Up until Amber Case’s thought-provoking TED talk, the whole idea of cyborgs falling in love might have seemed like the premise for an outrageous science fiction story. You know— the kind with cheesy cover art, depicting a fetching, scantily clad fem-bot, draped around a beefy, steely-eyed hero. (I picture him winking.) But thanks to her work, and the work of MIT psychologist, Sherry Turkle, who also studies the influence of technology on identity, we’ve begun grappling with the far less amusing notion that we, ourselves, are the cyborgs. Suddenly, the question as to whether or not cyborgs can fall in love has become as pressing as it is real. And answering it requires that we take a hard, honest look at what we’ve become.
Even prior to the internet, the idea that we exist in multiple versions of self was accepted wisdom by many. I am my daughter’s father, my wife’s husband, my client’s therapist. Each relationship—each environment—calls on a slightly different version of who we are, so that in many ways, we create, and our created, by our own experiences. That’s what Case and Turkle mean by the second self. It’s the self we fashion for cyberspace even as it fashions us.
When we talk about our cyborg self, then, what we’re really describing is the as yet crude admixture that emerges from the blend of human needs, desires, motivations, and perceptions and the projected self we know through cyberspace. The second self isn’t at all the same as the human self, precisely because who we are is limited and shaped by the cyberspace in which it dwells.
Case offers an apt metaphor, for example, for the astonishing constriction of time and space afforded by cell phone technology: a worm hole, the theoretical short cut between two points in time and space. With each call, our mental self is instantaneously transported from one point to another.
But the metaphor is telling. Many wormhole theories draw on the idea of a singularity or black hole, and most physicists agree that nearing a singularity would tear us apart. In twitter, communication is restricted to 140 characters, so the self that emerges there is less nuanced by necessity. It serves a purpose in that world, reaching out in bits and pieces of communication, but the rest of us—the more human part of us, messy, complicated, ambivalent, loving, striving, reaching, flinching—is left behind.
We are rent asunder when we enter cyberspace, fragmented—made smaller. The very constrictions of time and space that permit magically instantaneous communication also mean that the more we reach out with this second, cyberself, the less human we become; we only know ourselves—and are known—in bits and pieces. When the second self takes over, our full humanity begins to fade, like the iconic heroes of The Matrix, whose bodies atrophied from lack of use while their projected identities wandered through cyberspace, unwitting captives of the machines. The quality of our cyborg self—and therefore, our capacity to love—depends entirely on which self we use to reach out to those around us. That’s where things get a little bleak.
Fathers, Turkle reminds us, now push their children on the swing with one hand, while glancing at their smart phone with the other. And more chillingly, in one of the more somber moments of her talk, Case warns us that, in all the frenzy to return texts and react to the rapid fire information which surrounds our cyborg selves, we’ve sacrificed the capacity to reflect; in so doing, we’ve lost ourselves. With no time to sit and think and dream and ponder and create, one of the most powerful means we have of knowing ourselves has begun to vanish. The self emerges in moments of silence, outside the hum and buzz of “the culture of distraction.” Does the father pushing his child with one hand truly know himself? Does his daughter know him?
Love, I would argue, requires the full experience of our own humanity and self-knowledge. It requires that we make ourselves vulnerable, open, expansive, allowing the moment to fill us, and ourselves to fill the moment we’re in. Our deepest attachments develop when we can show all of who we are and be accepted, and that includes romantic love. The crudely pixilated self of cyberspace can hardly represent the best of us.
In the process of crafting our second self, we can only retain our humanity—and our capacity to love—if we use technology in a way that doesn’t leave us anemic and enervated. That means living with intention—staying present, and choosing, wisely, the moments we decide to step through the wormhole, rather than quietly, mindlessly slipping into it. I once wrote that “technology is only as healthy as our use of it,” and I still believe that. The more we reflexively dwell (and hide) in cyberspace, the less practice we have at being fully human, and the harder it becomes.
And that means we can only truly love—and fall in love— when we lead with our humanity, and reach out to touch one another with all of who we are. We can’t afford to leave even one hand behind in cyberspace while embracing our children. It’s up to us to decide how much humanity is left in the emerging cyborg race. And that means it’s up to us whether or not cyborgs can fall in love.