As I've mentioned before, over the last several years, I have become interested in the ways in which arguments in "popular culture" discuss the merging of the human body with a variety of popular technologies. In the tradition of Marshall McLuhan and other media theorists, I start with the premise that all technology, including what we traditionally think of as "media," can be thought of as human prosthetics.
For example, the car acts in part as a prosthetic body that makes us run faster than our natural legs; the phone is a prosthetic for our voice. While there are a number of ways of approaching these ongoing transitions between human body/consciousness and media (a topic Donna Haraway famously discussed years ago in her Cyborg Manifesto), I've always been interested in seeing how the interaction between human and technology is discussed in popular news, mainly newspapers and magazines.
In general, the discussions range on a continuum that stretches from a stress on human agency and freedom to a focus on a dystopic demise of humanity. For example, when one looks at news coverage and feature articles about the use of DVD players in cars, one will predictably see a variety of experts marched out to argue over whether the DVD players are "good" because they allow us to have our desires for movies and entertainment to be satisfied whenever we like (while simultaneously acting as a baby sitter for bored children on long trips) or they are seen as "bad" because they ultimately replace the need for human conversation and thus lead to an alteration and devolution of the family.
Of course, regardless of how shrill the debate becomes, DVD players will be utilized in cars if they prove to be practical. As a result, the changing consciousness of humanity continues regardless of the direction of the argument. Nonetheless, I'm convinced that how we discuss these new prosthetics is important because it shapes how we understand "our" role, our agency.
Recently, I decided to try something new. In taking up the question of the use of cell phones while driving, I decided to look at academic research rather than discussions in pop culture. I figured that the pop culture discourse would be fairly predictable, with "pro" cell phone users arguing that they drive safely while on the phone, that they like the convenience of being able to reach out and touch someone while driving and that it offers them a level of safety if their car breaks down or if someone in their family has an emergency. The con side, of course, would argue that drivers are dangerous when they're on the phone and that no phone call is so important that one can't pull off to the side of the phone when they want to chat. The debate between agency and constraint would continue. Perhaps arguments in academic journals--funded research--would show something a little different.
Perhaps I should have seen this coming, but I was surprised to find that the academic research puts the heaviest portion of its stress on the problems caused by cell phones. However, and this is the part that most intrigues me, the arguments focus on the problems caused by the human inability to "keep up" with technology, not with the technology itself. That is, while popular discourse would surely illustrate battles between "freedom" and safety, agency and structure, academic research focuses solely on the safety of the citizen and articulates the human mind as the most problematic part of the mobile citizen, the weakest element of the cyborg merge, the part against which we must protect ourselves and each other.
Let me give two examples. In the International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics, Ruiqi Ma and David B. Kaber study the level of "situation awareness" (SA) of drivers, while driving using Adaptive Cruise Control or ACC (i.e., cruise control that allows the car to speed up or slow down to a maximum speed, based on its distance from other automobiles). Discussing the "effect" of ACC on driver's SA, the authors make a McLuhanesque argument when they observe that "automation can change the nature of demands and responsibilities on the operator, often in ways that were unintended or unanticipated by designers. Consequently, the application of the in-vehicle automation and/or the use of in-vehicle devices has the potential to lead to accidents." The use of a technology like ACC, then, enables drivers to become less involved in their driving, shifting more attention to other tasks, in effect amputating driver situation awareness. As a result, unexpected events are more likely to be dangerous than if the driver were in a less advanced machine. The automobile/driver/cell phone mix weak point is the driver; it is the driver, then, who must be regulated.
In a second example, Mary Lesch and Peter Hancock argue in Accident Analysis and Prevention that the problem with laws asserting that drivers must be in full control of their vehicle at all times is that drivers, especially when utilizing more complicated technologies, cannot accurately assess their own control, often expressing disproportionately high confidence relative to their actual performance. Hence, while technologies like cell phones or ACC hinder driver's abilities, these same drivers far underestimate the level of hindrance. In short, Lesch and Hancock observe, drivers cannot accurately make their own decisions on how to operate vehicles and hence require regulation by way of either education or cell phone bans.
I know this has been a bit long winded, but the question I want to ask, is this: if we take seriously the idea that humanity is partially shaped by the way we talk about it, what does it mean to posit the human as the weak link in the cyborg merging? What does it mean to think of the human mind as the most problematic element of the human-media romance?