Amber Case: Are Our Devices Turning Us Into A New Kind Of Human? Anthropologist Amber Case says our technology is changing us into cyborgs. She argues we have become a screen-staring, button-clicking new version of Homo sapiens.
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Are Our Devices Turning Us Into A New Kind Of Human?

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Are Our Devices Turning Us Into A New Kind Of Human?

Are Our Devices Turning Us Into A New Kind Of Human?

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GUY RAZ, HOST:

Just before we start, make sure your phone is off, off, off, not on silent.

AMBER CASE: Sounds good. So then you can't pick up all the buzzes and I can't get distracted by my own screen while talking about screens.

RAZ: Yeah, exactly.

This is Amber Case. She's an anthropologist. Actually, to be precise - and this sounds a little weird, but just bear with me - Amber is a cyborg anthropologist.

CASE: That's correct. There is a subfield of the anthropology of science which is the anthropology of cyborgs, and it looks at the relation between humans and technology - how technology affects culture and how things change over time.

RAZ: And how technology is such a big part of our lives now. Because Amber says, to a certain extent, we are all becoming cyborgs. She explained that idea from the TED stage.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASE: You're not Robocop and you're not Terminator, but you're cyborgs every time you look at a computer screen or use one of your cell phone devices. So what's a good definition for cyborg? Well, traditional definition is an organism to which endogenous components have been added for the purpose of adapting to new environments. That came from a 1960 paper on space travel. Because if you think about it, space is pretty awkward. People aren't supposed to be there. But humans are curious and they like to add things to their body so that they can go to the Alps one day and become a fish in the sea the next. So let's look at the concept of traditional anthropology. Somebody goes to another country, says, how fascinating these people are, how interesting their tools are, how curious their culture is. And then they write a paper and maybe a few other anthropologists read it. And we think it's very exotic.

Well, what's happening is that we've suddenly found a new species. I, as a cyborg anthropologist, have suddenly said, oh wow, now suddenly now we're a new form of Homo sapiens, and look at these fascinating cultures and look at these curious rituals that everybody's doing around this technology. They're clicking on things and staring at screens.

RAZ: In other words, our screens are just another tool in the long line of human inventions that have changed the way we live. So think of stone tools or bronze arrows or the knife. Those tools became so useful they were almost like extensions of our physical selves, almost like another limb.

CASE: I mean, a hammer's really an extension of your fist. A knife is really an extension of your tooth. And you can actually make that device, so to speak, outside of yourself. And if it breaks you can just make a new one, whereas, say, if you're a saber-toothed tiger and your tooth breaks, you might not be able to eat something again, right?

So having our devices outside of ourselves and being able to kind of switch them out depending on what we needed to do makes us incredibly versatile creatures.

RAZ: And not that long after we invented physical tools to extend what our bodies could do, humans came up with mental tools to extend what our brains could.

CASE: So we were able to paint on the side of a cave wall, and then that stores mental information outside of ourselves and that allows somebody else in the future to look at that and reabsorb the information back into their brain.

RAZ: Yeah.

CASE: Then we had papyrus, we had scrolls, paper, the printing press and it allowed for us to have an increase in the ability to take information outside of ourselves and allow somebody to download it back into their brain. But now you have Facebook and Twitter and all of these different social networks, and so we're just information, information, information. But I think that the phones and a lot of these social interfaces are becoming so personal because it's not just a phone - it's kind of a mental exoskeleton. It's an external part of your brain.

RAZ: I mean, that's the thing, right? I mean, it isn't just a phone. I mean, through it you have access to an infinite set of ideas.

CASE: Yeah, it's really a magic portal that allows you to go into another dimension of space and time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alert. Your FedEx package was delivered. Saturday, 2 p.m.

CASE: I mean, literally you're going to different time zones...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Reminder.

CASE: ...With the click of a button.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Email John by 10 p.m. GMT.

CASE: And so you're getting these messages from these different places all of the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alert. Federal judge orders Kentucky...

CASE: And they're kind of chopping up your experience of...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Alert. Round-trip Los Angeles to New York City.

CASE: ...Reality.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Reminder. Wednesday spin class.

CASE: In which you're living in many different kind of social time zones, the time zones of...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Steven Price (ph) favorited your tweet.

CASE: ...The apps on your phone...

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Three others commented on your photo.

CASE: ...The people texting you....

(SOUNDBITE OF PHONE MESSAGE ALERT)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: What time are we meeting for dinner?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yep, got it.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: Happy birthday.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: Hey, have you left yet?

CASE: ...The people who've left you voicemail...

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: It's just Grammy. I just wanted to talk to you about something.

CASE: ...That you can't listen to because it's too noisy out.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Nothing important or anything.

CASE: You're on the side of the street and there's a truck driving by.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #5: Hope I get to see you then.

CASE: I mean, really it's a mobile desktop, and one of the problems is that it really demands all of your attention instead of lets you be human. Like, your primary task as a human should be being human, but when this device demands all of your attention, it can interrupt other primary tasks. For instance, driving or just walking down the street. I mean, we saw the video of the guy who was walking down the street texting and ran into a bear.

RAZ: That is, like, right there, the clash of the human dual reality, the imagined reality and the objective reality, right there on his iPhone and crashing into the bear.

CASE: Right because walking down the street is often kind of a boring place, and so you can escape from it by going into a different type of place. This virtual reality that we have in our pockets has become often more real, or at least, attracting our attention more. So even though it makes you temporarily superhuman, it actually gets rid of a lot of the other sensory perception that you might need to rely on as an individual in society.

RAZ: So if we've outsourced a part of our brain to the device in our pocket, now what?

Cyborg anthropologist Amber Case returns in just a minute. Stay with us. I'm Guy Raz. This episode, "Screen Time." You're listening to the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAZ: It's the TED RADIO HOUR from NPR. I'm Guy Raz. Our show today, "Screen Time: Part One." We're looking at how our interaction with screens is changing us, and we were just hearing from anthropologist Amber Case, who studies how our screens increasingly are extensions of ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASE: And because of that, you have a second self.

RAZ: Here's more from her TED Talk.

(SOUNDBITE OF TED TALK)

CASE: Whether you like it or not, you're starting to show up online and people are interacting with your second self when you're not there. And suddenly, we have to start to maintain our second self. You have to present yourself in digital life in a similar way that you would in your analog life. So in the same way that you wake up, take a shower and get dressed, you have to learn to do that for your digital self. And the problem is that a lot of people now, especially adolescents, have to go through two adolescences. They have to go through their primary one that's already awkward, and then they have to go through their second self's adolescence. And that's even more awkward because there's an actual kind of history of what they've gone through online. And so what happens is, when we bring all of that into the social space, we end up checking our phones all the time. So we have this sort of thing called ambient intimacy. It's not that we're always connected to everybody, but at any time, we can connect to anyone we want. And so there are some psychological effects that happen with this. What I'm really worried about is that people aren't taking time for mental reflection anymore and that they aren't slowing down and stopping, being around all those people in the room all the time that are trying to compete for their attention. They're not just sitting there. And really, when you have no external input, that is the time when there's a creation of self, when you can try and figure out who you really are. And then once you do that, you can figure out how to present your second self in a legitimate way instead of just dealing with everything as it comes in and, oh, I have to do this, I have to do this and I have to do this.

RAZ: Yeah, I mean, I feel like it's also affecting - like, I lose my mind if I'm in a line and for some reason I don't have my smartphone with me. You know what I mean? Have you experienced that?

CASE: I experience that all the time. Now, the issue is that a lot of people are using their phone in a supermarket checkout line because as a human in an industrial society, they're put on pause. And the thing that reconnects them to some sort of humanity is to take out their phone. You see people using phones a lot in non-places - something that you don't have any relation or history or identity in. And the phone itself has more relation, history and identity to you than an airport, for instance, or a highway. So you often find people using their phones in these kind of inhuman places in order to get back some of that humanity that's been put on pause.

RAZ: So what do you do? I mean, how do you get away from all that?

CASE: I like to go on road trips because it's - I like to go on road trips and bring paper maps and turn off my phone because I am forced to be with myself, forced to talk to the person next to me and look outside. It feels really nice afterwards, like when you're a kid and you have to experience real time. Like, you feel like you're a little bit more real again.

RAZ: Amber Case, she's a cyborg anthropologist. You can check out her full talk at ted.com.

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