Borderlands: Between the Self and Others

Driving west from Virginia to California this summer, we only encountered one border patrol station. On Interstate 80, perched high up in the Sierra Nevada near Truckee, traffic passes through what looks like a two-story house with garage-door sized tunnels carved into it. Upon arrival, with my truck sporting Virginia license plates and pulling an unwieldy U-Haul, the border agent politely asked where we were heading and what we had in the cargo trailer. He wanted to know, specifically, if we had brought plants with us from beyond the imaginary lines that separate California from the rest of this country.

My reply that we had nothing of the kind in our possession only prompted him to ask me to open the back of the trailer for him to check. Why, I wondered, did he even bother to ask me about plants: he was going to want the vehicle and its trailer opened for his inspection no matter what I claimed.

Passing through the borders of West Virginia, Kentucky, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Nevada had not even required our covered wagon (truck and trailer) to slow its velocity. The turgid, roiling Mississippi flowed beneath and offered no resistance. Crossing the soaring Rocky Mountain range provided a far stiffer test than the rest of the drive, and that only because of the weight of the trailer we pulled. California, though, land’s end for the Western U.S., would require an explanation of purpose and a quick look-see into what I had until then considered private belongings.

The border agent was courteous, amiable and sympathetic: even he appeared to regret having to shove around the trailer’s contents that had shifted over the 2000 mile drive. Yet rifle through he did, and after a couple minutes, pronounced us safe to pass through the, to me at least, now-real invisible line that demarcates California from Nevada.

I began to reflect on our first-world to first-world border crossing after listening to an eloquent and poignant lecture by Frances Stonor Saunders on the London Review of Books site. Entitled “Where on Earth Are You,” the essay engages a subject that caused me to reflect on the borders between our human selves and our quantified selves. As Saunders piercingly articulates, who we are is inextricably linked to what and even where we are: fingerprints, credit scores, geolocations (down to the meter), intelligence quotients, bank account numbers, facial metrics (for instance, the distance between nose and lips–why we cannot smile in official documents any longer), and myriad more voluntary and compulsory bits of information that, to everyone outside our own heads, apparently, define us.

If I am all these things, then I am already code. I am already the technology that philosophers of technology have been on about for over a century. Quibble with the ontology–technology is not the same as human–all you like, I side more with N. Katherine Hayles’s position: we already are posthuman.

If you deny that assertion, if you grasp at the frayed ends of an identity that excludes that plethora of ones and zeros used to define you, then you will need to transcend the flesh/data. And yes, I am conflating flesh and data, emotion and data, desires and data, even habit and data. I refuse to distinguish between these because, in part, no one seems to want them separated. We want our others (our technological extensions) with us (tiny personal computers, nee cellphones), part of us (pacemakers, prostheses, artificial organs), guiding us (digital maps predicting our destinations), and tracking our food intake and exercise (fitbits, etc.). I challenge you to imagine an aspect of our lives not mediated by technologies, our other selves that, to my mind, do not at all seem so other after all.

A gentle warning, though: if you do find that aspect of you/your life  that escapes technological mediation, you might want to keep it to yourself. Once you share it, the race to mediate and or automate it will begin.

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