The Prosthetic God: Psychosomatic Extension in the Digital Age

by Sebastian Groes

Anyone who’s been in a long-term relationship knows that your mind and body are intricately intertwined with your partner. The other person is, then, not so ‘other’: they are symbiotic extensions of ourselves, sometimes to the degree that our partners seem to know us more that we do ourselves. Love, emotional security and sex are the psychophysiological interconnections that successful partnerships are based on.

Death and divorce are experienced as amputation; the mind and body of one’s partner act as phantom limbs, which, as James Krasner explores in his excellent essay ‘Doubtful Arms and Phantom Limbs’ (2004), we still feel even though they are gone. In Ian McEwan’s recent novel The Children Act (2014), the High Court Judge Fiona Maye kicks out her husband after he politely asks if he can have an affair. Their separation has an unsettling effect: ‘This morning, waking with a cold part of a bed to her left – a form of amputation – she felt the first conventional ache of abandonment.’ During a recent discussion at a literary festival organised by The Memory Network, The Story of Memory, however, McEwan expressed his scepticism over the possibility ofdigital technology as  extending our minds. This seems curious as technology increasingly takes over our thought and memory.

google glass

Someone wearing Google Glass.

This article investigates the nature of the increased prostheticization of humans in the digital age, and shows that despite sceptics such as McEwan we are moving to an increased integration of our mind with the world beyond the subjective self. I am deeply interested in what is known the ‘extended mind theory’ (EMT), which is championed by philosophers Andy Clark and David Chalmers, who first wrote their ideas up in an essay in 1998 . They argue that consciousness if not simply a product of the brain, but that objects and tools outside the human body are used by the mind to augment cognitive processes. A notebook in which we write down an address of a friend, or our mobile phone that remembers telephone number, becomes an external tool on which our thinking relies. We live through an age in which we are increasing offloading cognition onto external tools, from Google to GPS, and are used digital prosthetics more and more. Thinking thus takes place not strictly within the brain, and becomes distributed across various external technologies and media. One may think, for instance, of Google Glass, a device which augments cognition. I call twenty-first century people ‘prosthetic Gods’.

Literary history is littered with examples of psychosomatic extension. In Meditations XVII (1624), John Donne notes the connection between people and their environment: ‘No man is an island, Entire of itself/ Any man’s death diminishes me, Because I am involved in mankind.’ John Milton’s Paradise Lost (1666) sees God create Eve from Adam’s rib ‘with cordial spirits warme, And Life-blood streaming fresh; wide was the wound, But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d.’ The historical success of religion is based on the promise of self-expansion: it provides an imaginary framework that allows us to extend our selves into the wider community. It is not surprising then that religious doctrines aim to regulate of body-mind extensions, from being in love and sex to social relationships and immersion in works of art. We’re addicted to these extensions as a way of combatting the human condition: we can negate our loneliness and limitation through immersion in community, scriptures, and marriage, and the community.

Precisely because we humans are not beings of infinite understanding we aspire to be gods, as Sigmund Freud notes in Civilization and its Discontents (1930). We’re not just trying to overcome eternal strife between ourselves and others, but we’re searching for an ‘oceanic’ feeling – an sense of immersion that creates the sensation of wholeness. Hence the gods have become such a powerful imaginative force, as their omnipotence and omniscience embodies this sense of limitlessness and immersiveness. In the modern age, this religious sense of self-extension is gradually replaced by a new kind of logic of prosthetics, whereby material extensions, technologies and media allow us to aspire to a godlike status.

In Civilization and its Discontents (1930), Freud notes:

Man has, as it were, become a kind of prosthetic God. When he puts on all his auxiliary organs he is truly magnificent; but those organs have not grown on to him and they still give him much trouble at times. […] Future ages will bring with them new and probably unimaginably great advances in this field of civilization and will increase man’s likeness to God still more. But in the interest of our investigations, we will not forget that present-day man does not feel happy in his Godlike character.

You might think that technology helps us to alleviate the human condition, yet technological prosthetics on the whole received a luke-warm welcome, as Freud already notes. The modernists experienced the early twentieth century as a state of increased isolation, alienation, unhomeliness, and their work is driven by an anxiety about the loss of self and organic connection with community. In T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) the typewriter turns a secretary into hapless cyborgian automaton, a ‘human engine’ who smoothes ‘her hair with automatic hand’. In our time, Google Glass will help us think and enhance communication. Our human mind seems to crave extension: during a Google Glass trial a test subject showed withdrawal symptom, and dream of his prosthesis. After the Second World War, Marshall McLuhan’s classic Understanding Media (1964) warned against the ways in which the human mind is undermined by new technology and media, such as the television: ‘Any invention or technology is an extension or self-amputation of our physical bodies, and such extension also demands new ratios or new equilibriums among the other organs and extensions of the body.’


Scene from David Cronenberg’s 1996 adaptation of J. G Ballard’s Crash (1973)

This predominantly negative reception of modern thinking about technology and the cyborg finds it expression in latemodernist works such as J. G. Ballard Crash (1974) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), in which the integration of technology into the body is accompanied by a loss of control over the human mind, while also opening up to new connective potentialities. The protagonist of Crash, ‘James Ballard’, survives a crash after which he sinks into a druggy mirage of transformations that argues for the car as a prosthesis central to the twentieth century imagination. ‘Ballard’ confuses motor oil and cooling liquid, with semen, vaginal mucus and menstrual blood. Eyes ‘are flicking like windshield wipers’, the car crash itself is conflated with the sex act,  and Ballard realises how human behaviour is recoded along the technological rules of the car: ‘I realized that I was exactly modelling my responses to the car on the way in which Karen had touched Catherine’s body.’

videodrome 1

Scene from David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983), which recalls Milton’s line ‘wide was the wound, But suddenly with flesh fill’d up and heal’d’ from Paradise Lost (1666)

In David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) a scumbaggy media entrepreneur Max Renn (James Woods) is lost in a labyrinth of hallucinatory media experiments whereby TV screens come alive to absorb the viewer. Renn inserts video cassettes and guns into his body via a new orifice in his belly, and this merging of bodies with technology should be seen as a surreal literalization of the way in which new technology acts as a prosthetics, and which changes social and sexual behaviour.

videodrome 2

A surreal literalization of the ‘hand gun’ as prosthesis in Videodrome (1983)

Donna Haraway and Hal Foster have continued to explore the increasingly symbiotic relationship between technology and the human body in the late twentieth century. Since the arrival of new digital technologies and media to the masses in the mid-nineties, the prostheticisation of human beings has accelerated. At the moment there seems to be a stand-off between the ‘cautionarists’ and ‘reluctant optimists’. In the former group we find Nick Carr, whose The Shallows (2010) argues that the distraction integral to our online experience prevents us from deep thinking. Other critics who warn against the detrimental impact of the digital include George Steiner, Will Self, Victor Mayer-Schönberger, neuroscientist Susan Greenfield and Joshua Foer. In the other camp we find Clive Thompson, whose Smarter Than You Think (2013) argues that technology augments our minds, and that we should celebrate scientific innovations. Cognitive scientists such as Itiel Dror and Stevan Harnad show that our mental capacities are not simply lost because of new cognitive technologies, but that they are changing, and might trigger the next step in our evolutionary development. The tension between these camps is captured nicely in temporal terms by Hal Foster: ‘Sometimes these beginnings are seen as primordial, and cast into a distant field of primitive life; sometime they are viewed as futuristic, and dreamt as a new form of technological being.’

Another way of looking at this extended mind debate is through the current battle between the ‘brainiacs’, who believe that basically we are our brain and those believing in Clark’s ‘the extended mind thesis’. In Supersizing the Mind (2011), Clark argues for people being

part of an extended cognitive machine [whereby] body- and world-involving cycles are best understood […] as quite literally  extending the machinery of mind out into the world—as building extended cognitive circuits that are themselves the minimal material bases for important aspects of human thought and reason.

This idea has many detractors, including Ian McEwan. In a TLS review, cognitive scientist and philosopher Jerry Fodor argues that EMT is wrong because Clark takes literal what is actually a metaphor, namely, the idea that external memory and cognition devices are literally part of our minds. If one looks at the surreal literalizations of the mind-world relationship in Ballard’s and Cronenberg’s work, one might think McEwan and Fodor are right. Donne and Milton also used metaphors to suggest connectivity. We are imagining that our minds are extended.

I’m not sure if Fodor read the same book as I did. According to him Clark argues that the EMT can only be right if we assume that our mind is our brain. Clark’s argument is exactly the opposite, however: EMT thrashes what he calls the ‘brainbound’ perspective of brainiacs such as Antonio Damasio and Dick Swaab, who believe that all human cognition depends directly on neural activity alone’. This reductive thinking is widely disputed in the humanities, a discipline that believes that thought is generated and conditioned by history, culture, language, the senses, and communication with other minds.

Yet, what Clark calls ‘brainbound’ thinking has taken hold in contemporary literature, from McEwan’s Saturday (2005) to E. L. Doctorow’s Andrew’s Brain (2014) and Dave Eggers’s The Circle (2013). The brain also reigns supreme in novels that dramatize neuropathologies such as autism in Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (2003) and Lottie Moggach Kiss Me First (2013).

There are a number of new fictions that dare to let go of this brainbound solipsism. A strong example is Jennifer Egan’s short story ‘Black Box’ (2012), first published on via The New Yorker’s Twitter stream. ‘Black Box’ is a set of aphoristic messages sent by woman spy in a future Mediterranean setting. The spy receives Data Surges via a Universal Port built into her body, has a camera build into her eye and other senses are connected to the control centre as well. This produces the ability of the mind to behave separately from the body: ‘Keep your body in view at all times; if your mind loses track of your body, it may be hard—even impossible—to reunite the two.’ Some agents leave their bodies altogether. Egan’s short story argues: ‘In the new heroism, the goal is to transcend individual life, with its petty pains and loves, in favour of the dazzling collective.’ Egan’s short story becomes an exploration and celebration of the possibilities offered by augmented, transactive cognition and group intelligence in the digital age. Egan argues for EMT, for an active braiding together of mind, other minds and the world, so the other is less other, but seen and felt and believed to be an integral part of ourselves.

Naomi Alderman’s short story ‘Together’ (2013) predicts a future in which our very thought is broadcast via the social media network into which we have become fully integrated: ‘With broadcasts directly to the visual centres of your brain, input devices under your skin, and a soundstream that taps directly into the aural nerve, turning it off and on is as easy as a thought.’ In the story, Alderman also challenges the Cartesian mind-world duality on which modern thinking is based: ‘The relationship between the mind and the body is problematic. The 17th century philosopher Descartes thought that they were separate and distinct entities. The body is a machine, the mind is its driver. Other philosophers have accused him of imagining a homunculus – a tiny man – inside the skull, examining inputs from eyes and ears and other senses, pressing buttons in response to make the body move. This position is philosophically unsound.’ Yet, despite this effacing of the mind-world duality, Alderman, like Egan, notes that we will remain human: lonely, full of miscommunication and in search of love.

Dreaming Together: a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010)

Dreaming Together: a scene from Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010)

Other recent works of fiction have playfully negated the mind-world dualism too, from Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) and Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) to a score of tech thrillers such as Daniel Suarez’s Daemon (2006) and FreedomTM (2010), Charles Stross’s Accelerando (2005) and James Smythe’s The Testimony (2012). One might also think of Christopher Nolan’s film Inception (2010) in which cognition is also a collective enterprise.

I like this new heroism, an attitude that opens up new ways of thinking about a number of things. The idea of the extended mind starts from the idea that we are all connected with one another through technologies, and this has a profoundly democratic potential. After more than a century of capitalism the image of ourselves is deeply individualistic; the twentieth century was the century of the self. The extended mind thesis can work against this individualism and reclaim some sense of an organic collective spirit in the knowledge that we are all connected, on various levels. It also generates the idea that intelligence is not something that is generated strictly within the brain, but that it is a subtle and complex interactive process that partly lies outside the human body.  It questions ownership of, and control over, knowledge and has a radically democratic potential that re-directs individualism and re-organises society with a renewed focus on empathy, affect and altruism. Rather than be anxious, we could celebrate the increasing immersion, which should make us realize that people, nature and the world are fundamentally woven together. ‘Everything is connected’ goes the cliché, but not just in the sense of our keeping in touch with our friends across the world via email or Facebook. We are connected on profoundly deep physiological and sensory levels, through the informational streams that seep and leak into our minds, and through global phenomena like climate change, which affect us all. The twenty-first century prosthetic hero demands a duty of care for the human mind that transcends the reductive position of the brainiacs, and forges new ways of thinking about the changing nature of being human.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email