What's a Cyborg?

The thing you need to understand about “cyborg” is that it was coined in the 60s.

So when it comes to the version of cyborgs that you’re probably most familiar with, the chromed man-machine monsters – your Terminators, Robocops, and Ghosts in the Shell – that’s from later on. It’s not how cyborgs start out.

They start out like this.

This is the era of Timothy Leary and Hunter S. Thompson. This is the era of acid, Agent Orange, and DDT. It’s the era of Dow and DuPont. We’re talking about “better living through chemistry” and drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs, drugs.

It’s also the era of the Cold War and the Space Race. The word is coined in 1960. NASA is not yet two years old. Sputnik is not yet three. Kennedy is a year away from announcing America’s commitment to putting a man on the moon.

A lot of people were getting together and asking, “How can we survive for the long term in space?”

One solution is architectural.

Using the latest construction techniques, you can build a little bubble of earth, and plunk it down on any old alien world. We can send people off to these environments and so long as the walls don’t burst and the air doesn’t run out, they’ve got all the comforts of home.

A pair of scientists, Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, had a different idea.

“What if we could just live in space?” they asked, “What if instead of adapting the environment to ourselves, we adapted ourselves to the environment?”

To do that, they reasoned, you need a cybernetic feedback system to maintain homeostasis unconsciously. These systems need to become a part of the organism. A cybernetic organism. A Cyborg.

The key notion here is non-hereditary adaptation. Technological interventions that change the course of biological existence.

Being that it’s the 60s, these interventions are pretty much all pharmacological.

In their paper entitled Drugs, Space and Cybernetics Clynes and Kline consider a host of solutions. Drugs to keep you awake and effective for days at a time, drugs to put you to sleep for long voyages, drugs to prevent radiation poisoning, drugs to keep you strong in zero gravity. If there’s a problem, drugs will solve it.

There are a few exceptions.

At one point in the paper, they consider nuclear-powered air exchangers to replace your lungs. At another point, they consider yoga and hypnotism as methods to alter and control the metabolism.

So yes, to Clynes and Kline, the people who shop at lululemon are all cyborgs.

Yet the vision of cyborg that’s stuck has been this one.

Brains jacked into computers, bodies invaded by technology, limbs and organs amputated and replaced by machines until the resulting creature is barely recognizable as human (but still very sexy).

I want to present you with a different vision of cyborgs, one that derives in part from the work of feminist theorist Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto.

In it, she argues that we are all and have always been cyborgs, hybrid entities that combine biology, culture, and technology into a single blurry unit. Haraway wants to move away from the essentialist narratives of gender, race, and politics but in doing so, she ends up taking the rest of us along with her.

There has never been a moment when we did not integrate with tools.

Our tools define and shape us, they tell us who we are. We use them to extend our literal selves out into the world. When you get into an accident, you say “she hit me” not “her car hit me” and not “her car hit my car”.

We are embraced and enveloped by the technosphere and even if we try to escape and smash the system, we find we are part of it.

Look at these guys.

Polyester shirts. Glasses. Baseball bat. Shoes. These are entities wholly dependent on non-hereditary adaptation to survive in their environments. No matter how hard they kick the fax machine.

Visions of cyborgs are all about the relationship of technology to the body.

Let’s use some iconic 80s movies to illustrate.

There is the body-terror of the Terminator, an entity that is machine first, with a thin veneer of humanity sprayed on top. Infiltrator assassins sent by a technosphere that’s decided it doesn’t need us anymore, that behaves and looks like us long enough to get close enough to kill us.

Then there’s the body-tragedy of Robocop, a person that should be dead, kept alive and made more powerful by technology. He’s made more vulnerable too. He is wholly dependent on the infrastructure that sustains him, and his will is constrained by the programming. His techno-corporate creators have failsafes and kill switches. His humanity seems always to be just slipping out of reach.

Or consider the body-revulsion of Tron, where the dream is to leave our bodies behind entirely, to upload ourselves to cyberspace and surf the digital universe as pure mind. In this version, our bodies are disposable impediments and superfluous to our true selves.

But bodies aren’t superfluous.

For my money, the vision that gets it most right is Ripley’s exoskeleton.

When she wears it, it becomes a part of her, enhancing her power and abilities. When she needs to, she can take it off again.

Technology upgrades are faster than biology, that’s the point of non-hereditary adaptation. Who has time to go into surgery every time there is a new version of the hardware? The exoskeleton shows us the appeal of non-destructive enhancement.

Consider paralympic athletes.

When they go to competition, they don’t graft the equipment on to their bodies because, next year, there’s going to be better gear. Instead, they wear interchangeable equipment that’s suited to the moment.

We are all only ever a few material or computer science advancements away from permanently implanted enhancements becoming permanently implanted impediments.

Consider Nadya Vessey.

She’s a double-leg amputee and, when she wants to, she becomes a mermaid. This is a fully functional swimming tail, designed by WETA workshop (they did special FX for Lord of the Rings and District 9). 

It’s a cosmetic enhancement more than anything else. A beautiful technical marvel of a fantasy ballgown. She’d be a fool to install it permanently. Maybe in a year or two she won’t want to be a mermaid anymore.

So when you think about cyborgs, think less of images like this. Don’t think about total loss of self, bodies encroached and erased by technology, humanity swallowed whole.

Instead think of cellphones.

Think about off-loaded memories, of constantly renewed enhancement and new abilities. But also think about insistent ringtones, and demanding interruptions, think of externally controlled access, and a reliance on a sprawling infrastructure.

We are shaped by the technologies because in integrating them, they become us. And though we can discard or upgrade them, this is no less true of our cultural selves. Who you are today is not who you will be tomorrow but those possibilities are shaped and constrained by the biology, culture and technology that is part of you.

Of all the images I’ve shown you, the true cyborg looks most like this.

Look at her, wearable vision enhancements, removable cosmetic implants.

And for all we know, veins coursing with drugs and nanoblood.

This is one of 50 Post About Cyborgs a project commemorating the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.