Transitional Technological Objects


In his book Natural-Born Cyborgs, Andy Clark recalls an experiment designed by V.S. Ramachandran, professor and director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at the University of California, San Diego. Here is Clark’s description of the experiment: “Sitting at your desk, place your left hand underneath the desktop. Get a volunteer to tap the desktop with her right hand while using the left to (in synchrony) tap your hidden hand.” “[M]any subjects will feel as if the ‘being tapped sensation’ is located on the desk surface—as if the desktop were a real, sensitive part of their body.” “Now have the volunteer hit the desktop with a hammer. Your galvanic skin response [GSR] jumps as if your own hand had been threatened!” When Clark returns to GSR later on in his book, he includes Ramachandran’s remark that “perhaps it’s not all that silly to ask whether you identify with your car. Just punch it to see whether your GSR changes.”

There is a powerful idea here that Clark already evoked in the introduction to his book, when he describes his experience of the loss of his laptop as “a minor stroke.” With the loss of the technological object, it appears a part of himself has gone lost, to the extent that he is incapable of functioning normally. Even though we might not have a single piece of technology within our body, the fact that we operate as mind-body-technological scaffolding assemblages turns us into cyborgs. It is these typically human, supportive environments that justify Clark’s claim that we are natural-born cyborgs.

What happens when we consider this type of thought next to D.W. Winnicott’s theory of the transitional object? A transitional object is an object that, although it is not a part of the infant’s body, is not fully recognized as belonging to external reality. To grow up means to let go of such objects, and to recognize the border between the body and what lies outside of it. But isn’t the car in the example from Ramachandran that Clark cites—do you identify with your car? Does your GSR change when you punch your car?—a kind of transitional object? And aren’t our lives in the increasingly technological world characterized by the breakdown of the separation between the body and what lies outside of it—in other words, by the creation of transitional objects? If losing our laptop can be compared to suffering a minor stroke, as Clark suggests, this means that the laptop has become a part of our body… What does this mean for Winnicott’s theory today?

Does to grow up still mean to let go of transitional objects? Or, if to live in today’s technological world means to live with more and more transitional objects, might it perhaps mean to learn to engage with such objects in a different way?

References: Andy Clark, Natural-Born Cyborgs: Minds, Technologies, and the Future of Human Intelligence. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003. Image: Asmund Havsteen-Mikkelsen, Tower, 2007, oil on canvas, 94x155cm.


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