Intimate Technology

Intimate Technology: the Battle for Our Body and Behaviour

Technology is nestling itself within us and between us, has knowledge about us and can act just like us. Think of brain implants, artificial balancing organs and bio-cultured heart valves. Technology therefore becomes a part of our bodies and our identities. It places itself between us on a large scale; we use social media to show ourselves to the outside world and to communicate with each other.

Technology collects information about us; smart cameras are able to measure our heart rate by looking at our skin and, when pointed at a woman’s face it can tell whether she is fertile – something she may not even realize herself. The Dutch supermarket giant Albert Heijn stores our buying behaviors in databases, Dutch railways store our travel behaviors, and public authorities store behaviors of children and parents through ‘Electronic Child Dossiers’. In public space, cameras ensure that we are well behaved. And finally, some technologies behave ‘just like us’: they get human traits, exhibit intelligent behavior or touch us with their outward appearances. Chatbots become more lifelike, computer games more realistic and all kinds of apps are happy to encourage you when you are running or going on a diet.

Technology is nestling itself within us and between us, has knowledge about us and can act just like us

New technological wave

Technology does all these things by becoming minuscule in size, by better computing, and by increasingly focusing on individuals. In short, they become smaller, smarter and more personalized.

In our daily life, the cell phone may be used as the outstanding example. The same amount of computing power as was needed to put people on the moon in 1969, is now residing into our pockets, purses and bras – we have all become high-tech heroes.

First of  all, a revolution has taken place in the field of materials. In the 1970s, we could examine and manufacture materials on a micro level, but now they can be produced a thousand times smaller. So, now we can design objects as small as one millionth of a millimeter – i.e. nanometre – hence the term ‘nanotechnology’. This technology has also helped found the information revolution, allowing to digitally store large amounts of information about our bodies and behavior and subsequently model and mimic body and behavior. Conversely, without powerful computers, there would be no machine available to produce nano materials and products. Nano and information technologies are thus interconnected in an upward spiral.

In addition, both fields stimulate not just biology but all life sciences including genetics, medicine and the cognitive neuroscience. Modern equipments ranging from DNA chips to MRI scans increasingly offer opportunities to explore body and brain and to intervene with them. Insights from life sciences in turn inspire equipment builders: neural networks, DNA computers and self-repairing materials. In short, currently four technological revolutions are propelling each other, which are the nano, bio, information and cognitive technologies. This dynamic quartet is collectively known as the NBIC convergence, pushing up a major technological wave like a whirlwind. And a large part of this wave consists of technologies that are intimate in nature.

Turning point in history

Some thinkers see this as a turning point in our relationship with technology, even in the human history. “For all previous millennia, our technologies have been aimed outward, to control our environment. (…) Now, however, we have started a wholesale process of aiming our technologies inward. Now our technologies have started to merge with our minds, our memories, our metabolisms, our personalities, our progeny and perhaps our souls,” Joel Garreu contemplates. The first step in this direction can be found in the period just after the World War II, when scientists set out to map the human nature in order to control and mimic it. Disciplines such as genetics, neurology, pharmacology, information technology and artificial intelligence all joined the party. Then still in its infancy, but now they do occupy a major position in a worldwide platform. The NBIC convergence is the direct continuation of that relatively young tradition, founded on current technical ingenuity and the growing interdependence between physical sciences – nano and information technology – and life sciences – both biotechnology and cognitive technology. The goal is still the same as in the late 1940s: understanding the human being and its social world, and controlling and mimicking it. The goal has just become a lot closer.

Increasingly, living systems are seen as reproducible

The human becomes the machine, the machine becomes the human

The intertwining of physical and life sciences is reflected in two technological mega trends: ‘biology is becoming technology’ and ‘technology is becoming biology’. The first implies that living systems are increasingly seen as reproducible. Genetically modified bulls, cloned sheep, cultured heart valves and artificially reconstructed bacteria illustrate this trend. It is not only about biological interventions as IT-based interventions are also emerging in techniques to influence brain processes. A well-known example is the use of deep brain stimulation to reduce severe tremor in patients with Parkinson’s disease.

The reverse trend being that of ‘technology becoming biology’, is reflected in artifacts that increasingly appear more lifelike or seem imbued with human behaviors. In France, there are cash dispensers that recognize Dutch bank cards and show the menu in Dutch. Other devices are able to recognize human emotions, which they then take into consideration in their own behavior configurations. And Roxxxy, the first female sex robot, is a bit shaped like, well, let’s say a female but more specifically a porn actress.

When studying our own human condition, the two engineering mega trends can be transformed into three tendencies. Firstly, human beings are more and more seen as machines, which therefore can be taken apart for maintenance and repair – and which could also be upgraded or otherwise improved. Secondly, machines become more and more humanoid – or at least engineers have the ambition to integrate human traits, so that they are social, emotional and perhaps even moral and loving creatures (here we are talking of the machines, not the engineers). Lastly, interactions between people change, precisely because machines are increasingly penetrating our privacy and social life. In the end, these questions run through our minds: how close to the skin can technology become? What do we find pleasant or rather intimidating and where is the demarcation line?

We also want to address the question whether intimacy and technology can be compatible. Jan Vorstenbosch considers ‘intimate technology’ a contradiction in terms: intimacy represents a human sense of confidentiality and feeling of being connected, and that concept can only conflict with technology, a term that refers to lifeless devices put together with screws and bolts.

But is that really the case? I think the boundaries between these concepts are sliding, and that movement raises extraordinary questions. Are we going to consider ourselves as machines, and thus as largely reproducible? And can we see machines as humanoid, even as romantic partners? Since we can no longer dismiss these questions with a sincere ‘no’, or ‘utter nonsense’, we have reached a point where we will have to search for new answers.

Epilogue: the happiness of the wild cyborg

Realize what special powers you have consciously or unconsciously

The intimate technological revolution promises humans our bodies, minds and social environments. This provides many wonderful opportunities for personal and social development. Think of serious games for overcoming the fear of flying, treating schizophrenia or reducing our energy consumption. But the technologization of our identities and the political and economic struggle around it also engender numerous thorny political issues. There will be a race to reach self-perfection. There is an explosion of privacy issues, putting the integrity of the body and the soul at stake. A commercial battle for our attention is going on. And how we stand in the world, what information we are offered, how we meet others and experience the world are all increasingly pre-programmed; our behaviors are manipulated, our social skills are under the threat of crumbling away, and by using some technologies we may experience other people more as objects than as human beings. The contract with ourselves is actually the same. Let us apply intimate technology in such a way that we become human cyborgs. That machines propelled interactions remain human in nature. And in deploying machines with people’s traits we do so in a human way.

The scope of this contract has not sufficiently settled in yet. Policy and politics now recognize that technologies that directly affect the body are socially and ethically sensitive. In recent decades, we have learned to carefully deal with medical and biotechnological developments. As a result, the introduction of such novelties is regulated in various ways and is surrounded with social reflection. We find it normal that medication and subcutaneous labs on a chip are extensively tested and we conduct ethical debate on cloning humans. It is obvious that many more intimate technologies are available and arriving, and although not directly intervening with our bodies, they will have a strong impact on our physical, mental and social lives and thus cause several political and ethical discussions. The fact that the introduction of such intimate technologies needs to be done with care has still insufficiently been understood in policy and politics. For example, the introduction of Google Glass is left to the market forces, whereas it raises many political and administrative questions. This is because authorities do not consider computerized glasses as intimate technology that may severely change our daily lives.

We do not want to live without computers, but neither do we want a computerized life

This essay has listed a large number of current and future gadgets in order to show that all of these dots form a pattern: a wave of intimate technologies. The intimate technological revolution, driven by the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and cognitive technology focuses on managing and controlling our intimate environments, our bodies, behaviors and social interactions.

In order to become a stage director of our own technological revolution it is necessary that politicians, administrators, lawyers, scientists, futurists, philosophers and ethicists think about that entire trend – and not only those but especially all “opinionated citizens who want to maintain in the future the right of being stubborn” writes Jan Staman. Being opinionated, with autonomy, freedom, playfulness, wildness are indeed important human characteristics to maintain. We do not want to live without computers, but we do not want computerized, fully pre-programmed lives either.

The discussion about nature in an industrialized world can therefore perhaps inspire discussion on the future of our own nature and our humanity. The ideal of having untouched wilderness still plays a central role in ecological discussions. The desire for the ‘pure’ wilderness also leads to a certain reluctance regarding controlling nature. Some European policy makers want to return large areas of farmland back to nature, using the term rewilding. It is about deliberately not-intervening in nature, but respecting the ability of natural processes to organize themselves. In thinking about the future of mankind, the theme is often about what we want to improve in ourselves and in others. The question then comes up: what kind of a cyborg do we want to be? Do we seek refuge in the complete mixing of man and machine, a process transhumanists advocate? If we overshoot this, a counter-movement comes up, a theme beautifully elaborated in the Swedish television series Real Humans. The pressure group ‘Stop The Cyborgs’, which calls for a conscious use of wearables is a current example of such a counter-movement.

Instead, I argue for a middle ground between cyborgization and what the philosopher Derix labels as rewilding humans. Rewilding simply implies ‘stacking phones on the table’ in the pub and the first owner to pick up his phone has to give a round or drinks. Rewilding implies not reading and responding to work-related emails on holiday, not wanting to know everything, choosing a paper book, diving into cold water without a wetsuit, feeling the wind… The intimate-technological revolution requires certain human wisdom. Wisdom will involve at least the following:

1. Carefully handling the privacy of our identities, because privacy is not dead, as many Internet gurus would have us believe. That also implies consciously dealing with the ownership of our personal data, because they are of great economic value, both personally and publicly. The aim is precisely keeping the concept of privacy alive in order to reduce the risk of identity theft, and to ensure that our physical and mental integrity are vouchsafed.

The intimate-technological revolution requires certain human wisdom

2. Monitoring the way in which information reaches us.

3. Being alert to the right of every individual to make free choices and to develop themselves. A cult of self-development is not desirable, but the right to be very special and very common is important.

4. Not outsourcing essential human actions, such as marriages, love, caring for the children and the sick to machines.

5. Keeping our social and emotional skills alive.

6. Protecting the right to not know and not be measured, analyzed or coached.

7. Cherishing the thing that is perhaps our most precious possession: our attention.

Technical ability, finally, is also an important part of human ingenuity. But it is not to be hoped that faith in technology will prevail. Trust in people and accepting human forces, but also acceptance of failure, should form the guidelines of our actions. Above, I mentioned that a smart camera could see if women are fertile at any moment. Such a machine does not exist yet, but males do have that power: they smell it or see it on the face or in the way the hips sway. I apologize for that blatant lie, but I was happy to let you speculate in order for you to realize for a moment what special powers you have consciously or unconsciously.

We go into a bright future as we learn new skills to navigate between cyborgization and self-rewilding.

And the wild cyborg lived happily ever after.

Brief version of the essay “Intimate Technology – The Battle for Our Body and Behaviour”, Rathenau Instituut. Read the complete publication here. Check here for further exploration of the seven principles. 

Edited by Yunus Emre Duyar.

Illustration by Alissa van Asseldonk