Material Cultures and Moral Mediators in Human Hybridization

Material Cultures and Moral Mediators in Human Hybridization

Lorenzo Magnani (University of Pavia, Italy)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-1773-5.ch001
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We already are hybrid humans, fruit of a kind of co-evolution of both our brains and the common, scientific, social, and moral knowledge we have produced by ourselves starting from the birth of material culture with our ancestors until the recent effects generated by the whole field of technological artifacts and of information and communication technologies (ICTs). We all are “constitutively” natural-born cyborgs, that is biotechnological hybrid minds. Our minds should not be considered to be located only in the head: human beings have solved their problems of survival and reproduction, “distributing” cognitive and ethical functions to external non-biological sources, props, and aids, which originate cultures. The paper also illustrates the interplay between cultures and distributed cognition and stresses the role of some technological artifacts as moral mediators. The second part of the paper is related to the analysis of the interplay between cultures, morality, and cognition and of some consequences concerning the problem of intercultural communication in the light of the role of moral mediators, docility, and cyberprivacy. Finally, I discuss some suggestions concerning the problem of what I call the moral principle of isolation of cultures, with respect to the effects of ICTs.
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Hybrid Humans And Distributed Cognition

Following Clark’s conclusions on the relationships between humans and technology, especially information and communications technologies (ICTs), we all are “constitutively” natural-born cyborgs – that is, biotechnologically hybrid minds (2003)1. Less and less are our minds considered to be in our heads: human beings have solved their problems of survival and reproduction by “distributing” cultures and cognitive functions to external non-biological sources, props, and aids. Our biological brains have delegated to external tools many activities that involve complex planning and elaborate assessments of consequences (p. 5). A simple example might be how the brain, when faced with multiplying large numbers, learns to act in concert with pen and paper, storing part of the process and the results outside itself. The same occurred when Greek geometers discovered new properties and theorems of geometry: they manipulated external diagrams to establish a kind of continuous cognitive negotiation with a suitable external support (like sand or a blackboard), to gain new important information and heuristic suggestions2. The use of external tools and artifacts is very common: cognitive skills and performances are so widespread that they become invisible, thus giving birth to something I have called “tacit templates” of behavior that blend “internal” and “ external” cognitive aspects (Magnani, 2001a, chapter six).

New technologies will facilitate this process in a new way: on a daily basis, people are linked to non-biological, more-or-less intelligent machines and tools like cell phones, laptops, and medical prosthetics. Consequently, it becomes harder and harder to say where the world stops and the person begins. Clark contends that this line between biological self and technological world has always been flexible and that this fact has to be acknowledged both from the epistemological and the ontological points of view. Thus the study of the new anthropology of hybrid humans becomes important, and I would add that it is also critical for us to delineate and articulate the related ethical issues.

I certainly share Clark’s enthusiasm in philosophically acknowledging our status as “cyborgs,” but I would like to go further, to do more than just peer through the window of his book at the many cyberartifacts that render human creatures the consumers-cyborgs we are.

Our bodies and our “selves” are materially and cognitively “extended,” meshed, that is, with external artifacts and objects, and this fact sets the stage for a variety of new philosophical and moral questions related to the role of cultures in our technological world. For example, because so many aspects of human beings are now simulated in or replaced by things in an external environment, new ontologies can be constituted – and Clark would agree with me. Pieces of information that can be carried in any physical medium are called “memes” by Dawkins (1989). They can “stay” in human brains or jump from brain to brain to objects, becoming configurations of artificial things that express meaning, like words written on a blackboard or data stored on a CD, icons and diagrams on a newspaper, configurations of external things that express meanings and cultural units like an obligatory route. They can also exist in natural objects endowed with informative significance – stars, for example, which offer navigational guidance. In my perspective the externalization of these chunks of information is described in the light of the cognitive delegation human beings concentrate in material objects and structures. Like memes, cultural units are distributed everywhere not only thanks to their dissemination in brains, but also thanks to their embodiment in various kinds of external materiality, in objects and artifacts of various type.

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