Can Technologies That Empower Also Enslave?

Brilliant blog post by Mr teacup.

A POST ON MICHAEL SACASAS’ excellent blog has drawn my attention to Tim Wu’s essays in the New Yorker about technological evolution. Michael has his own reflections which are well worth reading of course, but my thoughts veered in a somewhat different direction.

Wu begins with a thought experiment. Imagine a time traveler from 1914 is visiting our time. He is in a room divided by a curtain, and is asked to evaluate the intelligence of the woman sitting on the other side. No matter what question he asks or on what subject, her replies with the correct answer is almost instantaneous. The time traveler concludes that humanity has achieved a level of superintelligence, but the truth is that behind the curtain the woman simply has access to a smartphone with an internet connection.


Tim Wu’s thought experiment exposes another interesting flaw in cyborg thinking. Although it poses as anti-Cartesian, proponents of augmentation assume that no matter what happens, human agency will always be preserved. Augmentation only enhances existing capabilities, and there is no possibility of an antagonism, or any sense that the nonhuman partner has agency or exerts force or pressure on the human, as might be implied by actor-network theory or object-oriented philosophy. To put it differently, why assume that in the cyborg assemblage, consisting of the woman behind a curtain and her smartphone, the woman is the augmented agent? Why privilege the view of the cyborg with the human at the center, when one could just as easily say that the smartphone is augmented by the human? After all, from the vantage point of time traveler, the woman isn’t really contributing very much. At best, she acts as a translation layer, resolving the ambiguities in his commands and relaying the information back with greater verbal fluency than what Siri can currently provide.

Read the full post here