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Surprising Science

The Eroticism of Technology

True intimacy would be far more profound if we were all connected to each other by the Internet.

In his book World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machine, and the Internet, Michael Chorost has a fascinating chapter called “The Most Intimate Interface” in which he argues that true intimacy would be far more profound if we were all connected to each other by the Internet.  He describes two technologies currently being researched which could link us directly to an Internet (i) via nanowires embedded in every single capillary in our brain which would detect and respond to neural firings; (ii) via light sources that would control genetically altered neurons and thus connect us “wirelessly” to each other.

“If you connected one person’s wired brain to another person’s, you could literally connect them to each other; they would have a real corpus callosum joining them (albeit with links of radio waves rather than wires). And if you connected a number of people to each other via the Internet, then you would have a network in which each node was a human brain. The World Wide Web would become the World Wide Mind.”

For people who’ve been following the recent media attention on machine intelligence (TIME magazine’s cover story, the Atlantic Monthly’s cover story, a documentary about Ray Kurzweil, and the contest between the machine Watson and humans on Jeopardy!), the potential of man-machine integration is not new. However, the discussion about combining with machines is mostly couched in utilitarian terms: wouldn’t it be great if we could do complex math easily in our mind, wouldn’t it be so much more convenient to Google movie reviews without having to go to our laptop or smart phone, wouldn’t work be much more efficient if we could send a project update to a colleague in London without having to call him, and so forth. Yes, the advantages to convenience, productivity and creativity are certain.

However, Chorost presents a unique argument: we biologically and emotionally crave deep intimacy with each other, and although we don’t recognize it in ourselves, we yearn for precisely the same kind of constant connectivity with each other that machines enjoy. In order to support his thesis, Chorost gives the example of the importance of touch in making us feel happier, be healthier and live longer. Babies whose mothers have stroked their back have fewer colds, for instance. Our desire for skin-to-skin contact is thus a biological and emotional need essential to our normal functioning. Our bodies are not autonomous or independent: we constantly absorb and react to the signals of other bodies. Sex is the most intense manifestation of this back-and-forth intimacy.

“Sex is a deliberate testing of the boundaries, an intense investigation of barriers-that-are-also-transmitters. Wanting to touch every square millimeter of another being’s skin and be touched in turn. That desire to have every word we say in the primal darkness listened to with compassionate intensity. We have wanted a World Wide Mind inchoately, inarticulately, for thousands of years.”

Of course, Chorost is aware that there are many issues with constant connectivity: software viruses being one major example. Still, Chorost’s writing is clear, visionary and romantic. Alongwith Kevin Kelly’s ode to technology, What Technology Wants, Chorost’s book represents the new trend to see technology as more than a cold utilitarian tool, but as a harbinger of good and social harmony if used in the right ways.

Useful Links:

—An excerpt of Chapter 4 of World Wide Mind

—The NYTimes book review of World Wide Mind.

Ayesha and Parag Khanna explore human-technology co-evolution and its implications for society, business and politics at The Hybrid Reality Institute.


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