Wednesday, June 6, 2018

From Amazon's Dash Button to Google Glass: Is there no limit to the capabilities of today's radical neurotechnologies?

"Feeling lurks in that interval of time between desire and its consummation. Shorten that interval, break down all those old unnecessary barriers."
—Aldous Huxley, Brave New World



In 2016 Amazon introduced a new range of products called Dash Buttons. These are pocket-sized internet-enabled interfaces consisting simply of one button mapped to a specific branded item enabling users to instantly order from an extraordinary range of household goods all at the touch of a button. Once set up these buttons can be mounted on the wall in convenient locations around the house and with one press they bypass all of the usual mechanisms involved when ordering online. So if you are low on beer, for example, you simply press the Heineken Dash Button and wait for 24 cans to be delivered to your door. Adam Greenfield’s recent book Radical Technologies (Verso, 2017) takes Dash Buttons to represent the "apotheosis" of a certain "tendency": one that "as nearly as possible" aims to "short-circuit the process of reflection that stands between one’s recognition of a desire and its fulfillment via the market." A name for this tendency was coined in the late 19th century by the Italian intellectual Guillaume Ferrero: the law of least effort. It is closely related to what Sigmund Freud around the same time referred to as the principle of constancy, which underpins both the pleasure principle and the death drive.

Twice, when discussing the significance of these devices, Greenfield uses the expression "as nearly as possible," which suggests a movement toward a limit: as nearly as possible, technology developers seek to condense the interval of time, deliberation, and effort between the experience of an intention, a desire, or a need, and its satisfaction. One of the core theses of my book is that with the advent of neurotechnologies, most notably brain-computer interfaces (BCIs), this limit is reached. A BCI works by recording electrical brain signals and translating them into instructions for operating a computer-controlled device, setting up a direct communication channel between brain and machine. It typically involves the user being given a cognitive task, such as focusing their attention on a particular option from a screen, or engaging in "motor imagery," which means imagining the movement of a limb. The associated brainwaves are matched by signal processing algorithms to a particular operation, thereby facilitating the psychical control of an electronic device by the operator explicitly intending the task to be performed.

Consumer applications for neurotechnologies are still in their infancy but fast growing. Two notable examples are an accessory for Google’s (now defunct) wearable device Google Glass called Mind RDR, which enabled thought-controlled navigation through all of its features, and a computer game called Throw Trucks With Your Mind, purportedly lending you "telekinetic super-powers controlled with your thoughts" (an example of the nascent field known as "neurogaming"). Both applications use a commercially available BCI headset called MindWave, manufactured by consumer electronics company Neurosky. The customer base of such products is limited to a hardcore contingent of early adopters and tech enthusiasts, however, given Elon Musk’s and Mark Zuckerberg’s well-documented interest in neurotechnology, it seems likely that we can expect to see more investment in this area in the coming years. Already, many of our household appliances, from the thermostat and lighting to telecommunications and entertainment systems, can be integrated wirelessly into one networked, centrally controlled system. With the rate at which neurotechnology is advancing it is entirely plausible to imagine that at some stage within the next few decades this could all be activated merely by thought.

So even that most minimal physical intervention of pressing a single button to accomplish a goal, as with the Amazon Dash Buttons, is here superseded: the intention alone brings about its own realization, bypassing altogether the need for physical activity of any sort. Recalling the title of Greenfield’s book, I would thus venture to say, categorically, that there is no more radical technology than neurotechnology. Here "radical" is to be understood in the etymological sense of going to the root, or origin. The root in question is what F.W.J. Schelling called our original finitude, from which all experience derives: the existential fact of being limited to a self-enclosed subjective interiority, separated both from the outside world and from other minds.

It is common to hear how the internet functions as an externalisation of our nervous system, and indeed all technological advances can be seen as compensation for finite limitations, whether it be writing to supplement the shortcomings of our memory, the wheel to improve our mobility, clothing to compensate for our hairlessness, telecommunications to increase the reach of our voices, and so on. What is unique and unprecedented about neurotechnologies is that they do not just act on one limitation among others but on the very limit that constitutes us as finite selves. As such, neurotechnologies are not just one technical apparatus among others. This is not an empirical, bodily limit but a transcendental one.

My claim is that neurotechnologies represent something of a terminal point in the narrative of human enhancement and a testing ground for speculative enquiries into the extent of our abilities to technologically transcend our limitations, which Transhumanists consider to be our destiny and our essence. The question that I explore in my book, through a range of varied theoretical models spanning psychoanalysis, metaphysics, aesthetics, and phenomenology, is whether in operating right at this limit, at the very point where interiority meets exteriority, is our finitude overcome or reinforced. The "end of finitude" of the title should thus be read as something that is in question rather than a categorical assertion.


Michael Haworth is a writer based in London. Haworth is author of Neurotechnology and the End of Finitude. He completed his PhD at Goldsmiths College, University of London.

"Neurotechnology and the End of Finitude is a highly original and profound scholarly inquiry into the impact of technology on our understanding of art and of communication more generally. Michael Haworth is one of the most talented researchers working in the humanities today."
—Alexander García Düttmann, Universität der Künste, Berlin

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