The Cyborg and the State

There’s a conversation flowing through geminispace about “sincere conversations”, and it’s reminded me of a thought I’ve been meaning to flesh out. It’s not quite there yet, but I thought I’d offer it up; I’d love your feedback.

The Cyborg and the State

Humans have been using technology to enhance our capabilities for as long as we’ve existed. The earliest stone tools let us do things our hands and teeth couldn’t, fire let us do things our digestive systems and skin couldn’t. Clothing, shelter, containers, weapons, eye glasses, and of course, computers are things that we have, at various points, integrated into our selves to become something that we weren’t before. All humans are cyborgs.

I’ve been thinking of the State as another piece of technology that we’ve similarly subsumed, and how it’s been a disaster.

I already talked about physical enhancements, but cognitive enhancements are equally important. Writing, for example, allows us to shift some of the demands of our long term memory onto physical (and more recently, digital) media. The State, I believe, has “allowed” us to shift our basic capacity for “caring about people we don’t know very well (or at all)” to its various functions and sub-structures.

There’s a pervasive belief that humans didn’t live in large communities until they started developing agriculture and increasingly hierarchical social structures to manage it. The past decades of archaeological and anthropological evidence have refuted this — this is one of the important points in Graeber & Wengrow’s The Dawn of Everything. It turns out that small groups of foragers can be incredibly hierarchical (or not), and large communities of farmers can be egalitarian (or not). The notion that people can’t live in large communities without somebody running the show just isn’t actually true, so don’t construe any of this as a “primitivist” argument.

Regardless, when people historically lived in large communities, wherever they might have fallen on the hierarchical-egalitarian spectrum, there was a need to think about your place in the community, how your actions impacted other people, and how your peers saw you. The modern nation state has removed this “burden” from our lives. Now, you don’t need to care about or even know your neighbors anymore. As long as your boss is satisfied with your work, everything is harmonious at home, and you’re getting along with your closest friends, you’ve nothing to worry about. A suite of complicated cognitive tasks, shifted from the human brain and given over to a piece of technology.

This is going horribly for us, for two reasons:

The second point is the most important. There are folks who argue that we could remake the State to be better, so why can’t it be made to do the first thing too? I don’t buy it, but it doesn’t matter here: the second point stands. Using technology to care about other people is like building an invention that eats delicious food, goes for strolls on the beach, or has sex for you. It’s okay to shift tasks to technology, but why would you shift the fun ones? Caring about people actually feels great!

This is a major source of the alienation and dissatisfaction we all feel. This is why people flock to social media, and also why they’re dissatisfied with it. Humans evolved to spend a lot of our time and energy actively maintaining relationships and building community; this society says, “let the proper authorities handle all that stuff, you need to focus on your job and your family.” And it tastes like dust and ashes in your mouth.

This pandemic has highlighted the extent to which the ability to care for strangers has atrophied. The relative risk of acquiring a bad Covid infection masked vs not is basically 1. But maybe, in the grocery store, you’ll stand in line for 15 minutes behind somebody who lives with someone else who’s a caregiver to a third person who’s immunocompromised? A less timely example is speeding; driving just a little bit slower costs mere moment of time, but makes a fatal car accident less likely. Some people can’t understand (or don’t care) that a minor inconvenience to themselves could save a stranger’s life. I argue here that these people aren’t all just sociopaths; they’re cyborgs who have ceded a fundamental human ability to the State.