Philosophy of self vs modern technology

New theories of the self are arising all too frequently alongside the increased pace of technological advancement (Terranova, 2004), so it bears revisiting the journey the ‘self’ has undergone in order to arrive where it is.

Conceptions of the self have evolved throughout time, but the existential delineation between the consciousness and perceived reality was brought into a new era when Descartes uttered ‘Cogito, ergo sum’.

I think therefore I am. Sure. I am therefore I was created: not so much.

From the Renaissance onwards, thinkers began to extend their concepts of where the self began and ended, debating about the nature of reality, of perception, and finally of psychological interpretation. First principles arguments suggested that scepticism of all supposedly ‘real’ things were being distorted by several major factors before becoming ingrained as knowledge. The senses themselves were unreliable, the individual’s deciphering of the sensations into a coherent order was suspect, and the reliance upon so malleable a thing as memory for recollection of each deciphered moment left a remarkably hazy prospect.

By and large, however, the consensus was that Descartes’ ‘Cogito‘ was a universal truth, and the majority of existential philosophy of the time extended from that. It would not be until the 20th century modernists that a radical shift away from a distinct and definitive ‘I‘ (the absolute self which is recognised by its ability to create and be a genesis for ‘newness’) would become a more transversal concept, being and meaning different things depending on its context.

This is his explaining face.

In the early 20th century, Jacques Lacan posited the theory of the ‘mirror stage’: the transition in an infant’s life wherein they become able to conceive of themselves as a body akin to those they perceive around them. In 1949 Lacan re-addressed the subject, stating that it was worthwhile “for the light it sheds on the formation of the I as we experience it in psychoanalysis. It is an experience that leads us to oppose any philosophy directly issuing from the Cogito.”(p1)

The counter-Descartian revolution led contemporary thinkers away from the idea of the self as divorced from reality, instead arguing that the nature of reality, perceptible or not by flawed human senses and egos, need not be determined objectively, but merely perceived in a logically consistent manner in order to be of use to the person perceiving it.

The mirror stage in a handy diagram. You recognise yourself as being like an 'other' by recognising your own reflection as being similar to those 'others' you already see.

The mirror stage theory suggested that there were multiple forms of perception used to determine the I throughout a typical life. Initially, the notion that a newborn child “should be capable of formative effects in the organism is attested by a piece of biological experimentation that is itself so alien to the idea of physical causality that it cannot bring itself to formulate results in these terms.” (p3)

The newborn child perceives the world around them in terms which do not include even the idea of the ‘other’. The tranformative perception that beings existing in ‘reality’ are in some way a function of themselves, rather than projections of the I is therefore the pivotal stage of recognition wherein the child learns to assign itself certain values and properties which confine it to a ‘body’ much like these beings.

“The transition within a generation from the solitary to the gregarious form can be obtained by exposing the individual, at a certain stage, to the exclusively visual action of a similar image, provided it is animated by movements of a of a style sufficiently close to the characteristic of the species.”(p3) Lacan continues. This exposure in infants manifests when they become capable of witnessing themselves in the mirror as being what it is: a reflection of the way others perceive them.

The original notion of the self was as a whole being capable of 'creating' and expressing that creation. Lacan defines those wholeness' foundations at the mirror stage.

The resulting reasoning leads the I to identify itself as equal to (if not less significant than) the giant creatures it co-habitates with. Lacan refers to this process as the imago, “which is to establish a relation between the organism and its reality.”(p4)

The concern with Lacan’s theory is that it rectifies a multi-faceted and near shapeless understanding of the self with a unity in the form of a body. As knowledge around the area of self grows, however, we see more and more examples of the brain changing itself to fit its environment and its technologies. These have culminated in Donna Haraway’s ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ (1991), in which she takes the concepts of self, technology and context for an extremely versatile concoction, undoing the stability which has been imposed on the thinking of the I for generations.



Her ironic manifesto argues the cyborg as a fiction by which one can understand the plight of women, yet its fundamental concepts underpin many facets of the modern ‘self’.

The self is becoming understood as far more malleable than the post-mirror stage consolidated state Lacan proposes. Sacks (1985) has documented a case where a male patient has awoken in the night to the discovery that his leg was no longer his own.

“…he moved in the bed. Then he found, as he put it, ‘someone’s leg’ in the bed – a severed human leg, a horrible thing! He was stunned, at first, with amazement and disgust – he had never experienced, never imagined, such an incredible thing. He felt the leg gingerly. It seemed perfectly formed, but ‘peculiar’ and cold … But – and at this point his conversational manner deserted him, and he suddenly trembled and became ashen-pale – when he threw it out of bed, he somehow came after it – and now it was attached to him.” (p55)

Phantom limb syndrome: the body-image in the mind fails to match the physics properties of the body. See also: eating disorders.

Sacks’ own experience was since ratified by other neurologists who had experienced patients with similar limbs. The same phenomenon, that of an unwelcome and present limb, has also been found in reverse, with ‘phantom limbs’ appearing in the mind of the patient where there is no limb to be seen. One patient “was plagued by an intrusive phantom of the [dismembered] finger rigidly extended, as it was when cut off. Whenever he moved his hand toward his face – for example, to eat or scratch his nose – he was afraid that this phantom finger would poke his eye out.” (p67)

Ideally, you have four limbs, a head and a torso, as this handy diagram shows.

Dr Michael Kremer (according to Sacks’ account) has written of the inclusion of phantom limbs into the rehabilitation of patients who are using prosthetic ones, that “Its value to the amputee is enormous. I am quite certain that no amputee with an artificial lower limb can walk on it satisfactorily until the body-image, in other words the phantom, is incorporated into it.” (p67)

Phantom limbs are still amongst some of the most difficult phenomena to document. The medical profession struggles with “whether they should occur, or not; whether they are pathological, or not; whether they are ‘real’, or not”(p69), and for the most part these anomalies require the patients’ certainty (which is usually high) to categorise the different types of phantoms.

Regardless of whether they are ‘real’ to other subjective observers, the notion that the body-image (the sense of one’s own physical borders) requires a bond with an artificial limb in order to comfortably walk as though it were their own, can be seen in many less traumatic circumstances. Colgate (1993) has examined the nature of humans’ appropriation of objects as extensions of our ‘selves’, and finds that “a human performing a manual task will typically associate a ‘feel’ with that task. When a bilateral manipulator is inserted between a human and an environment, it will alter the feel of the task.”

Conceiving of an object as being part of you through repetitious use. End result: SPEED RACER!

Colgate’s argument, primarily from an engineering design background, is that in the same way a sharp blade or a dull blade alter the feel of a task, objects should be created with the maximum transparency possible, their transversal role being unnoticed by the practised user. In Colgate’s words, “a bilateral manipulator is said to be robust if, when coupled to any passive environment, it presents to the operator an impedance (admittance) which is passive.” (p374)

Colgate’s argument for passive resistance between the human and the environment through the use of technology insists upon a neurological transformation that the body-image be altered (by a robust tool at least) to include the tool as a part of the ‘self’ after repeated use changes its function from a considered practise into a ‘felt’ experience.

The theory first emerged out of design proposals by Simpson (1974) for integration of prosthetic limbs into the central nervous system, an agreeable exchange he referred to as extended physiological proprioception (EPP). This scientific conception of the self as having been enhanced in some way is precisely where Colgate sees the simpler ‘extenders’ (tools) used in the everyday.

Tennis racquets are felt as extensions of the players' arms over time. Their mind temporarily includes it as part of their body-image.

“Neither extenders nor EPP seek to provide a limb replacement;” he asserts. “rather, both seek to provide a very natural limb extension, in much the same sense that a tennis racket is an extension to the arm of an accomplished player.” (p375)

The concept of conceiving of a whole as being entirely separate from its individual parts has been demonstrated in Callon and Latour’s ‘Actor-network theory’ (1981, 1986). The theory asserts the equal importance of human actors and the tools they aggregate to form assemblages, importantly arguing that the repeated use of a network for its intended purpose defines that network, and that without the repeated use (for example) of a school as a place for teaching, it ceases to be a school at all.

Similarly, the network of a tennis player only remains such if it repeatedly uses its assembled form to play tennis. Lapses in regularity weaken the EPP bond, and the elegant ‘feel’ for the human component of the network becomes a manual process burdened by increased resistance.

Punctualisation: Series of mechanisms becomes car, series of organs and bones becomes person, person and car become moving vehicle, many moving vehicles become traffic etc.

The segment of actor-network theory most relevant to EPP is the term ‘punctualization’. Callon (1991) defines punctualization as “the process by which complex actor-networks are black boxed and linked with other networks to create larger actor-networks, ‘the process of punctualization thus converts an entire network into a single point or node in another network’.” (p153)

The point of punctualization is the point at which a network is identified, its borders defined, its purpose laid out and more importantly, the smaller parts, networks, organisms and materials which make it up are deemed obsolete by the brain.

Infants feel betrayal upon realising they are not in fact God and are not manipulating all these strange objects around them with their mind. This baby is discovering its prison for life. Welcome, child. Doesn't get any better.

Lacan’s mirror stage, framed in actor-network theory is therefore the fundamental initial point of punctualization of the I; the moment where that same repeated function (as Colgate would assert, the ‘feeling’) of punctualizing ‘others’ is inflicted by the self and on the self. The child now recognises itself as ‘one’ body, begins to define its own body-image and then begins a reversed process of breaking down its body network into its individual components and playing with each limb, region and surface to define itself further.

For Colgate’s tennis player then, there too must be a point of punctualization where the player ceases to think of the racket as an extender, and instead considers it an extension of their own punctualized body. This unification of human and machine is what Colgate understands EPP to represent.

Understanding that unification between human and object leads to a symbiotic human-object relationship, and harnessing the ability to refer to the new hybrid as ‘one’ self using actor-network theory’s punctualization notion, we can begin to explore the ramifications in Hawaray’s (1991) ironic theory of the ‘cyborg’.

Why differentiate between an artificial component of a human body and a tool? In principle, the amount of use shouldn't change the way they're applied to a person's whole self.

Playing off the simplistic notions of the half-human, half-robot in popular science-fiction, Haraway details the many levels on which we are all already cyborgs. “[M]odern war is a cyborg orgy,” she asserts. “[C]oded by C3I, command-control-communication-intelligence, an $84 billion item in 1984’s US defence budget.” Indeed, the preeminent example of the cyborg can be found on the battlefield. The rigorous training undergone by troops is designed to establish a ‘feel’ between the I and a combat situation, making not only the weaponry and vehicles a second nature part of the punctualized soldier, but also the intelligence they have at their disposal via telecommunications devices, their training, their teammates and do on. Every facet of the soldier’s life becomes an element adding to the value of the individual soldier on the battlefield. Each soldier adds technological value to their squad-mates, multiplying to create a whole (unit, say) which is more than the sum of its parts.

“Modern machines are quintessentially microelectronic devices: they are everywhere and they are invisible.” says Haraway. “Writing, power, and technology are old partners in Western stories of the origin of civilization, but miniaturization has changed our experience of mechanism … Contrast the TV sets of the 1950s or the news cameras of the 1970s with the TV wrist bands or hand-sized video cameras now advertised. “ (p153)

Other people as 'technology': manipulating tools to increase your own power.

While Haraway argues that ‘technology’ has become so invisibly unrecognisable that it bares relating to the ‘old partners’ of Western nations, it is perhaps better to conceive of the ability to write on paper, wield power over a fellow are themselves technologies.

The individual walking around today carries a smartphone, being constantly tracked and directed by its omniscient invisible technological transactions with satellite carriers, being reminded of promises made, appointments to be kept, messages received and facilitates the sharing of ideas with any other human on the planet. Such technology is now passe, yet a natural ‘extender’ of many of us.

Similarly, the driver of a car, when experienced enough to no longer have to think consciously about the use of the pedals and wheel begins to merge with the vehicle and consider themselves to have a larger frame, a larger turning circle and a longer stopping time.

People talk about the music flowing 'through' them like it's coming from someone else. Playing as second-nature is merely one's subconscious taking control. It usually isn't demonic possession. Usually.

Musicians who become so deft with their instruments as to no longer have to think consciously about the plucking of each individual string or blowing of each note report a sensation of having the music ‘flow’ through them, a feeling perfectly in line with one who, upon thinking the tune, has it occur without clearly being able to identify the I as the genesis, the hands and mouth as the operators and the instrument as the extenders.

Pondering, for a moment, what elements of life are technology (and harkening back to our amputee and phantom limb patients for a moment) we can surmise that anything which can be added to or removed from the I, including its past and future, are extenders, technologies we are privileged to own.

Pictured: One uni student whose various pieces of technology, from her background to her hair to her literal technology, are being used to give her certain amounts of power to those perceiving her.

The university student walks into a room for a class. Instantly, the other students who are already there can use their senses to identify huge amounts of technological advantages and traits the new student possesses. They are bipedal, they have all four limbs and are able-bodied. They have well-presented hair which is age and date approprise, and a keen dress sense to match; they have a cultural application of technology which (while keeping the student warmer than their natural body would be able to) is being multi-purposed with the intention of conveying the student’s ability to squander their time usually reserved for survival on mere presentation – a signifier of success. The room the students all share mutually assures them that they have a technological barrier between themselves and the elements. The location of that room indicates to all the students a certain level of education, itself a facet of technology which can be applied in the journey towards success. The past experiences of that student have given them perspective which permits an understanding of their situation far greater than their ‘selves’ of several years prior. Their manner, poise and social grace also exist as ‘technologies’ (in the sense of being a tool to better themselves), demonstrating this understanding of the social world and acting as a communication device to all around of their ability to thrive. Haunted by a traumatic experience during their teenage years, their capacity for emotional closeness is fractured and has attached as an invisible hindrance. All these factors and dozens more, even vague conceptual ones hailing from the student’s past or future, are devices which are read, used for identification and categorisation, and can all be removed or added at various points throughout life, therefore are all extenders of the I. Extenders which have become so natural for the I in question and the subjects observing it, that an EPP relationship is intertwined and the feel of ‘being’ all of the above things at once has practically no barrier between I and action.

Lacan’s embodiment of the I portends that the self is intertwined with the body. The psychological and physiological discoveries of shattered physical borders along with Haraway and others’ new frameworks for understanding the ways in which we manipulate our environments, demonstrate a clear break from the self as being embodied in such a manner.

Let's return to Descartes. How much can we tell about him from this image? His clothes, hair, the fact that its a painted portrait etc.

“The ubiquity and invisibility of cyborgs is precisely why [they] are so deadly.” Haraway continues. “They are about consciousness – or its stimulation.”(p153) The stimulation of consciousness, as has been demonstrated, is a constant and repeated process. Pieces of our ‘selves’ are being expressed by our location, our existence at a certain time throughout history, and practically every element of our situation and context.

The human social creature as an assemblage seeks to observe others in its environment, categorise them (as threats, mates, members of its own tribe etc), and dismiss the majority of their being (the smaller networks making up the larger one) for the sake of efficient social movement.

While Lacan’s I retains a point insofar as we are still primarily associated with the body we inhabit, the ability for our I to express itself centuries after that body expires through the written word, for it to have its sentiments transported to the other side of the world instantaneously for a conversation, or even for it to continue to have influence through its progeny or its avid followers reduces the impact of that singular body to a mere vessel, a simple technological apparatus just as fundamental as an actor in a network as the phones we use or the planes we fly.

Our imago is now but one stage on the path to realising that Lacan’s pre-mirror stage infant understands the dialectical impact of the I on its surroundings just as well as we now can only after years of study to understand what we always once knew – that our relationship to our surroundings is ubiquitous and never ending.





Callon, M, 1991, ‘Techno-economic networks and irreversibility.’ In Law, J. (ed.) A Sociology of Monsters: Essays on Power, Technology and Domination. London: Routledge.

Callon, M & Latour, B , 1981, ‘Unscrewing the big leviathan: how actors macro-structure reality and how sociologists help them do so.’ In Knorr- Cetina, K & Cicourel, A V (eds.) Advances in Social Theory and Methodology: Toward an Integration of Micro- and Macro-Sociologies. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Colgate, J E 1993 ‘Robust impedance shaping telemanipulation’, IEEE Transactions on Robotics and Automation, vol. 9, no. 4, pp 374-384

Haraway, D ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York; Routledge, 1991, pp.149-181.

Lacan, J ‘The mirror stage as formative of the function of the I as revealed in psychoanalytic experience’, Ecrits: A Selection, Norton, New York, 1977 (orig 1949), pp. 1-7

Latour, B, 1986, ‘The powers of association.’ in Law, J. (ed.) Power, Action and Belief: A New Sociology of Knowledge. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul. pp.264-280.

Sacks, O, ‘Phantoms’, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Harper and Row, New York, 1985, pp 66-70

Sacks, O, ‘The man who fell out of bed’, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Harper and Row, New York, 1985, pp 55-58

Simpson D C, ‘The choice of control system for the multimovement prosthesis: extended physiological proprioception (EPP)’, in Herberts P, editor. The Control of Upper-Extremity Prostheses and Orthoses. Thomas; Springfield, IL, 1974, pp 146–50

Terranova, T 2004 ‘From organisms to multitudes’, Network Culture: Politics for the Information Age, Pluto, London, pp101-106



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