Biohacking, biopower and maybe cyborgs

t So, this week Terminator Genisys was released and I’m sure none of you noticed at all because apparently it was utterly shite. Aside from the obvious money-machines that are endless sequels and Arnie himself, it did make me wonder why there was any draw in making another cyborg related science fiction film (and before someone jumps in and tries to tell me Terminators are robots and not human-hybrids, I’d like to remind you all that the T8xx and 900 Infiltrator model terminators are comprised of living, cultivated human tissue over metal endoskeleton, which you would know if you paid enough attention to the ReeseXSilberman time travel talk in the first Terminator. So there.)

In fact, why are there so many -cyborg films, that is- this year? Fringe obsession with cybernetics has been around for a long time, but now the borders between science fiction and reality are becoming more blurred than ever. Maybe you’ve seen friends who’ve had magnets implanted under their skin so they can detect electromagnetic fields? Or people who’ve taken it upon themselves to implant even more complicated devices.

Maybe you think they are weird, crusty biopunk nerds who’ve watched the Matrix too much. So then you dismiss them and go back to checking your sleep tracker app from last night, input your breakfast into MyFitnessPal and use your FitBit to track your workout. You dirty hypocrite, you. The device might not be under your skin (yet) but whether you like it or not, technology as a performance enhancer or tracker is here to stay.

And just in case you were wondering (of course you were, this is why you’re here), this is exactly what Michel Foucault (French philosopher and ‘historian of ideas’, 1926-1984, famous for turtle neck jumpers and a really shiny head) means when he talks about bio-power. To break it down, let’s take two well-established statements: Knowledge is power. Might (power) is right. In this instance, we assume that having knowledge provides power. On the other hand we also assume that might (power) sets the precedent for what is correct and good and expected in society. In other words what is ‘right’ or ‘your right’, is a social idea, not an empirical truth, and thus must have its basis as a trickle-down from the most powerful people of society. Ergo, K=P M=P M=R ∴ K=P=R Foucault reckoned that Knowledge, Power and Right exist in a triangle, (pay attention, I’ve put it in bold and everything) and what a problematic triangle that is.

Old MF was pretty obsessed with the nature of power, which he grouped into two broad categories. ‘Old’/‘Sovereign’ power was a ‘negative’ power, in that Foucault thinks it  operated by taking things away from people. In this context, your life. I.e, in the Middle Ages, if the King wants your head on a plate, he damn well gets it. (Human rights? What Human Rights?)  ANYWAY, MF tells us sovereign power = death power.  Now that the death penalty is obsolete(ish) in many areas of the world, MF reckons we have moved on to the prevalence of ‘life power’, that is the power ‘to make live’ and ‘let die’. Power now has the intention – or appearance – of securing, extending and improving your life. In short, you pay your taxes not because the Queen will come round and batter you, but because you’re supposed to.

We are not governed by fear, but by self-regulation, striving ever onward to live by societally accepted norms. Our society’s goal is to make us more profitable and productive whilst making us compliant subjects. In other words, the subjective body has become submissive to the manipulated mind. This is what Foucault calls bio-power, and this is the newest form of power meant in our Knowledge-Power-Right triangle. And RE this whole knowlegepowerright, non-collinear, three-pointed polygonal clusterfuck the boy-o says it best himself:

Knowledge linked to power, not only assumes the authority of ‘the truth’ but has the power to make itself true. All knowledge, once applied in the real world, has effects, and in that sense at least, ‘becomes true.’ Knowledge, once used to regulate the conduct of others, entails constraint, regulation and the disciplining of practice. Thus, ‘there is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time, power relations.

MF, 1977, 27

Bio-power is the disciplining of the body by the mind, either the individual mind subjecting the individual’s body (as is the case with bio-hacking), or the subjugation of the body by the collective mind (think, imprisonment as a punishment for breaking a law mandated by society) Bio-power works because it uses data to observe and then find solutions to societal problems. Sound familiar?

This is the era of Big Data; you and your life and habits are the product that social media moguls sell. And given we know that data = knowledge = power, then the age of Big Data must also the age of bio-power. Now maybe we might begin to see why Foucault is more relevant than ever before, especially given the fact that Foucault considered bio-power to be the very founding basis of capitalism. MF was a pretty evenhanded guy, and though he gave us an interesting theory he never really gave any ethical or moral direction to it.

Now then, data collection is only data collection and has no moral value of it’s own, but in many other ways data collection ethics is the biggest philosophical and ethical problem of our generation. How about Facebook conducting mood experiments , or the myriad of scandals surrounding police collection of sensitive data. How do feel about that fact that fitness trackers might bump your health insurance? Right now you are probably wondering what FitBit has to do with cyborgs, but the answer is closer than you think. Data collection is the first step of transformation. Let’s put it this way: you don’t collect data then do nothing with it – you look at data. Once you’ve done that, you know your weaknesses, your strengths. Once you know your weakness, the natural tendency is to improve, and improve and improve.

And now our natural curiosity is pushing us further and further into stranger realms of data collection. We are beginning to obsessively experiment with the technological boundaries of human ability, to mechanise our bodies to be even more efficient and even more productive. This is bio-power in very active play.  We are not using technology to correct medical injury, but to increase the body we already have. This can range from the famous bullet-proof coffee or sleep-cycling right through to electronic implants and the rise of ‘real’ cyborgs. In fact, some biohackers now aspire to be ‘transhuman’, that is, suggesting that it is possible and desirable to alter the human condition to create superior post-human beings.

If you just looked at that and dry heaved (or straight vanilla heaved, hey, I’m not judging) but suffer from morbid curiosity, that, by the way, is Circadia 1.0, a computer chip implant that sends biometric data to a smartphone. There are so so so many ethical questions to be raised that I can barely scratch the surface here, but here’s some starters for ten: what if technologically enhanced bodies become commonplace? Who will subsidize or be able to afford them? Or will the poor then be not only a separate economical class, but a segregated physical class? (And will human society turn into The Time Machine like that bit in the future where some of us become lazy-bum human cattle and others become troglofaunal apes that eat said human cattle and pop out of holes in the ground, OH GOD I CAN SEE IT COMING NOW). Will technologically altered babies have the same human rights as full humans? Can you emotionally abuse someone who is half robot? When is a technologically altered being a robotperson or a personrobot?

In fact, the biggest problem we might face is not that we’re squeamish about implants. After all, we already have pacemakers and titanium bones. Or even the legality, but the problem that we might get really really really good at living for a really really long time. We will have what Foucault calls an “excess of bio-power” that “appears when it becomes technologically and politically possible for man not only to manage life but to make it proliferate,” thus creating forms of life than extend bio-power “beyond all human sovereignty.” The biggest danger we face is not A.I, but our relentless desire to preserve and propagate life. And once you balance that with the 10 billion projected people on the planet, we really start to run into problems with overcrowding/end-of-the-world etc.

It is easy to congratulate ourselves on biotech progression, but we mustn’t forget the ethical questions that underpin our humanity, especially when the physical human form will be less and less essential to the human condition. We will, and already do, think of the body as a mere vehicle for the brain/consciousness, and therefore something that can be endlessly improved, rather than seeing the body as an extension of being/consciousness and a qualifying category of a human. But let’s not forget that the above is a manifestation of bio-power, and, for Foucault, bio-power is a means of societal control, a manipulation by systematic thought control. Being human isn’t easy: maybe it’d be simpler if we were brains in jars of formaldehyde after all.



About ncgf

Day-time drinker & runaway traveller. Terrible sense of humour, always scruffy.

One comment

  1. Pingback: Toothpaste and Politics | Eating From The Trashcan

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