Cybernetic organism, or in short: cyborg. Although a merging of technology and the human body, it always strikes me how cold, industrial and complex the term sounds. Born during the Cold War in an article about how to suite the human body for research into space, the discourse around the cyborg emphasized for a long time the technological side, while the ‘fleshy-ness’ or human part disappeared in the background.
The image of a cyborg as a kind of robot, with the technology clearly visible on the outside, coming from out of space and safely tucked away in the science fiction genre prevailed – the famous Terminator is a perfect example. Although Donna Haraway famously wrote in her essay, a few years after the release of the first Terminator-movie, that actually a lot of people have in one way or the other technology in their body and so can be called cyborgs as well, there was still a certain distance. The image of the cyborg was uneasy, and by tucking it away there could remain the border between technology and us could remain.
Nowadays, that border has blurred. The cyborg has come to daily life. Everyday we are surrounded by images of man merging into machines. In commercials, a man changes within a time span of less than a minute into a car, or cars into humans. And the queen of transformation, pop singer Lady Gaga, even chose to appear on the cover of her latest album as half human, half motorcycle. Not only has the image of the cyborg become much more frequent in our visual culture, it has also changed appearance. According to Dutch cultural scientist, Anneke Smelik, next to the image of the early so-called hard-ware cyborg, there is a new image of the wetware cyborg, where technology literally happens under our skin and fuses with the intelligence of the computer rather than with the force of a metallic machine. The cyborg as extension of our mental self, striking similar to the way we use a computer, or telephone… isn’t it?
We are cyborgs now and we are comfortable with that label. It’s not, in the words of the famous feministic philosopher Julia Kristeva, something abject which refers to the human anxiety reaction to a threatening breakdown in meaning caused by the loss of distinction between self and other, or inside and outside. Anneke Smelik even states that the abject nowadays is in the other end: the border between man and animal. With hairlessness as a beauty ideal in many realms of contemporary culture from sports to fashion to pornography to commercials, the boundary between man and animal is firmly reinforced while at the same time the border between man and machine blurs. And so the mental comfort we experience with the cyborg image is also found in our physical appearance which according to Smelik indicates a desire to become machine.
So cyborgs have not only merged into daily life, but also into our desires. Where does that come from? The ideal concept that in the cyborg we can overcome human limitations seems obvious, but also a bit unsatisfactory because while this ambition has not changed since the introduction of the cyborg, our attitude has. In her TED-talk Amber Case offers a refreshingly alternative: we use the technology of our cyborgness not to overcome human nature, but to enhance it. It offers us as social beings more possibilities to connect with other people. And so nowadays, the emphasis is less on the technological part and much more on the human side of the cyborg. In becoming-machine, in becoming-cyborg, we are becoming more human than ever.
This blogpost is also published on TedxAmsterdam