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Technology (3): A history of augmentation

A history of augmentation

Wikipedia has a nice, roughly chronological list of early technologies. It seems that weapons, cooking and languages were the trio that allowed our species to really take off – our first and most essential augmentations.

Weapons are an upgrade to our hardware. Language is more interesting: a kind of software upgrade that re-wires our hardware as we use it.* Tool use seems to have made our bodies weaker and balder; language to have made our minds stronger.

As we face the unsettling augmentations that the 21st century has on offer – from increasingly routine cosmetic surgery to bionic limbs and direct neural connections to computers** – it’s as well to remember that to be augmented is part of what it means to be human. Non-augmented has never been and never will be an option.

Human Being: Parts List

(This list could be enormous – I’m sticking to fairly common and genera / non-specialist, non-medical augmentations)

  • Artificial claws (weapons)
  • Artificial arms (levers, sticks, tools)
  • Networking technology (language)
  • Artificial external stomach (cooking)
  • Artificial teeth (knives, cutlery)
  • Artificial skin (clothing)
  • Artificial shells (huts; armour)
  • Artificial legs (animals; wheels; vehicles)
  • Artificial temperature regulation (heating, fans)
  • Artificial memory extension (symbols, writing)
  • Augmentation allowing communication across space and time, including with the dead (writing, books, letters, email)
  • Artificial healing and immune systems (simple wound care, medicines, antibiotics, vaccines)
  • Artificial childbirth (safety, cleanliness, tools)
  • Artificial information processing (tables, mathematics, computers)
  • Cosmetic augmentations (grooming, make-up, jewellery)
  • Artificial ‘Second’ nature (forest clearing, agriculture, gardens)
  • Augmentations from other species: artificial fins (paddles, boats) and wings (aircraft)
  • Artificial ways of doing things at distance (telescope, telegraph, telephone, television)
  • Artificial acceleration of learning (formal teaching and the deliberate transfer of knowledge)
  • Artificial play (games of all kinds)
  • Artificial sex (not in the bushes; contraception)
  • Artificial muscles (animal power, levers and pulleys, water power, steam power, electrical machines)
  • Artificial mood creation (alcohol, tobacco etc – the whole range of drugs)
  • Artificial mental projection / exploration (art of all kinds – visual, dramatic etc)
  • Artificial influencing of others (tools of rhetoric, mass media)

You get the idea. Post any extras you think are important and I’ll add them to the list.

Ghosts in the Machine

The point is this: we may be right to fear technology, and it is possible that one day it will destroy us… but we are utterly wrongheaded if we only fear technology. We should be equally haunted by the ghost of a world without it.

*More on this in another post. For now though, this article about how literacy re-wires the brain will do as a proxy for the kind of changes that the development of language must have wrought.
**I don’t know about you but I do find these things unsettling.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...