Essays

The skin of the world

How smart devices have transformed our sense of scale, blurring the boundaries between self and other.
Last updated 4 min read

The human nervous system transmits signals up to 120 metres per second, whilst Internet data can travel at over 200,000 kilometres per second. Read that again, because it’s pretty staggering when you think about it. One utters the words ‘I love you’ to someone on the other side of the planet and the recipient feels a surge of emotion caused by the release of neurotransmitters like oxytocin and dopamine. Their affective state is instantaneously impacted as if their loved one were in the room.

The smart devices we carry on and in our bodies are more than abstract material objects, but feed to and from us a world beyond our immediate sensory environment, mediating between ontological and temporal planes—the here and there, the now and then. Our sight and hearing are amplified and we are made giant as the world is rendered small. Signals thrumming through the atmosphere deliver to us the smile of a distant friend, the recollection of a joyful memory, or the gut-clenching disgust of witnessing the latest incident of police violence or environmental collapse hundreds or thousands of miles away.

In less than a decade, smartphones, smartwatches, fitness trackers and implantables have made what was once science fiction a daily reality. We have fashioned ourselves rather comfortably as Donna Haraway’s chimerical cyborgs, ‘theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism’. How exciting!

As Maurice Merleau-Ponty explains in The World of Perception,

“Our relationship with things is not a distant one: each speaks to our body and to the way we live. They are clothed in human characteristics (whether docile, soft, hostile, or resistant) and, conversely, they dwell within us as emblems of forms of life we either love or hate. Humanity is invested in the things of the world and these are invested in it.”

Such ideas take on a new meaning when applied to smart technologies—things that literally speak to our body, record how we live, clothe themselves in the human figure, and dwell within us. Beyond mere commodity, plaything, communicator or toy—smart tech digitises our corporeality. The billions of signals that race around our neural networks to blink eyes, lift legs, monitor heart rates and manage insulin levels feed into technologies that transmute our vitality into ones and zeroes that can be transmitted, merged, stored, and at any point and in any place recalled. Our physical reactions and hormonal responses—blushing cheeks, tears, the tensed facial muscles that crinkle our eyes—are emojified. Through haptic and heartbeat our skin becomes the skin of the world.

Senses of scale

The largest living organism on Earth (at the time of writing) is believed to be the honey fungus in the Blue Mountains in Oregon. Though measuring 3.8km across, most of the organism is invisible to humans, composed of a subterranean network of tubular filaments called mycelia—threads that act like an underground internet allowing communication and transfer of nutrients over vast distances.

Until the modern transhuman age, our nervous system was the seam between the sensory input of the external analogue world immediately about us and our unique perception of that reality. It was the hinge upon which we were able to identify ourselves as subjects other to (or othered by) an objectified world about us. But as our individual nervous systems become simultaneously the nervous system of the world, with its fibrous threads weaving through air and space and under earth and ocean into an infinitely complex affective matrix, we become one in the cloud, with the cloud. A neural inter-object, a digital-analogue assemblage—units scaled to the universal.

According to Haraway, ‘the cyborg is a kind of disassembled and reassembled, postmodern collective and personal self’. An ID in a database. A blip on a map. A breadcrumb trail of coordinates mapped to an ever-expanding array of contemporaneous breadcrumb trails. Thus we become a new form of biovalue that can be tracked, herded, and manipulated. Where does DNA end and data begin? We are desexed, degendered, deracialised, and denatured, whilst at the same time our differences are commodified—the units we were once grouped and differentially governed by as biological entities increasingly sidelined by the power of big data and the computational power of machine learning and algorithmic design, introducing new scales of precarity.

But we have nothing to worry about if we have nothing to hide, of course.

We can disconnect (can we not?) from networks, pull off our smart watches and pull out our earbuds and all the other such prostheses that have introduced new language into our corporeal-sensory vocabulary. When Merleau-Ponty speaks of the bodily relationships we share with things, consider how the habitual behaviours of doodling on a pad, twirling a pencil through your fingers, or leaning forwards to flick cigarette ash into an ashtray have been supplanted by the thoughtless swiping through news and social media. Dopamine hits once triggered by nicotine are replaced by the Pavlovian ping of a notification, and the outlines of boredom have been redrawn.

I react knowingly to haptic blips on my wrists and imagine phantom vibrations in my pockets. My handwriting motor skills decay with every WhatsApp message thumbed out (and autocorrected with varying accuracy). And I share the pain, anxiety, joy, and hope of people I’ve never met, as nodal points dispersed across the globe condense into bytes and pixels and again erupt into analogue signals that light up neurological patterns in my brain. A ceaseless barrage of affective stimulation that wears away and deadens my senses. Itches that can never be scratched.

Is there not a more fitting example of the eerie in our every day than the muffled vibration in a room that sends everyone’s hands to their thigh or handbag?

Despite how our menageries of devices have so quickly rewritten the rules of how we engage sensorially with the world around us, it’s worth remembering that we are an endlessly reworked blueprint. Perhaps, one day, deeper, empathic entanglements with the wider world will help erode the selfish individualism at the rotten root of so many of the planet's woes. The present configurations of concentrated private ownership of media platforms and artificial intelligence offer little hope, but history reminds us how the tools humans design so often redesign the human—a logic that will persist five, fifty, and five hundred years from now.

Further reading

  • Haraway, Donna J.. Manifestly Haraway, 2016, University of Minnesota Press.
  • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. The World of Perception, 2004, Routledge.

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