Chipping, cyborgs and people – the questions we should be asking ourselves

Author’s Note:
I initially read Mr. Palmer’s article when it first came out. However, even though I had penned a response then, many more questions opened to me and I ended up revising a few things with new, even better references that answered my own questions on the theme. I must here state that I am neither against technology nor pro it; as Mr. Palmer himself states many times in his articles, we should be looking at responsible innovation in the near future. The time for innovation is now, because the time for innovation always exists. From the moment our ancestors’ discovered that fire and tools could be useful and put them to specific uses, we have been innovating – in good and in bad – and generally, it is the use of the tool in question that is more likely to cause the problem, rather than the tool itself… for instance, knives are used daily in kitchens, but have been used in murders, and computers have been used for much good (like easily accessible academic data for start) as well as for crimes such as hacking. The one thing to remember, though – and as I am an anthropologist, my first thought is always to that particular end of the invention bargain – that we not dealing with innovation and invention outside of humanity, and that humanity has seen amazing acts of goodness along with terrifying acts of darkness. We have a checkered history and must remember it to ensure that any and every new technology serves one rather than the other, and that we minimise the option of it being misused to pamper prejudice and hate at all costs. 


 

Just yesterday, I chanced upon a brilliantly written article by Shelly Palmer on the subject that has recently gained vogue especially amongst those interested in or directly working in software technology. It is not a subject that will remain separate from the rest of us for long – while it is no longer purely theoretical, chipping of humans, in this case employee volunteers in some companies, is happening not in some distant future we can wave off as too far (and therefore safely far fetched) but now. By now, several companies in the Western world have chipped employees (cf. Epicenter, a hi-tech office block in Sweden, (articles 1 (BBC) and 2 (BBC)) and Three Square Market in Wisconsin (all accessed on 06/09/17)), and the professional world is slowly dividing between the fearful, brooding conspiracy theorists and the clamouring, enthusiastic supporters of the procedure.

That is precisely the danger of the situation, and one that Mr. Palmer addresses quite well – the divide is too strongly either this or that, and therefore, I might add, dismissable by the general public. But how long can we pretend that it is still mostly science fiction, an experimentation of a couple of technologically enthusiastic geeks that have little to do with our reality? Not very long; in recent years, technology has boomed (consider Alexa, prospect of self-driving flying cars, military drones, the new cell-changing technology to create babies from cells (more), etc.), and that means that we are facing an equally rapid approach of the moment when we might all have to make the decision. But even here, we already face the first problems.

If this is happening in some companies, it might soon be done in your company, and we all have, I believe, the knowledge that “volunteer” often does not stand for a person willingly submitting themselves to an activity or procedure – that companies have, in the past and in the present, pressured, discriminated and even forced, and that the so-called volunteering was purely a theoretical way of trying to prevent lawsuits and prosecution for the crimes against employees (cf. here and here). I am not saying that this is happening in the present cases, as the situation is not so intimately known to me that I could judge on it; but what I am saying is that we have seen discrimination happen, and that often, it is presented as voluntary, meaning that there might soon be chipping counted amongst such cases as it becomes more frequent.

But can it become more frequent and what does it actually mean?

Let us explore this from anthropological perspective.

Chipping of pets definitely exists in our world (and has become a part of the issue and should therefore be explored in this article), and that way, we already have a socio-psychological (i.e. psychological induced by society we live in, are born into) predisposition to see it as something intended for protection, safety, care. As a pet owner, I can tell you that vaccinations, pet travel and many other parts of pet owning become virtually impossible, especially in some countries, if the pet is not chipped (cf. here); chipping is viewed as a matter of factly act of protection for our pets, and by many pet owners, it is perceived as safe and far less cruel than tattooing or branding, which I definitely agree with.

Chipping, whatever the volunteers say, is not a painless procedure. Mine and my partner’s nine adopted cats are chipped and they, apart from one, are on hormonal implant, a safer way of neutering than the classical sterilisation and castration (where many side-effects, including incontinence, are frequent in animals, cf. here & here)). This means yet another big needle and a repeated procedure, but it is definitely the lesser of the two evils, and this goes for the chipping as well. The one cat who is sterilised thankfully hasn’t developed incontinence, but we have to constantly be cautious with her food as she grows simply huge very quickly, meaning she is constantly somewhat hungry and moody because she sees others getting bigger portions than her and she finishes when others are still eating. (Not something that is likely going to happen to you if get chipped by your company, but I wanted you to understand why we have decided the way we have, rather than for the usual, casually accepted yet much greater procedure that carries greater consequences, which are generally ignored, because the procedure is so usual… something that you might want to consider in the whole chipping situation.)

However – those who think that chipping is the one prick forever, and then we can all live happily ever after are woefully wrong. As a pet owner, I know that:

  • A chip may become inactive; that is why, btw, it is a good idea that you visit your vet before going on vacation abroad with your furbaby (or plural), as it will save you the stress of realising at the border (preferably, as per Murphy’s law, one where neither you nor the person(s) involved really speak the language) that the chip is not working and you will either have to turn back or face a lot of complicated banter about ownership, human and animal rights and so on.
  • Anyone’s body may reject the chip – this means that you put it in, the body decides it is a foreign body, opens up a small wound, chip goes out, wound closes and you are, yet again, in the same position (source – my own vets).
  • A chip may be removed or reprogrammed by people who stole or found your animal (source – my vets and informants who have sadly lost or nearly lost pets that way); often enough, the animals are taken so quickly and through such deeply illegal channels that they simply disappear as if they never existed, chip or no chip; in Slovenia, where I research, that sadly usually means illegal pet trade in the good cases, while the bad ones involve dog fights and gypsy camps, where the animals are tortured, maltreated and often skinned alive before being eaten to “keep them juicy” (source – informant who is a doctor for a gypsy camp, the information came from the gypsies – Roma – directly).

As you can see, the situation is not nearly as rosy as we tend to see it as, and yet, chipping is still the thing we do without even thinking, and all the while believing that this is a good thing and that it means protection for our pets forever and from all evils.

With human chipping, the situation can only get worse; but we will explore each step at the time.

The proponents of the procedure usually count these amongst the pros of the chipping:

  • Now, you will be able to access all your technology with a wave of the hand.
  • Keys and typing codes are no longer necessary; again, you can indulge your inner Jedi and simply wave your way in.
  • This will mean that security will be much much tighter all around, because nobody but the employees themselves will be able to get in.

Before we proceed to the darker parts of this article, let’s look at these arguments as they stand.

Firstly and foremostly, and I know I speak perhaps as a fitness enthusiast, but, the thing that nobody is asking themselves is why. All over the Western world, medical personnel is bemoaning our lack of physical activity – and while sliding doors can definitely be a positive thing when moving a couch and an elevator is brilliant for the disabled (including temporarily) or in a case of tremendously bad menstrual pain, the rest of the time, we really should be taking stairs. Our health is only addressed in the realm of technology when we are offered new apps for our phones, which monitor our fitness progress, but what we never seem to learn is that the apps are worth nothing without us first changing our lifestyle. So perhaps instead of a dramatic wave of the hand, pushing the door open, actually getting up to fix your cup of coffee and many more seemingly small, irrelevant tasks, should be a part of our daily routine towards a healthy body that actually utilises the muscles that will otherwise atrophy rather than melodramatic waves at everything to have technology (which will then also inform us that we did not do so well on our fitness today!) perform those actions instead of us?

Granted – we all use computers and smart phones, and our lives are easier with them. But there is a fine line between use and abuse of technology, and we are definitely treading it.

Even without the question of health and fitness, why is still a good one to explore. Many people simply do not use some of the technology available, and this is, indeed, the difference between something being available and enforced – that we can make a choice in what we desire to use and what we do not want to have as a part of our life. As this technology evolves, it, too, will become commercially available, and as with all other products, the makers will try to convince us that we cannot live without it, or even try to make certain that we cannot. This is very dark indeed, but it is not impossible; Monsanto’s example, for instance, should teach us that such pressure can happen, but also what comes of it. Monsanto’s biggest mistake, perhaps, was that they did not see that their vision was mostly faulty, especially because it did not take into account that the public simply did not desire their product, and especially not in the way they were keen to offer it – as a prohibitive monopoly that would oust all other kinds of farming (cf. here). Again, the mistake was in the lack of recognition that everything must come with a choice… except for human rights, where one cannot decide to simply follow or not follow the rules, set down to prevent abuse as much as possible and yet frequently still subject to further questioning where religion is concerned, as it, too, often tries to force a choice between it and human rights that should not be recognised as valid.

What if you do not want to use the technology that your company wants to use? How long before you are the only one who hasn’t been swayed, and how long before it becomes a must or you are fired?

This is not a matter of choice, and we cannot expect that all businesses everywhere will perceive it as such – already, we have experience with abuse of power especially in the outposts of Western companies in the Third World, where forced contraceptives for female workers, child labour, poor working conditions and much more embarrass the companies in question as well as show a problem where respect for choice and human rights are concerned.

Of course, there is the question of the technology itself. While it is a marvellous thing to think that this time, it will work, anyone with a smart phone or an adult toy will know that very often, technology does not work as it had been advertised it should. Read any reviews (or remember your own experience) and you will hear how the phones don’t work with all apps; how different companies’ technologies don’t work together; how toys designed to pair up with phones fail to do so; how charging, distance relationship enhancing toys and all possible functions fail at random, and very frequently, or do not work at all.

You might be laughing, but think from this perspective – while you may get upset with your phone, it won’t really cause you such trouble. Your vibrator not working with your OH while you are in Canada and they are in New York is frustrating, even depressing, but it’s not life-threatening. Help, I locked myself into the lab where my chip somehow activated the latest technology I now can’t get away from, but I can’t get out because THAT somehow doesn’t seem possible, however, is going to ruin your life quite drastically, and possibly quite finally, and yet, it can happen (cf. here & here). Just yesterday, my phone decided I really needed to see my weather app. Now, I did not actively open the weather app. I never erased the weather app on a chance I might use it one day, but believe me when I say it was the last thing on my mind when I was posting my last update for Anthropology is Everywhere… but it was hot, and as we hopefully all know, delicate technology goes a bit funky in extreme cold or heat.

So what happens if you are cold when you come from the outside (given that the chips are in the thin flesh of the hand) or if you begin to run a fever? Pregnant women generally have slightly higher body temperature… what about them? (source – medical informant)

Let’s move on the the now obsolete keys and codes. Funnily enough, human beings have this little habit of always saying, this time it will be perfect. This is the one that will change them all. Codes were supposed to be perfect. Keys were supposed to be perfect. Lock, bar and old-fashioned key were perfect too. But crime advances with technology. The only thing it might become is messier, when the scenarios of sci-fi films become a gruesome reality. In the near future, “lend me a hand” may not be an expression we will wish to hear any longer, because it just might get connotations that will turn our stomachs. And yet it will happen, if that is how criminals or terrorists will feel they can obtain whatever they wish to obtain.

Security. While I would be the last to question the need for security, as I take my own work and the privacy of my clients very seriously, I am informed enough that I know that again, there is no unbreakable security. The security we need most lies within our employees and co-workers. If you cannot trust your employees to respect whatever secrecy act you have asked them to sign (provided you are not doing something that actually needs to be exposed), then no chip in the world will prevent them from betraying you or selling your precious secrets to the highest bidder. Honour has always been something that we have depended upon through history, and while that trust was sometimes betrayed, it mostly works, provided honesty happens on both the side of the employer and the employee. How is this chip supposed to control the employee? A good engineer, chemist… can carry the blueprints in their mind… unless we could make a chip that would control that too, and now, we truly are entering the darkest science fiction.

And this is where we have been headed all along.

Not long ago, a particular guy with a very memorable moustache in Germany started a fad of marking people he and his followers did not like. They soon upgraded their new technology by shoving the people they did not like (amongst them the political enemies of their own people, mentally disabled, enemies of their regime, gypsies, LGBT and so forth) into camps, where they also disposed of them in an equally beastly fashion. Nor was this the first time in history for people to be marked – according to Pipponier, during a particular part of the Middle Ages, one ruler decided that people were too pally, and had everyone marked according to their religion, Jews with the star, Christians with the cross and Muslims with a half moon (Dress in the Middle Ages, 1997). In India, caste marks offer a possibility of unpunished cruelty to those who wish to take it out on the lower caste (cf. here).

Even if we could trust our Western values, how are we to control this technology from being abused when it falls into the wrong hands? Who will decide whose hands are wrong? Momentary political alliance? A quest to buy oil cheaply?  A wish to butter up a reluctant ally?

And of course, the million dollar question. Can we trust our Western mindset? The extreme right has, in the West, become much stronger in the last few years. The rights of the LGBT, women, whoever the party leaders (or, in our British case, and in the case of the US, the current governments) feel are a problem, have been threatened even without a technology that could easily be used to store all possible data about us, accessible to people who might or might not abuse it… possible employers, government agencies, and so on.

Goodbye privacy, enter a dark sci fi era of control. No technology can be considered harmless in certain people’s hands, and this is literally inviting the option for extreme political parties to take control with us opening the doors widely for them and laying out a welcome mat. You may not program the chip that way… but what is to stop them from passing a law that says that someone can, or that you have to? The Lavender scare in the 70s saw LGBT members exposed and persecuted just like the Jews had been not so long before… and the really terrible part is that always, there were people who felt they were doing a good thing.

Ethics are an offspring of morality – a debate about a set of pseudo-rules, often having little to do with empathy and less with human rights, that are set down to reflect the SCR (social, cultural and religious) aura of factuality. Aura of factuality, a term coined by Clifford Geertz, is what we feel is right or wrong or even doable or unthinkable – regardless of actual facts concerning the thematic in question. Aura of factuality means that it is moral to stone a woman; it is ethical to rape and kill her, as the lawyer representing the rapists in the grisly case of the rape on the bus in India tried to prove.

Aura of factuality had doctors operating on infants and babies without anaesthesia in Slovenia well into the post-war era (source – medical informant), all because of an idea that they are too young to feel any real pain. Aura of factuality is an ugly thing that we are too little aware of, while constantly acting within its bounds. In other words, we often blindly accept what we feel is “done”… something that the chips already have on their side, because this is what is “done” with pets.

Superstitions, beliefs and prejudice kill people. Politicians, religious leaders and even business owners are people, with their own understanding of the SCR and aura of factuality, with their own issues and prejudices. Are we really dumb enough to give them a carte blanche that will allow them to do anything they want with a technology they may control without even sitting down and writing laws about this first?

That is a theoretical safety catch. Write down laws that set boundaries, set within the human rights. But again, extremists do not follow rules, they rewrite laws and they trample everything in their path.

Besides, how are we to know that this technology won’t be used by cultists, groups like IS and mafia? How do we prevent that? How in the world do we forget that, especially in the case of cultism, one cannot (by international law) agree to something that harms them, while providing technology that could feature in control of all possible kinds that will make the cult leaders’ work incredibly easy and escape very, very difficult?

Travel is another problem nobody seems to consider. If we have issues with letting people take laptops on the plane due to terrorism, are we or are we not going to allow chipped employees to board a plane? What do we know of their allegiances? And even if they are not a threat, surely, we have learned by now that remote access is possible to any technology (eg 1, eg 2)? What with the cases that have already featured remote access by criminals (eg), issues of cyber terrorism (eg) and the recent horrifying realisation that all computer technology is hackable, even when unconnected (eg 1, eg 2), do we still have the guts to say that this time, it will be perfect? And the employee is now technology themselves… are they going to be allowed to travel to countries we ban our technology from?

Are we happy to set a precedent that allows people with implanted technology on a plane?

The question of what happens when you change jobs is also addressed very poorly as a generality. Will you be made to work for the same company, or will the chip be reprogrammed, destroyed or taken out? How well can we hope to reprogram it? Would you trust your information, your valuable information that is currently top secret, to a chip that may or may not be wiped, or can be copied down?

This all sounds very sci fi, but the trouble with sci fi is that it is, while sounding really far fetched, a brilliant showcase of how our mind works, of what we have already thought about. The dark scenarios of our governments’ control aren’t the only thing we need to fear either; the second and third generation terrorists have grown up with the Western media, they have seen the same films and watched the same shows. Are you willing to take the risk and say that not a single one looked at a sci fi doomsday story and thought, what if I…?

In the recent years, we have seen a significant change in the type of the attacks; the reason lies in the different environment that the now-terrorists have grown up in. Technology, however watchful we are of it when it comes to enemy countries, is no stranger to them, nor are they stranger to our worst fears and forebodings. And what of the growing numbers of our own Western cyber terrorists?

There remains, I think, also the question of outsourcing. Not so long ago, the West had a major argument with the problem of outsourcing in China; the problem that revolved around censorship (cf. here, here & here). This technology would have been built in and would not be removable (due to the Chinese laws about censorship and an uncanny wish to dictate the not so human rights compatible ideals to the West; something similar, only on legal level, seems to have managed to be forced through in our own UK not so long ago, allegedly targeting porn but effectively targeting everything else as usual (cf. here, here & here)). If you are thinking, fine, so I just won’t watch porn (while Cosmopolitan keeps suggesting to watch it with your OH to get over repression, get kinky together and so on and while we are definitely not talking about illegal porn, so child pornography, forced prostitution and similar), think again. This measure did not only “protect the children” (why do we always fall for that one?!) but would ensure that the user could not enter self-help sites, LGBT related sites and violence against women sites (cf. here & here). Not at all a good, human rights orientated measure. And let us not forget the nasty questions of Huawei and spy technology (cf. here & here).

 

So many problems, so many potential issues. And the simple fact that we should not, must not break the rules about the integrity of our bodies and our privacy for a hi-tech toy that seems like the next best thing but bears, with it, a host of risks we are closing our eyes before rather than facing, something that Mr. Palmer’s article highlighted in the best of ways.

But do chips have any place at all in our world, after the scenarios I have just painted for you?

The answer to that is, yes, they definitely have. A medical one, for one, sparing, perhaps, the mental health niche, which, once again, becomes victim to potential prejudices. Too many mental health states are diagnosed wrong, too many quacks (like Dobson, who used his degree in psychology to offer backing to Christian extremism in the US (cf. here)), too many questionable procedures have happened there to allow for a chip to regulate, medicate and control any person’s mental state; and even if you could trust every single doctor with a licence, there are plenty who have none, have lost it to malpractice or have obtained it from unlicensed bodies to perform services for extremist groups (cf. here).

But chipping technology is making progress in spinal injury (cf. here), and I see no reason why it would not spread to other parts of medical profession. Genital function is one such part – whether it is the trans people hoping for a more advanced form of their new body that would react better or almost spontaneously (cf. here & here) or soldiers who lost their penis in combat (cf. here), victims of FGM or someone who has received a chip due to an operation that has damaged the nerve system and is now incapable not only of normal sexuality, but also of control over everyday bodily functions, a chip would be a literal life and mental health saver in all those cases, and we can only hope that the technology and medical science will make their way into that direction.

This is a technology that could truly help, that could make lives better, longer than expected, the depression resultant from injury less likely or avoidable. This is the technology of empathy, of humanity. Let us take the chipping in that direction instead.

 


Image Source – Pixabay