The unavoidable re-generation of idea of human
The nature of each form of delegation involves the creation of a distance between expectation of originating will and the outcomes achieved by delegate that, people or systems, can otherwise mark characteristically the effective phase through their own skills or lacks.
Generally, delegating to someone or something the control or fulfilment of will, actions or plans is a way of thinking and doing typical of people live in complex and large societies. As described by many sociologists (for example Anthony Giddens) people need to establish trusted links with a large number of “expert systems” to be able to live and make their activities. On the other side, that is part of a precise strategy defined “reduction of complexity” characterizing environment of biological and social life (Nicklas Luhmann).
Yet, in our time there is a matter that seems completely irreducible to a more simplistic affair, up to refuse a normative way to fix a delegation if it doesn’t contain a mechanism that can anticipate the ungovernable impasses, finally resolving them respecting the originating will. This form of resistance is perfectly legitimate. In effect, the matter regards the very concept of life and its condition of existence, a combination making sense in a complex texture of relations because humanity is anthropologically debtor of “scientific, physiologic and biological interpretation of human being: model, and image, that projects itself in the redefinition of reproductive routines, that presides at the mental and real project of cloning and predetermination of genetic factors, that conditions practices of prolongation or interruption of life (from transplantology to euthanasia). Finally, model that conditions the increasingly articulate and sophisticated relationships with vital environment, with animals and vegetables, to extend itself toward those quite unexplored zones of dead – but so essential for our life – matter”. As we see, an inextricable and sensitive whole that has a thematic domain in bioethics but that, as its responsible scholars affirm, doesn’t hide the limits of an approach reserved only to “specialists”. “Reflecting on these models that influence our existence and mark our historical condition, valuing its reasons, is an human enterprise that can’t be delegate to everybody” (Pessina 2000, p. XVI).
Given the incommensurability, articulations and actualisations of human life, everybody is necessarily a “too much expert” system in continuous and by now tumultuous evolution. Our contribution will take suggestions from recent publications to make some observations about the central role that both electronic technologies and media is assuming on topic.
The informative and formative side of ideas
First of all, it’s easy to note how the theme, in its diverse aspects, is almost always in the agenda setting of news. On the other side, information works both as a recorder of a new emergence and as addresser of sensibility. Since bio-technology innovations – redefining terms of intervention and care – have reached growing levels of efficiency and sophistications in medical and aesthetics field, rising claims and expectations that often challenge beyond the limit life and death, the opportunities to find some news abound. Given the limits of “news making”, information of media has many chances to be superficial and emotional rather than calm and reflexive, helping the derailment of debate and reinforcement of integralism, as it was evident in the Italian case of young woman Eluana Englaro, where media strategy has had a key role. For example, showing constantly a beautiful and young-looking picture of a body that was, by now, ruined after decades of immobility, allurement and mental stasis, but also submitted to forced feeding – a body that his father refused to show to preserve daughter’s dignity, also for respecting her precise desire made him in front of a similar case when she was still alive*.
Joanna Zylinska, an expert of new media, notes in Bioethics in the age of new media how media participate actively to bioethical debates that try to harmonize, even in a legislative way, the different points of views on life and its mediation, as well as its transformation on technological basis. “Debates on human life, health, and the body are never just a matter of individual responses and decisions made by singular moral entities. Instead, they belong to a wider network of politico-ethical discourses that shape the social and hold it together. The broadcast media, with their moral panics […] play an important role in constructing narratives on human life, health, and the body” (2009, p. 4).
That is not only a grasp of reality but even an ideal challenge. The process of forming decisions and schemas of meaning are potentially dynamic because values and convictions can change when “exposed to new moral problems and questions. As new technologies and new media are constantly challenging our established ideas of what it means to be human and live a human life, they also seem to be commanding a transformation of the recognized moral frameworks-although this is not to say that the need for such a radical reassessment of values is taken as a given by everyone”.
Indeed, we are in a condition where human beings, new technologies and media deeply meet each other, rising different forms and representations of new body. We are in a process “undergoing a radical transformation, with new forms of kinship between humans, animals, and machines being constituted and with the human itself being repositioned as ‘a digital archive, retrievable through computer networks and readable at workstations’. This is by no means to suggest that the human has been reduced to information in the age of new media and that we can therefore do away with embodiment; it is only to point to the emergence of new discourses of the human which undermine its centering around some fixed biological characteristics or moral values”.
Our stories with high-tech devices
But this debate has “harder” sides because we can speak about a real co-penetrations between technological systems and human beings, not only in terms of prosthesis inserted along or in substitution of vital organs, but also in terms of intimate constitution and interactions among them in the ordinary life.
Asking how our lives change when meet technological devices becomes a constant task for social psychologist Sherry Turkle since 1990s. In her last book as editor, The inner history of devices, we move among very different kinds of experience showing the deep connections the so called “mechanics” world establishs with us. These new forms of intimacy are captured visiting memoir, clinical practice and fieldwork or ethnography.
I find these essays very appropriate to introduce us, into a complex but charming matter. Even choosing randomically few examples can just offer a glimpse for reflecting on our status of experimental beings in a calm way. To be clear, we were always experimental beings, and surrounding technologies “crystallizes” some well-done experimentations. Marcel Mauss, the great anthropologist, after years of worldwide researches, said that “the body is man’s first and most natural instrument. Or more accurately, not to speak of instruments, man’s first and most natural technical object, and at the same time technical means, is his body […]. Before instrumental techniques there is the ensemble of techniques of body […]. The constant adaptation to a physical, mechanical or chemical aim, (e.g., when we drink) is pursued in a series of assembled actions, and assembled for individual not by himself alone but by all his education, by the whole society to which he belongs, in the place he occupies in it” (1934, p. 104-105). The list of techniques compiled by Mauss for investigation includes practically all we consider so natural: sleep, waking and rest, walking, running, dancing, jumping, climbing, hygiene, sexuality, care of the sick, drinking, eating. Even if he did not include sensory activities but only occasionally mentioned them, as Jonathan Sterne studying sound remind us, also looking, listening, tasting, smelling, touching can be considered part of these techniques (Sterne 2003 (2006), p. 91).
Prosthesis: implantable cardioverter-defibrillator
Cardioverter-defibrillator devices inserted directly inside hearts have been developed in 1980s. In 2001 implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (Icd) applied in human bodies regarded 100.000 people in US. Icds monitor dangerous arrhythmias intervening to recovery normal pulse. So, they work to extend life, even if, at the same time, change its handling and meaning.
“Having a machine inside you that periodically jolts you back to life brings up questions once raised only in science fiction and philosophical bioethics. How do the jolts of the Icd – traumatic biotechnological interventions – change the lives they seek to prolong? How do they change the deaths they attempt to postpone? Death for the Icd patient does not wait silently; it is foreshadowed with every shock” (Turkle 2008, p. 98).
Effectively, sensations reported by people lived experiences of shocks and continuous intimations of postponed deaths talk of unspeakable experiences, of terrible transits between life and death, of uncanny as defined by Freud, namely something suddenly new but old and long familiar. Having this device inside body makes another body, that first double Freud said being the base to conceive immortal soul, the desire to not die that, once conceived, becomes “the mysterious harbinger of death”.
“For patients who receive an Icd after a near fatal heart attack, the device is a reminder of both the death they escape and the one they will someday have” (p. 101).
At the same time, the most wishful death – the rapid and sudden black-out – becomes a difficult option, while fear for a death could arrive because of some Icd failures rises. Having a greater control on accidental events through Icd means falling into another control domain, subdued to a new mysterious mechanism detaining vital functions of your body.
We might think of this condition as part of a choice. But people using them didn’t have a choice because medicine does not offer other alternative than death. We are in a condition in which technology is the only solution, bringing with it a path of exploration given the scarce medical experiences about both devices and medical practices. So, people live new situations – including shocks back them in life – with a sense of strangeness, as we could feel at the same time inside and outside our body. Or, better, into another body. A man lives with Icd talks to his wife in this way:
Samuel: I’ve got something inside me that I know, forever, has changed my life. Sarah: I don’t think there’s even that option. You cannot be the old you. Samuel: I don’t think I ever would return to the old person”.
Sarah: it’s like me before and after kids. They call it a transition, it’s not, it’s a metamorphosis.
Samuel: you can’t get rid of kids either (p. 107).
This work remember us what Norbert Wiener thought about the topic in 1960s. He asked himself what kind of problems there would be once medicine would be able to continually postpone the death, with a doctor that assumes, for patient, either the power of God or the power of devil. Now there is a different realm.
“Icd patients are harbingers of the time when we all will be asked to accept or refuse imperfect medical technologies, and acceptable role of being our ‘saviors and executioners’ […]. This kind of cyborg doesn’t have the triumphal traits of many representations but they show the strain. “Their experiences reminds us that the machines we put in our bodies are as imperfect as our bodies themselves” (p. 111).
Intimate interactions: world wide web and video games
On the contrary of mainstream conviction, that images a possible link between virtual world and a cert kind of social deviation, there is an increasingly number of therapists and psychiatrists that, dealing with these pathologies, claim about a persistent negative mentality toward computer activities.
In effect, therapists dealing with young people that show antisocial behavior – often suffering depressions and suicidal attempts – note how they are transformed in a very different and vital persons when interacting by new media. This is a good indicator to understand how it is important seeing people in their wholeness, not neglecting some parts of their life only because we find it strange or unconceivable. Remaining in the therapeutic circle, what is for skeptics a possible clue of deviation becomes for the analyst the most serious ground to explore what young people find difficult to realize in a particular zone of realm. Not only, but it is the unique gate to access people in these cases. On the other side, young people live much time on web, blogs, chat and social networks, and analysts have to know virtual world if they want to communicate with them. Moreover, do we have a better place to collect clues about their processes of identification and transference, so important for people often missing key figures (mother, father)? Given the variety and richness of possibilities, young people find a easy way to select those situations particularly suitable to convey their psychological energies/issues.
Generally, at the beginning psychotherapy was focused only on those people love super-heroes, that play with personages acting alone, that like to combat, having power and strong bodies, ready to risk and have sexual relation without emotional engagement. Such characteristics could suggest there are great differences related with practices of young people engaged in the normal environment, where the rule seems to be collaboration, common experience and mutual association, all abilities we can’t find in the masculine super-hero. But is it true?
First of all, today it is relational aspect to lead efforts and attention because specialists discover how young people become sociable through new media making possible for them to establish a real contact, often involving also face-face relationship. Another positive aspect relates the structure of virtual environment. Young people love it because it privileges imaginative realm based on techniques of visualization, so important in this phase to handle and address psychodynamic processes. Internet helps both to imagine and play with a future itself in a more expressive way, and psychotherapy can leverage its knowledge focusing on meaningful uses of media by adolescents. On the other side, the therapeutic space is the very place where “imaginary becomes real”, the place in which that new itself should realize its new dimensions. Indeed, adolescence has intrinsically a instable sense of itself: young people change both inside and outside and need to know who they are once changes have begun. Internet and video games are part of these processes and therapists should be interested to be online or, at least, making them objects of discourse. Today, the fertile ground individuated by D. W. Winnicott in the therapeutic practice of creative and transitional spaces of playing realizes itself in the use and experiences young people do in internet and computer games. Youth uses video games to make sense of world that, at the same time, refuses, strongly twisting fiction and realm, trying to play with what they are becoming. They seek to assume some characteristics useful to play a role that satisfy them or defy a situation not desiderated. Therapy can exploit the process of maturation weighting the complexity of the world to induce into the patient a re-definition of his/her possibilities. On the other side, the very playing is a form of therapy as some theories explain. It helps to relive a hidden – but even fully conscious – trauma to explore a diverse solution or design a more satisfying personal role. According to functional theory, these practices evidence the possibility to acquire some skills (above all intellectual ones) empowering us in front of those kinds of trauma.
* Although she agrees with father’s choice, media scholar Luisa Valeriani notes the asymmetry of a so unbalanced debate. “It is useless we obscure ourselves for protesting if mass-media do not evidence a such form of manifestation ….. and if mass-media neglect it, they give a great alibi to our parliament delegates for doing the same thing! Maybe our tragedy is both in the bias media blindness and invisibility of mass protest” in “Eluana immagine” by G. Fiorentino, NIM, Newsletter Italiana di Mediologia, comment, 6/3/2009.
Mauss, N., 1934, “Body Techniques” in Brewster, B., ed., 1979, Sociology and Psychology. Essays by Marcel Mauss, London, Routledge and Kegan Paul, pp. 97-135.
Pessina, A., 2006, Bioetica. L’uomo sperimentale, Milano, Bruno Mondadori.
Sterne, J., 2003, The Audible Past. Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction, Durham, Duke University Press, 2006.
Turkle, S., 2008, The Inner History of Devices, Cambridge, Ma., MIT.
Zylinska, J., 2009, Bioethics in the Age of New Media, Cambridge, Ma., MIT.