The Emancipated Cyborg

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Editor's Note: Tim Maly was the curator of 50 Posts About Cyborgs, a project which drew on talent from across the globe to produce (yes) 50 blog posts in honor of the 50th anniversary of the coining of the word. We ran two here on The Atlantic. In this conclusion, Maly walks you through highlights from the project as he grapples with the meaning of one of the 20th Century's most enduring concepts.

Because the word 'cyborg' is 50 years old, we wanted to have a party. We wanted to commemorate the longevity of a concept birthed in the heat of the space race, and schooled on the hard-knock playgrounds of science fiction and cultural theory. Cyborgs are a pretty big deal. They show up in our movies and books, our military R&D programs, our disability research, our dreams, and our arguments about who we are (and aren't). We wanted to invite all the cyborgs and have a big celebration.

Problems arose immediately. Who gets to come? The Six Million Dollar Man and Woman are cyborgs for sure. Probably Robocop and The Terminator too. Are Blade Runner's Replicants eligible? Does Iron Man get an invite? What about a person with a pacemaker? What about cochlear implants? What about hearing aids? What about glasses?

All that to say, what is a cyborg anyway?

We'll start by going back to Nathan Kline and Manfred Clynes. They coined the word. In September, 1960, they publish an article in Astronautics magazine called "Cyborgs and Space." Sputnik is not yet three years old. NASA is not yet two. Yuri Gagarin is not yet a cosmonaut. They define 'cyborg' in paragraph 12.

For the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously, we propose the term 'cyborg'.

A cyborg is an entity that integrates biological systems (they're thinking of male human astronauts) with automated enhancements that allow that entity to adapt to environments in which they otherwise would not flourish. This is an emancipatory move. Cyborgs are freed of the constraints of biology and evolution.

Kline and Clynes note that unconscious operation of the enhancements is critical to their conception.

If man in space, in addition to flying his vehicle, must continuously be checking on things and making adjustments merely in order to keep himself alive, he becomes a slave to the machine. 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.

In their paper, Kline and Clynes concentrate on pharmacological interventions (drugs) that will sustain and maintain current human capabilities in a new environment. The word and their vision quickly take up residence in the popular imagination. The problem for our guest list is that the meaning of the term has metastasized.

In 1985, feminist theorist Donna Haraway finds cyborgs everywhere in the political landscape and discovers they are strange beings.

The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world; it has no truck with bisexuality, pre-oedipal symbiosis, unalienated labour, or other seductions to organic wholeness through a final appropriation of all the powers of the parts into a higher unity.

In Haraway, cyborgs are not only emancipated from the physical environment, they are freed from the structures of cultural constraint and identity.

No longer structured by the polarity of public and private, the cyborg defines a technological polis based partly on a revolution of social relations in the oikos, the household. Nature and culture are reworked; the one can no longer be the resource for appropriation or incorporation by the other. ... The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of the organic family, this time without the oedipal project. The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden; it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.

Garden of Eden or no, writer Matthew Battles finds cyborgs in the Bible.

At least since the mind-body problem first presented itself, we're all of us always already cyborgs, hungry little homunculi knit to the levers of the corpse, thrusting ourselves into extension by means of these lurching, crudely-sensing, corporeal cages. Our hands are always already mechanical claws, our sensory palps the wriggling techno-pustules of a blind and curious demiurge driven to remake the set of all things that are the case.

Wired's Chief Maverick Kevin Kelly looks to pre-history and sees cyborgs all the way back.

If a cyborg means a being that is part biological and part technological then we humans began as cyborgs, and still are. Our ancestors first chipped stone scrapers 2.5 million years ago to give themselves claws. By about 250,000 years ago they devised crude techniques for cooking, or pre-digesting, with fire. Cooking acts as a supplemental external stomach. Once humans acquired this artificial organ it permitted them to evolve smaller teeth and smaller jaw muscles and provided more kinds of stuff to eat. Our invention altered us.

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Media inventor Robin Sloan finds cyborgs with artificial organs everywhere in the contemporary mediascape.

When you think of someone like Kanye West or Lady Gaga, you can't think only of their brains and bodies. Lady Gaga in a simple dress on a tiny stage in a no-name club in Des Moines is--simply put--not Lady Gaga. Kanye West in jeans at a Starbucks is not Kanye West. To understand people like that--and, increasingly, to understand people like us (eep!)--you've got to look instead at the sum of their brains, their bodies, the media they create, and the media created by others about them. All together, it constitutes a sort of fuzzy cloud that's much, much bigger than a person.

So now our guest list needs to include everyone who's ever been alive. A definition this expansive is troubling. The worry is that the conceptions of thinkers like Haraway, Battles, Kelly, and Sloan run the risk of defining the term to the point of meaninglessness. After all, if we've been cyborgs all along doesn't the word just mean 'human'? If we've all always been cyborgs, why aren't we already emancipated? This isn't an 'everyone' party, it's a cyborg party.

Presented by

Tim Maly writes about writes about cyborgs, architects, and our weird broken future at Quiet Babylon. He's a former game designer and the current project lead of Upper Toronto. More

Tim Maly writes about cyborgs, architects, and our weird broken future at Quiet Babylon. He's the project coordinator for Small Wooden Shoe's Upper Toronto, a science fiction design proposal to build a new city in the sky above the current Toronto. With Emily Horne, he is running an independent studio course about border towns, called Border Town. He created and ran 50 Posts About Cyborgs, a month long multi-participant, multimedia celebration of the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term. His work has appeared in Icon, The Atlantic, McSweeney's, Mission at Tenth, and Volume Magazine. He lives in Toronto. He is @doingitwrong on Twitter.

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