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Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer [Paperback]

Steve Mann , Hal Niedzviecki
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Review

“Steve Mann is the perfect example of someone deemed to be on the lunatic fringe, but who persisted in his vision and ended up founding a new discipline.” -- Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab Director, MIT

“Part culture-jammer, part mad scientist, part artist and all nerd, Mann can lay claim to several interesting firsts, which have resulted in several interesting ‘I told you so’ victories.” -- Toronto Star

“Mann’s work attracts attention. He is a cult figure among supergeeks and new-media artists alike. . . . His ideas couldn’t be more timely.” -- Ottawa Citizen

From the Back Cover

“Steve Mann is the perfect example of someone deemed to be on the lunatic fringe, but who persisted in his vision and ended up founding a new discipline.” -- Nicholas Negroponte, Media Lab Director, MIT

“Part culture-jammer, part mad scientist, part artist and all nerd, Mann can lay claim to several interesting firsts, which have resulted in several interesting ‘I told you so’ victories.” -- Toronto Star

“Mann’s work attracts attention. He is a cult figure among supergeeks and new-media artists alike. . . . His ideas couldn’t be more timely.” -- Ottawa Citizen

About the Author

Steve Mann has a Ph.D. from MIT and is currently on the faculty of the University of Toronto. Having invented, designed, built, and worn the WearComp device for 20 years, he is, to date, the world’s only cyborg.

Hal Niedzviecki
is an award-winning journalist and cultural critic. His articles and essays have appeared in magazines, newspapers and journals in the United States, Canada, and the UK.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

PROLOGUE: Why should you care about the wearable computer?

It is traditional for a book about technology to open with an earnest fictional scene depicting the grim future. Whether the book goes on to discuss technology in general, or some particular technological advance, the bleak tone reminds us that nothing short of “life as we know it” will be at stake in the coming pages.

In beginning this particular book about a particular kind of technology -- wearable computers and other personal electronic appliances -- I could not help wondering about the effectiveness of the standard apocalyptic-scenario opening. After all, how can we continue to sound the alarm when, according to every best-selling future shock tome since technology made book printing possible, we should already be living on a wasted planet populated solely by robot roaches? And if we do sound a warning, won’t that cry be lost in the aural pollution of alarms, cellphones, bleating pop tunes, and car horns? How many times can the alarm be sounded before we start to ignore it? What story can I tell you that will cause you to seriously reassess not just the technologically altered future but also the looming present?

It’s not that I am an incompetent science fiction writer. Instead consider it this way: as many of the technologies discussed in this book will make clear, science fiction has been eclipsed by reality; thus any book that successfully hopes to chart the intertwined paths of technology and the future must be prepared to take its cues from actuality rather than fantasy. Hidden cameras, instantaneous Web broadcasts, corporate tracking devices, virtual friendships -- that stuff isn’t new, is it? When discussing a technology as wide ranging as the wearable computer, or a concept as vast as the cyborg, we start to wonder -- What already exists? What is in the making? And what has been with us since the beginning?

The truth is always more complicated than the shocking opening. The book harping on the dangers of the latest technological trend starts by painting a truly ugly picture, then disintegrates into hypothetical eventualities that could be good or bad, depending on this, that, or the other thing. Ten years later, the books are usually wrong anyway. Thus, I have deliberately left out of these opening remarks the final scenario, so terrifying, so removed from the way we live, that there can be no question: the very fabric of our lives is at stake in the pages to follow. But if I’m not trying to scare you into paying attention to the rest of this book, I suppose the question becomes: Why read on? Why should you care about the wearable computer?

To fully answer that question, I would have to find some way to quickly and simply define what a wearable computer is and could be. I would have to explain the potent meaning of the cyborg, and conjure up some quick image of how these intertwined ideas function in the world today and will function in the world tomorrow. I would have to summarize the complicated series of questions I attempt to address and answer -- as well as they can be answered -- throughout the course of this book. In other words, I can’t begin to tell you what you need to know about wearable technology in these waning opening pages. All I can do is assure you that the cyborg is not to be found in the realm of hypothetical eventualities and hyperbolic horrors -- it is real; it is now. Each scenario in this book encounters wearable technology; each scenario postulates a new interface, a new relationship, between the human being and technology; each scenario demonstrates how present day extensions of human ability through technology affect the shape of society; and each scenario speaks to the way we live our lives now, as opposed to the way we can expect to live our lives in some potentially disastrous future.

As you read this book you will, I suspect, become more intrigued -- and perhaps alarmed -- by the “reality” depicted, than by any pseudo-parable I could have constructed. In reality, substantive societal change occurs incrementally, moment by moment, inch by inch, run-of-the-mill triumphing over spectacle. One moment you swipe your card; the next moment you are faced with an improvement: simply wear a wristband that will automatically open the door; then, sometime later, the wristband becomes an implanted microchip that can keep track of what floors you are permitted to access, how many pens you’ve picked up from the company supply depot, and exactly how many seconds every day you spend in the company toilet.

One moment you are capable of communicating with other countries instantaneously via the computer stationed on your desk. Two weeks or two months or two years later, you find yourself capable of sending your brain, or your gaze, or your virtual image, anywhere at any time from any place.

Why should you care about the wearable computer? Not because it is some dangerous new bugaboo with the potential to destroy all life on the planet with the flip of a switch, but for precisely the opposite reason: Because it is everywhere, as ubiquitous as it is invisible, capable of changing the everyday minutiae of how we go about our lives, permeating our consciousness, altering fears, desires, and ways of being. You should care because the wearable computer is at once strange and familiar, alien and domestic, a dangerous foe and your new best friend. You should care because, unlike the doomsday opening scenario you might have been expecting, soon our lives will be dramatically changed by the wearable computer. But the world will look pretty much the same -- and most of us won’t even notice.
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