The Man Who First Said 'Cyborg,' 50 Years Later

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We're gathered here today to celebrate Manfred Clynes. Fifty years ago, he coined the word "cyborg" to describe an emerging hybrid of man's machines and man himself. The word itself combined cybernetics, the then-emerging discipline of feedback and control, and organism.

The word appeared in an article called "Cyborgs and Space," in the journal Astronautics' September 1960 issue. Just to be precise, here's how the word was introduced:

"For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term 'Cyborg,'" wrote Clynes and his co-author Nathan Kline, both of Rockland State University.

From that catchy description, it might not have been immediately apparent that Cyborg was destined to become the label for a profound myth, hope and fear specific to our era. But Clynes knew from the beginning that the phenomenon he'd identified was deeply important.

I reached him at his home in Sonoma, California, where the 85 year old is working away on perfecting Beethoven's last quartets.

"I expected the word cyborg to survive," Clynes said, although he realizes it has been emptied of some of its original meaning. "It's interesting in the history to see how a word can have a life of its own."

Tim Maly's incredible project to catalog 50 responses to the word cyborg ends with this post -- and the breadth and depth of the contributions is a testament to the vigor of the word's post-Clynes life. But his original conception is still important, and captures something that I think has been lost in our current definitions.

Here's the thing: For most of us, cyborg ends at the human-machine hybrid. The point of the cyborg is to be a cyborg; it's an end unto itself. But for Clynes, the interface between the organism and the technology was just a means, a way of enlarging the human experience. That knotty first definition? It ran under this section headline: "Cyborgs -- Frees Man to Explore."

The cyborg was not less human, but more.

"The purpose of the Cyborg, as well as his own homeostatic systems, is to provide an organizational system in which such robot-like problems are taken care of automatically and unconsciously, leaving man free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel," Clynes and Kline wrote.

They offered up this idea in the context of MAN IN SPACE, the grand scientific project of the 60s. "Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution," the Astronautics paper began. "Scientific advances of the future may thus be utilized to permit man's existence in environments which differ radically from those provided by nature as we know it."

They criticized the idea of creating human-ready environments up in space, arguing humans should adapt themselves to extraterrestrial conditions, whatever those might be.

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It's important to remember that they wrote all this stuff before Yuri Gagarin became the first man to travel in space. Quite honestly, we had no idea what space would do to our bodies over the long-haul, but space scientists were not shy about hazarding and testing hypotheses.

In the decade after Clynes paper, NASA scientists would publish hundreds of paper about the human body's physiology. New biological data poured in from the space program. The literature was a non-medical kind of applied physiology and it seemed largely concerned with how the healthy body handled extremes. Papers like "Human Tolerance to Rapidly Applied Accelerations: A Summary of the Literature" were the norm.

Under those circumstances, the body's natural control systems became fascinating and bizarre because you find where they fail. Sure, you can maintain consciousness standing still or running, but how about being hurtled through the atmosphere at 1,000 miles per hour?

So NASA came up with answers. The human body could take 45 Gs for about 0.044 seconds without being debilitated. You could build a curve of G-force and time and figure out the body's limits, when it lost control.

But Clynes was never interested solely in helping the body maintain stasis. His work was more expansive and concentrated on the relationship between the brain and the world. Threaded through his career, Clynes has wanted to allow humans to communicate without words. In art and in science, he sought ways to escape the messiness and ambiguity of language.

Born in Vienna in 1925, Clynes was a lifelong classical musician. Through his violin, he found that he didn't need to talk to transmit and receive emotion. "Music dispenses with the words entirely with good reason. It's richer than the words and more definite," Clynes said. "Music is not vague as some people think, the more precisely you phrase the music, the more clear is the meaning.... That is the emotional language of music."

Perhaps that's why Clynes got into the study of recording the brain's electrical impulses. He sought a more definite way of knowing the mind. Early electroencephalographs could record the brain, but we couldn't make much sense of it. The brain turned out to be very noisy. When you shined a light at someone or gave them a little electrical shock, it was hard to tell what effect that actually had in their neurons.

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