People used to say that in the 21st century, we’d all be cyborgs. Wafaa Bilal couldn’t wait. Last November, Bilal, an art professor at New York University, installed a small digital camera into a two-inch hole drilled into the back of his head. The project, dubbed “3rd I” was supposed to be a “comment on the inaccessibility of time, and the inability to capture memory and experience.” A debate raged on campus over privacy concerns.
But the controversy is the least of Bilal’s problems. This week, his body rejected one of the steel posts that held the apparatus in place, forcing him to undergo surgery to remove it. He hopes to continue the project, however, with a smaller camera. For now, he has the camera tied to the back of his neck.
The use of technology to augment the body’s function is a practice as old as the Stone Age, when humans created the first tools. But we are getting closer and closer to changing ourselves fundamentally, as we rely on increasingly complex tools. As anthropologist Amber Case has noted, computers are now powerful enough to function, essentially, as external brains. Google and the internet do a lot of our thinking for us, requiring us to do much less research than we would have had to do 20 years ago.
Bilal’s experiment might seem a little alarming. Some have said that this reliance on computers and electronics is an imminent disaster, that we are watering-down our humanity and becoming little more than obsolete data-processing terminals. That’s precisely Nicholas Carr’s assesment, as he wrote in the Atlantic:
In Google’s world, the world we enter when we go online, there’s little place for the fuzziness of contemplation. Ambiguity is not an opening for insight but a bug to be fixed. The human brain is just an outdated computer that needs a faster processor and a bigger hard drive.
Perhaps. But Case argues that our ability to use the internet—arguably humanity’s greatest tool—is not something that makes us less human; it makes us more human. With the internet, we are able to forge and maintain innumerable human connections via email and social networking. Not only can we solve complex problems, and sort huge piles of data, we can find one another and celebrate relationships. We can host all sorts of new conversations, or approach difficult or sensitive issues in worldwide forums. Bilal is using the camera in his head as a way to understand the passage of time and memory—he wants to use his third eye to get a glimpse into the human condition, not to alter it. Modern technology isn’t degenerating humanity; it’s supporting it.
And that, Case says, is what tools have always done.