The Emancipated Cyborg


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.

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.

'Cyborg' needs to mean something. The function of the word is to reframe a debate. A world made up of cleanly divided subjects and objects or of clear lines between the natural and technological is a very different place from one made up of messy hybrid overlaps and strange fuzzy-cloud identities. We can meaningfully say that everyone's a cyborg while using 'cyborg' as a conceptual artifact to hold up and examine for clues.

Food theorist Jonah Campbell (who argues that The Terminator is not a cyborg) thinks this is important.

Part of why I think cyborgs are interesting, why they are interesting to us, culturally, is how they play on our anxieties about the human, and about the unity/disruption of the human body. The biggest question on the mind of every cyborg and every person who is afraid of cyborgs is "how many augmentations before they're no longer human?" How does that happen? How does one cease to be human?

Perhaps a related question is, 'how does one begin to be a cyborg?' Architectural designer Stephen Becker turns our attention to the strange phenomenon of fake cyborgs - people dressing up as cyborgs in a time when we're all already cyborgs.

Cyborg month has made a compelling case that it's difficult to not be a cyborg. Problem is, none of us look terribly like cyborgs - like what we want cyborgs to look like. This paradox has lead to cyborgs trying to look more like cyborgs by faking it.

Consider steampunks, cyborg jewellery, headline grabbing non-functional implants, and other artistic and rhetorical moves that people undertake to make an argument (or live out a fantasy). In a speech given earlier this year, author Bruce Sterling makes a similar point.

If, for instance, you think the future should offer 'personal space flight' - perhaps you are an enthusiast for that? - why don't you just dress up as an astronaut? Just invent the whole thing, just go out and carry it onto the streets! Just invent the Jeff Bezos Blue Origin spacecraft, make your own spacecraft suitcases, spacecraft astronaut gear. Yes, you will look ridiculous. But by what standard? By what standard can you be held to be ridiculous? Why not just go and make yourself a personal public testimony for a future that doesn't exist? Why not just carry it out with a kind of Gandhian dedication, and see what happens?

There's that emancipatory language again. By transforming yourself, you can transform the world. By having a cyborg dress-up party, you could reboot the race to the stars.

Writer Quinn Norton notes that while Clynes and Kline were contemplating astronauts taking drugs in space, a very real organizational complex was being exogenously extended on earth, one month at a time.

A hostile environment was being tamed by a newly and artificially capable people. It escaped notice and critique though, because the modified weren't men, and then environment wasn't space. The modified were women, and the environment was men. The women of the 60s were the first to modify and control their uteruses. (Yes, menfolk, you can be a pretty brutal environment.) Two years before the We Will Go to the Moon speech, Enovid, the first birth control pill, hit the market. The IUD came into its own in 1968 with the copper T, the year before we landed on the moon. While the Jetsons were giving us a space future to look at, the heirs of Margaret Sanger were quietly destroying the social institution it portrayed. And for all the attention and resources the Space Race consumed, and it consumed a world, the world was changed by the women freed from the tyranny of biology and no longer (as) subject to the whims of men.

The cyborg is a figure of emancipation. We see cyborgs freed to subsist on a wider range of food, freed to communicate with millions of people, freed to explore the cosmos, freed to have a family and career at the time of their choosing.

These sorts of freedoms do not come without cost. As automated enhancements liberate us from one kind of slavery, they bind us to another. We've developed an entire infrastructure of systems that leave women and men free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel. And we've created a class of beings that depend on those same systems to explore, to create, to think, and to feel.

Norton argues that 'cyborg' hasn't grown up. It doesn't encompass the full range of weird entities that have proliferated in the 21st Century.

It seems like the discussion of cyborgs in the time since 1960, echoing the discussion of robotics, bounced between news of DARPA and DARPA-like Sci-fi projects none of us will ever really see and Critiques on how We'd All Been Cyborgs, Really, Since We First Picked Up Sticks. I want a middle ground. I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do.
We need new language to talk about the shit we don't see. Cyborg is a start, but it was coined by the very forces of big phallic rocket male domination that cyborgs were about to fuck up in the darkened alleys of the collected consciousness. Like, that day. We need language that lets us talk about the terrorism of little changes. Be they good or bad, they are terrible in aggregate.

Fifty years on, we've barely made it off the planet, but there's been a veritable second Cambrian explosion of cybernetic-organisms. Explosives detonated by text message, legs that run on bluetooth, insects that are spybots, killer planes flown by game controllers, plants that tweet their thirst, buildings with opinions, APIs that direct humans, printers that make car parts, phones that are computers, robots that drive marathons on Mars.

It is terrifying to find a place in all of this. We feel no closer to knowing who we are and even less certain about where we fit. io9's Editor-in-Chief Annalee Newitz thinks this explains the proliferation of cyborg love stories.

Consider that some of the most powerful human/cyborg relationships occur in the Terminator and Battlestar Galactica franchises, both about violent robot rebellions. Cyborg romance is the flip side of the robot uprising. Our mechanical creations love us instead of nuking us from orbit. The fantasy here isn't about making it with a hot fembot. It's about wanting approval from our children, wanting them to grow up without obliterating us.

In these apocalypses, there is emancipation. The machines are freeing themselves. We do not know if they are crawling out of our fantasies or our nightmares. We rely on them. We do not know if they need us. This is the biological anxiety voiced in Philip K Dick's 1968 question, "Do androids dream of electric sheep?" All along, it's been the humans that dream electric.

Images: 1. Tim Maly; 2. Kanye West at VMAs; 3. flickr/chronographia.