World Wide Mind

The coming integration of humanity, machines, and the internet.

My cyborg body, and how I write about science.

A new PT blogger explains his high-tech body and career.

As a new Psychology Today blogger, I thought I'd introduce myself and explain how I think and write about science.

I was always fascinated by technology. In junior high school my parents bought me a TI-59 programmable calculator, and I had a lot of fun making it play tic-tac-toe and calculate pi. I was one of the first kids in my high school to have an Apple II computer. In tenth grade, though, I fell in love with literature and went on to do my bachelor's and master's in English literature.

I would have gone on to do my Ph.D. in literature, but when I discovered ColdFusion, a Web programming language, my advisor at UT-Austin persuaded me I should write my dissertation on how Web-based tools can transform classroom teaching. I wrote 20,000 lines of code to make a "collaboratorium" which was, for the late 1990s, very new stuff. It was a great deal of fun, and I finished my Ph.D. in 2000.

I was hired out of graduate school by a dot-com in San Francisco. I was laid off ten months later and spent the next five years working for SRI International, a research institute in Silicon Valley.

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I'd always worn hearing aids because I born with severe hearing losses due to the rubella epidemic of the mid-1960s. I did well enough with those, but then in the summer of 2001, I suddenly lost the rest of my hearing in my one usable ear. (The cause is still unknown, but personally I think the ear just gave up.)

A few months later I got a cochlear implant in that ear. When my audiologist first showed me an implant without its ceramic casing I thought, "Oh my God, it really is a computer." It was a microchip implanted in my skull with 16 electrodes triggering my auditory nerve.

This gave me an entirely new relationship to technology. Now the computer was inside me, controlling my perception of the world with C code. And it sounded completely different from anything I'd ever heard before.

Radios were gibberish. Clocks were eerily loud. Toilet flushings were explosions. But I gradually learned how to hear all over again. I wrote my way through the experience, keeping a diary that grew into my first book, REBUILT: HOW BECOMING PART COMPUTER MADE ME MORE HUMAN. (The softcover has the subtitle MY JOURNEY BACK TO THE HEARING WORLD.)

In REBUILT, I aimed to integrate science writing with personal narrative. When I foregrounded my hearing, I explained the science behind it. And when I foregrounded the science, I contextualized it with my urgent need to understand how my new ear worked. For example, reading the underlying C code helped me understand why background sounds abruply went away when I started talking. Knowing that it was a deliberate artifact of the code helped me get used to it.

You might say that just as my body became an integration of hardware and flesh, my writing became an integration of engineering and personal experience.

My new book, WORLD WIDE MIND: THE COMING INTEGRATION OF HUMANITY, MACHINES, AND THE INTERNET, comes out in mid-February 2011. (The book's website is here.)

In WORLD WIDE MIND I've upped the ante from ear implants, which are about sensation and communication, to brain implants, which are about cognition and control. I traveled the country meeting engineers developing implanted chips that let paralyzed people communicate. I read about the idea of threading thousands of tiny wires into the brain via the bloodstream.I looked in on scientists developing a whole new generation of probes that let them observe and control brain activity in unprecedented detail. (That last led to a Wired story on optogenetics.)

Of course I couldn't write about such technologies from personal experience. But they are extraordinarily intimate interfaces, which explains why people react so strongly to the very idea of them. Brain implants breach the brain itself, directly influencing the seat of personhood, identity, and experience. On that level, memories, perceptions, and emotions all become physical processes, in principle observable and alterable. Consciousness potentially becomes no longer a private thing.

I don't claim that such technologies are around the corner for anyone except possibly drastically injured people. But they make it possible to talk about observing conscious events in one brain and creating equivalent conscious experiences in another. They could, in principle, enable ways of knowing what another human being is seeing, feeling, and thinking in a kind of "telempathy." In short: New kinds of intimate interfaces raise the possibility of new kinds of social relationships.

But what kind of relationships? To explore what they might be, and what they might be like, I wrote about how I learned new ways of relating to people. I wrote about the connections I made at workshops designed to improve communication and intimacy skills. I wrote about spending the 2008-2009 academic year at Gallaudet University in Washington D.C. trying to learn sign language. I wrote about how I used online dating in Washington D.C.

And I wrote about how, to my great surprise, it actually worked. I met the woman who is now my wife, and I moved from San Francisco to Washington D.C. for good when the relationship got serious.

I told these stories to show that new kinds of physical proximity enable new kinds of relationships - and brain-based interfaces would be very much a form of physical proximity. 

As I put it in WORLD WIDE MIND, "Such a linkage would upend the primordial assumption that I am Self, you are Other; that I am In Here, and you are Out There. The challenge to one's identity would be terrifying but also thrilling, risky but also empowering. Any kind of contact, any penetration, confers new powers and new vulnerabilities. A computer disconnected from the Internet is safe from viruses, but it is also nearly useless. A person not in a relationship is safe from viruses, but is also alone. To obtain the benefits one also has to endure the risks."

In the end, WORLD WIDE MIND is about creating new ways for human beings to communicate with each other, both with technology and without. This has been my project through a dissertation and two books, and I imagine it will be carried on by my third book -- whatever that turns out to be.

I'm honored to be a PT blogger, and I'm looking forward to sharing my cybernetic thoughts with you in future entries.

Michael Chorost, Ph.D., is the author of World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humans,. more...

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