Francis of Assisi called his body “Brother Donkey.” He did not mean it in a bad way. For the patron saint of animals, the point of having flesh was to “bear burdens, be beaten, and fed little.” For all the temptations it created to sin, the body was a blessing. Its suffering was the one way to be saved.
(According to legend, Francis also called money “dung.” One day, when a follower picked up some coins someone had left at their church as an offering, in order to fling those coins out of the window, Francis scolded the follower for touching them and made him scrub his hands.)
Catholic saints may not be a representative sample. But even philosophers who are not so extra about it have tended to have mixed feelings about the mortal coil. We may know all we know from our senses. But those senses are fallible. Human infants are born too early, and sooner or later our bodies will betray every last one of us.
Any successful religion must find a way to make these contradictions and failings sacred. More practically minded, technologists have often promised to solve them—to build tools that help us escape or extend ourselves, which may add up to the same thing.
You have to have faith.
This issue will look at technologies made to make our bodies safer, stronger, and more capable. 3D printers in Gaza churn out life-saving medical devices. “Bio-bags” in a Philadelphia lab promise to replace the original (and tiring and dangerous) 3D bioprinting process: pregnancy.
Smart mirrors allow precariously employed fitness instructors to build followings beyond the studio—and overworked users to perfect their form from home. Who has time to go to an exercise class? Telerobots enable the elderly to work from the comfort of their sickbeds—and skirt the question of what kind of conditions, exactly, would make the elderly want to do that.
Sometimes the tools that we need most urgently are the lowest tech. When cutting-edge fertility medicine fails, you can find counsel and comfort in a decades-old web forum. Sometimes it may be harder for a blind user to master the Be My Eyes app on his iPhone than to call a friend.
Sometimes the benefits we get from tools are unintended. If cryptocurrency enthusiasts can’t mine enough bitcoin to pay the heating bill, at least the heat from the mining rigs can warm their house through the winter.
But some digital technologies hurt bodies in predictable ways. The most cutting-edge facial recognition software encodes centuries of racism and helps the police perpetuate tragically familiar forms of racist violence. The technocrat says: Let’s enlarge the corpus of training data! The moral response may be: This tool should not exist.
We tend to think of information as abstract or disembodied. When cattle rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist turned Electronic Frontier Foundation founder John Perry Barlow wrote “A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” in 1996, he declared that the internet was “the new home of the Mind.”
“Ours is a world that is both everywhere and nowhere, but it is not where bodies live.”
Perhaps not. But, as feminist anti-racists quickly pointed out, if the internet was the Empire of the Mind, not everybody could afford the ticket there, or had the right entry and exit visas. If you had the kind of body that put you on the wrong side of redlining, historically, you could not bring computers into your school district through a sheer act of will.
Moreover, the internet itself has a body that needs care and protection. Many of the most dangerous threats to networks come from physical errors: fat thumbs on the keyboard, a USB stick a startup employee is foolish enough to insert. Late at night, the graveyard shift arrives to guard the servers.
In the past decade, cheaper and smaller computers have brought cyberspace into meatspace. Now that the internet is everywhere, it is not only tracking our bodies. It is changing them, too.
What even is a body? It may seem like the original ground truth. But the word is also a metaphor. It can mean anything we are supposed to see as one thing, anything we want to hold together. As in: A body of land. A body of knowledge. The body politic.
It’s a myth, this idea that we could ever be whole, or entirely singular. No body is an island. Hiccups are catching; menstrual cycles sync. The artificial hormones used to make plastics and pesticides seep into the soil and rivers and make mutants: male lizards start spawning eggs.
A pregnant human is a two-hearted monster. The aquatic creature within feeds and pisses across a fleshy interface. As you meet eyes with a stranger across the library, mirror neurons fire: the part of your brain for hand lights up as they wave at you.
New technologies network our bodies in new kinds of relationships.
Science fiction has often imagined artificial intelligence as a woman with a beautiful body. Or, at least, a husky voice, the kind our hero can fall in love with. But what contemporary data analytics and machine learning actually do is break us up—into composites and probabilities. Your Facebook likes say you are 67% female, 48% African American, 80% Democrat, 28% likely to like Spike Jonze’s Her.
If digital technologies break us apart and scramble us up, though, they can also create new combinations. This issue will look at new forms of knowledge production and political organization that the internet has made possible: from activists using the web to make anti-corporate media to engineers using the web to automate debt strikes, from Mormon mommy bloggers joining forces with Silicon Valley transhumanists to Amazon warehouse workers who realize that the surveillance software used to exploit them can be gamed, or smashed.
If technologies are making new monsters they are also making new affinities and solidarities that carry new potentials. As somebody once said, No one yet knows what a body can do.