relation between virtual identities and cyborgs, both of which are often supported and denounced for quite similar reasons, namely their subversion of the concept of a fixed human identity.