Remember RoboCop? Encasing the human body in a robotic sheath has been dreamed of in various ways for a long time. Magnifying the length of our stride, the strength of our biceps, and the surface tension of our skin has been reimagined over and over. Most recently, the robots in Avatar and IronMan have done it again. These robots take their cues from the human body in design. What we see is a man magnified a hundredfold in his capabilities. He can go farther, higher, deeper, and faster than ever before.
RoboCop took it a step further though. The story was, he was a cop who’d been shot and killed in the line of duty. But they immortalized him by salvaging his brain and part of his body (well, at least his jaw and mouth). In sci-fi speak, the term is "cyborg."
More to reality than RoboCop is something like the car. It is a modern machine controlled from within. The wheels extend the feet. The car body extends our own, a sort of skin beyond our skin. Inside, we have temperature control, much like our bodies have. Additionally, cars extend our arms by their capacity to hold and carry people and objects in the seats and trunk. In the end, cars expand the capacity to transport, protect, and carry more than our bodies ever could, and faster than our bodies ever could. We become men and women with powerful arms, legs, feet, hands, and skin—much like we’ve dreamed of doing with robots.
Yet, as we magnify parts of our body through our cars, our bodies are thrown out of proportion. Our eyes are not magnified to the same degree that our feet or our hands are. Technologies have never holistically magnified all human capacities equally. Instead, they magnified a select capacity, leaving the rest unchanged. Our bodies become distorted.
Unlike RoboCop’s capacities for vision and reaction, cars do not magnify human sight or reflexes. In fact, our reflexes resist being magnified. (At least for the time being.) As a result the ratio of our speed-to-reaction-time changes. Our reflexes were once the fastest of our capacities. Now our reflexes are among our greatest deficiencies in a car. They haven’t maintained proportion to our arms or legs.
This was likely an unforeseen consequence of the car. Technology has magnified our capacities, but it’s also magnified our mistakes. Transportation safety boards around the world have increased margins for error with things like medians and abutments, wider lanes and shoulders, grooved pavement and brighter signage. All these things serve to accommodate our poor reflexes.
In other words, we can only cover for our slow reflexes with a complement of additional technologies, but we can’t actually magnify our reflexes to any significant degree. Reflexes become our greatest deficit in proportion to the magnifications our technologies have achieved. Our split-second reaction time just isn’t fast enough.
Thus, with the automobile, we’ve magnified select capacities. We’ve altered the proportions of our bodies, and in so doing, created weaknesses out of what were once our greatest strengths. That’s how technologies work. They don’t magnify everything proportionally. They extend one or two capacities and leave us looking like Popeye.