In this post we are examining the cybercultural experience of the body and the futurological representation of the transhumanism of the cyborg, android and robot with regards to the experience of identity and the notion of presence and absence.
We consider the cyborg as a contemporary figure, unlike gothic monsters like the vampire or werewolf, or the modern horror of the zombie, the cyborg offers new meaning to the concept of humanity and community.
A cyborg, is a ‘cybernetic organism’, a being with both organic and mechanical components. The term was first coined by research scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, in 1960, who proposed altering the human body of astronauts to suit extraterrestrial environments, rather than attempting to make earthly environments in space.
A cyborg is not a robot or an android.
Androids are humanoid robots. They are entirely synthetic organism’s which are built to replicate humanity. Science fiction androids, like Commander Data from Star Trek: The Next Generation, are often represented as completely self-aware, sapient and sentient robots, who emulate and replicate human behaviour.
Karel Čapek’s introduced the word ‘robot’ in the science fiction play R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots) in 1920, although these robots were organic and not mechanical.
A robot is a programmable machine capable of autonomous and complex action. Humanoid robots became known as androids in The Cometeers, two novels by American author Jack Williams, originally published in the science fiction magazine in 1936 and 1929.
The term ‘droid’ became popular following the debut of Star Wars in 1978 and is now used to indicate non-humanoid robots with human-like characteristics, like R2-D2 and BB8.
Androids are often confused with cyborgs in science fiction movies. The replicants in Blade Runner (1982) and Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep (1968), for example, are not cyborgs but bioengineered synthetic humans, and therefore androids.
Cyborgs are commonly featured in science fiction and cyberculture, some of the most famous include the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the Borg from Star Trek, and Darth Vader from Star Wars.
These popular culture representations of cyborgs often obscure the long historical relationship between human and the machine.
Long before the pacemaker or Cochlear implant, humans have used lenses to improve vision and hearing aids to augment the naturally deteriorating senses. Since the earliest innovations in leatherworking and metalworking, humans have been replacing limbs with attachments in order to artificially regain some of the lost function.
Historically, humans have always been cyborgs. Using pens, pencil and paper to extend our memory, using brushes and pigments to extend our creativity, using thread and needles to extend our ingenuity. Today we use mobile phones to extend our speech, computers to extend the computation powers of the mind, and the Internet and satellites to compress the time and space dimensions of the globe. Buildings, roads, engines, wiring, sewage systems, are all central technologies of the cybernetic world of our existence.
Cyborgs and the body
The body has a relationship to the real and the virtual, one that is often called the ‘meat’ in the cyberpunk imagining. Overcoming the meat, and promoting the ideas of fluidity in race, gender and reality are important concepts in cyberpunk fiction that involve the cyborg: take, for example, the very strong link between body and identity in the story, if not the movie, written by William Gibson, Johnny Mnemonic and published in 1981.
Johnny has a surgically implanted digital storage device in his head – he calls himself a “technical boy”. Another character Molly Millions is the female protagonist, with surgically implanted blades in her fingers and mirrored lenses implanted over her eyes.
Non-human cyborg Jones, is an ex-military dolphin, who is directly wired into the internet and uses machines to communicate. Other cyborg characters like the Magnetic Dog Sisters and the Lo-Tek mix tech with biotech and elect for animal implants like teeth.
One of the key elements of cyberpunk fiction is this kind of effortless boundary crossing, moving between what makes us human, animal or machine. The implantation of storage device, or a replacement of the eyes: does it make you more machine-like and less human or something more than either a machine or a human?
Are we becoming machine-enhanced humans, or are we making human-enhanced machines?
Does it make sense to talk of the ‘natural’ world if all technology, and all that humans do, is an extension of the organism’s ‘natural’ abilities, processes and functions? The boundaries crossed in cyberpunk depend on binary dualism, human and the machine, human and the animal, the real and the unreal, the digital and the analogue, but we don’t have to be limited to such a model.
This conceptual system can be more easily challenged today, more than it was possible in the past, whether you are looking at medicine and the implantation of the animal and the machine in the human, whether it is a pig artery or a 3D-printed heart valve.
Do these procedures make us more, less or different to the baseline idea of human? Gender reassignment surgery is also more common due to these advances in medical science. How similar or different is becoming a gender, to becoming a cyborg?
Cyberpunk is interested in this domain of uncertainty, and often displays a wide interest in almost all types of body modification from tattooing and piercing to hardware augmentation and weaponry.
In the West, by the early 1990s, biohacking, from plastic surgery to gene therapy, had become a realistic technology, and like technofetishism, where the individual fetishises and obsesses over an object of technology, plastic surgery and cosmetic alterations to the body became more common: cindyjackson.com. Michael Jackson was one of the most prominent celebrities to embrace cosmetic changes, making himself look progressively more androgynous through body modification.
Now we see the transhumanist movement, experimenting with the practical dimensions of being cyborg, like how to take care of an implanted antenna.
Cyberculture has an interest in understanding the psychological and philosophical nature of identity formation. To begin we must reject the previously held notion that human identity is fixed, stable and above all singular. The modernist notion of identity is questioned through postmodernism and by individual users creating themselves anew as they begin to explore the online experience of cyberculture.
Is the real stable, does your identity stay the same? Think of how your identity changes over time, from being a 5-year-old to being a 15-year-old and what you might be in terms of your identity as a 50-year-old.
These kinds of trends in thinking became popular in the latter part of the twenty century and were taken up by great enthusiasm, by French theorist, Jean Baudrillard, who argued that for people living in the late 20th century, the postmodern experience of the world was of one of the perspectives governed by media. He argued that we see and understand the world through mediated communication rather than directly by touch and sight. People understand the world through television, cinema, and now the web and his essay on the first Gulf War, The Gulf War did not take place, argues that the understanding of the conflict around the world was entirely based on media reports and it bore little connection of the actual experience of the soldiers on the ground or the civilians who were being affected by the fighting.
Baudrillard’s 1981 book, Simulacra and Simulation, in which he explores the relationship between the media and culture, through the concepts of signs and symbols, heavily influence the Wachowski’s thinking in The Matrix (1996). Simulacra are signs that do not have an original referent, a picture of a unicorn for example, or Disneyland, which becomes hyperreal, an imagining of the world that is more real than real.
We see this phenomenon all the time, people will often choose to mediate an experience even in real time rather than experience the moment directly: parents do this when attending a child’s performance. It’s especially clear when a tablet device is employed or a phone and the parent experiences the event through the act of recording it, and most likely sharing it via social media. The act of watching, becomes the performance of the child mediated by the identity-forming act of sharing content online. We are already cyborgs mediating the reality of experience in order to be able to relate to it.
Baudrillard complicates the understanding of the “real” in mass media and points to the proliferation of pranks, spoofs, and the mockumentary as a deliberate obfuscation of the previously rigid notions of the real and the performance of a hyperreal (see This is Spinal Tap).
Fast food advertisments are another good example of the hyperreal, as most employed food artists to create perfectly fake versions of menu items.
Television producers made an artform out of Baudrillard’s concept of hyperreality with shows like Big Brother and Survivor, in which the real is formatted as social relations captured as a part of a series of very carefully selected individuals participating in carefully managed and recorded sociological tests, experiments and interactions for the purpose of television content. Drama is magnified and interpersonal conflicts become the ‘reality’ of an artificially created bubble of mediated reality.
Postmodernism made the questioning of reality a popular pastime, it also introduced and popularised the notion of the hybrid, like the cyborg – which dates back to the mid-20th century, and is prominent in the 1980s with Blade Runner, Robocop and perhaps most recently with Iron Man, Ant-Man, the Vision and others in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Cyberculture and gender
Criticism of cyberculture, especially from feminism in the early nineties largely considered that new media technologies and their representation in popular culture were typically fixated on masculine ideas of interactivity, design, function and engineering, that they expanded the objectification of women and were used to exert dominion and power over other genders and races.
Like any good academic discourse, these views were explored in detail with constructive new concepts and accounts being proposed by writers like Donna Haraway.
In, “A Cyborg Manifesto” (1985), linked as a reading in the Moodle site this week, Haraway took on the idea of the cyborg to think about what it might mean for humans in the future. She argued against essentializing notions of 19070s feminism and criticised the binary understandings of the world and our use of polar opposites (male/female, machine/human, dead/alive) to understanding the reality of our world.
Binary systems see everything in pairs, man/woman, child/adult, immature/mature, sexual/asexual, gay/straight, life/death, us/them. Haraway employed the cyborg as a heuristic metaphor in order to overcome these binary distinctions. She saw that the cyborg operates as a key figure, neither alive or dead, neither a human or non-human, woman or machine, artificial or male, biological or infinite. Until Haraway, the representation of the cyborg in the seventies, eighties and nineties was very much like the zombie in the twenty-teens. They were seen only in terms of representing popular fears, especially of being replaced in the workplace by autonomous machines.
The cyborgs in Johnny Mnemonic have implants that help process data faster, store large amounts of information, increase strength and reaction times. The characters and their interactions between the organic and mechanic parts of their body influence everything; memories, thoughts and feelings, decisions and even their understanding of reality.
Haraway suggested that we should take pleasure in the crossing of boundaries, to embrace the monstrous figure of the cyborg. The ‘monstrous’ and the monster, argues Haraway, defines the limit of community and places those who are not like us, as being outside our community. The cyborg, like the zombie, is us, but it is also different and changed.By giving these figures monstrous labels, we ostracize and place them outside that which we claim represents us, we make them Other.
Haraway argues that the cyborg is not a traditional monster, because the cyborg it is not a man, or a woman, not a machine or a person, not dead or alive. The cyborg is different to other monsters because it is not from mythological or supernatural origins like the vampire or the werewolf. She argues that the cyborg and it’s machine qualities are a logical extension of the types of devices that we use in the every day, and thus evades the typical Western dualist ways of thinking and classification.
A similar idea is expressed in the ‘Manifesto for Cyborgs’ (Haraway 1985 p.180):
“Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein’s monster”, which it can be argued is more akin to the android of science fiction, “the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden, that is, through the fabrication of a heterosexual mate, through its completion in a finished whole, a city and a cosmos. The cyborg does not dream of community on the model of an organic family… . The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden: it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.”
For Haraway, just as it was for Vannevar Bush, Marshall McLuhan and other cyberneticists and cybertheorists, the machine expands the ways in which we think. It does not change what we think, but it helps us to make new connections, new leaps and new associations. For Haraway, the cyborg does not dream of community; it is outside of communal thinking, because it is no longer human, it has an affinity for networks, but is not human or machine, it is not natural or unnatural but both, it is something new.
The cyborg is a model in Haraway’s thinking for the future of humanity, one which leads to a different attitude toward biological, digital and mechanical technologies. It no longer makes sense to distinguish between wearing glasses, using contacts, have surgical operations, having cornea implants and having a bionic eye, they are all points of transition on the way to the cyborg.
Haraway goes further, to suggest that the cyborg is also a way to escape the binary configurations of gender and its biological limitations.
The cyborg according to Haraway is an ambiguous technological arrangement, an artefact which disturbs the boundaries between cultures, genders, races, the organic and the artificial and a figure which collapses temporal and spatial distinctions, because it is both human and machine.
Read: Haraway’s ‘ A cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist- Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century, in Haraway 1991: 149-181
Further recommend sources: Bladerunner (1982), Bladerunner 2049 (2017), Robocop (1987), iRobot (2004), Black Mirror: Be Right Back S2:E1.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep by Philip. K. Dick (1968)