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I still don’t know what a cyborg is…

by on December 12, 2012

During the lecture on Friday, I know we talked extensively about what should and what shouldn’t be classified as a cyborg. But to be honest, I wasn’t really that sure by the end so I wanted to look at it a bit more extensively.

There are multiple definitions for what a cyborg is:

‘[it]is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as one of fiction’ (Donna Haraway 1991:149)

‘the melding of the organic and the machinic , or the engineering of a union between separate organic systems’ (Gray, Mentor and Figuero-Sarriera in Gray 1995: 2)

‘a self-regulating human-machine system’ (Featherstone and Burrows 1995:2).

As well as Gabriella Giannachi’s theory that “any of us who have an artificial organ, have artificial limbs or pacemakers, have been programmed to resist disease through immunisation, or even wear glasses or hearing aids” are cyborgs. A definition which caused a lot of discussion, and I agreed with the opinion of many in the class, that if even the most simple of aids, such a glasses, then surely what is the point of the term cyborg because every human becomes cyborg and the two terms become synonymous, and essentially one becomes useless.

Another definition I found came from my google chrome add-on dictionary: ‘A fictional or hypothetical person whose physical abilities are extended beyond normal human limitations by mechanical elements built into the body’

All of the definitions above are similar but have subtle differences , so it’s clear that there are some subtleties between peoples definitions. I was curious as to how far these subtleties go and so did the thing we all do and googled “cyborgs” (creative solution, I know).

Once you get past the wikipedia answer, and the star wars pages, there are so many news articles and science-y people talking about cyborgs around today and it helps to begin to shed some light on what the general opinion of a cyborg is.

One of the first articles I found was from wired.co.uk called “Practical Transhumanism: five living cyborgs”, (http://www.wired.co.uk/news/archive/2012-09/04/cyborgs) and it looks at people who live today as what the author would define as a cyborg. All the people in the article are people who have had a piece of robotics attached to their body as a replacement aid to something they have lost. Another thing that all these replacement aids have in common is that they are all working, and useful. For example he talks of Jesse Sullivan who has had a robotic arm built in to his shoulder that works through a connection to his nervous system which allows him to use this arm purely by thinking about doing so. Another example he uses is Kevin Warwick, a leading cybernetics professor who inserted a chip into his arm which allowed him to control electrical items in his surrounding area, such as turning lights on and off and open doors without touching them.

This article particularly interested me, because all of the machine components that are combined with human are robotic or electronic, which sort of goes against the idea that even wearing glasses makes you a cyborg. What’s more, all of the examples he uses have a use; helping people to move normally, and continue with every day things, except for Kevin Warwick’s chip, which is just something cool he’s added on to himself, but does still have uses.

Another site I looked at was from TED.com, a website which posts videos about new and exciting ideas in science and how science works and develops. This particular video caught my attention in particular because of something I mentioned in the lecture. I asked what the presentation group thought about the idea that we could all be cyborgs because of our dependence on the internet and sites like facebook. It was quite clear that by adding a piece of machinery onto a human made a cyborg, but what about adding human onto machinery (in this case the internet)? Does cyborg-creation work both ways? Amber Case seems to think so in this video: http://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now.html

She says that previously, humans have used tools as an extension of the physical self, initially with things like hammers, but nowadays with things like robotic arms etc, but now we use tools as an extension of our mental self, through the use of mobile phones and the internet. She raises an interesting point that if we were to lose all of these extensions of ourself, for example, all the masses of information we store on the internet and on our phones, then we would feel like we were missing a part of ourselves… like we were missing a limb… do you see where I’m going with this? She touches on so many points that all point back to the idea that we put so much of ourselves on the internet and we get so obsessed with what is on the internet, that it can create a “second-self”, a version of ourselves, on the internet, a version, that is essentially part human part robot.

I class when I raised this point the main response that I got was that because it wasn’t a physical being, it doesn’t count as a cyborg. I disagree, none of the definitions I found imply that there has to be a physical being for there to be a cyborg. Giannachi also makes a point in her book that would support this idea: “One cyborg does not necessarily correspond to either one body or one agency. Moreover, cyborgs are flexible, incomplete and fragmentary creatures”

However, one point of definition for a cyborg that could argue against what I’ve said, is that for this combination of human and machine has to be somewhat permanent; Orlan’s implants and surgery are permanent, never fully reversible; Jesse Sullivan’s arm is permanent in terms of the fact that if he wants to use his arm, he has to have this robotic attachment.

This suggests that by “riding a bike” or “wearing a bluetooth headset” we’re not becoming cyborgs, we’re just making life easier for a short amount of time with a temporary machine aid.

But even given this argument, I think it could be quite easily counter-argued that a huge proportion of our society are attached permanently to phones and the internet. So many people in 1st world societies depend utterly upon the use of virtual technology (emails, texts, skype) in order to continue with the life we have become accustomed to.

So after all that? What do I define as a cyborg? Well I think the definitions I’ve given, are comprehensive. However, I would add the idea that a cyborg does not have to be a physical entity but that there does need to be some sort of permanent attachment between human and machine.

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