What Are We?

This piece is part of Tim Maly's #50Cyborgs, a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the term “cyborg”, first used in print in September of 1960 in an article published by the newly formed NASA, discussing the possibility of adapting humans to space.  For the other posts in the series, see the 50 Cyborgs blog, or Tim's main blog, Quiet Babylon.

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The cyborg was supposed to be the ultimate in independence — that was the point, after all.  NASA gave us an image of (a) man as the solo explorer, unbound by any of the inconvenient limits of his current organic body, able to stride across limitless space.  This didn't change with fictional cyborgs — they became more explicitly war-​like but no less heroically independent.  With fiction, though, we got access to them as a prospective identity — you too could dream of being cyborg.

The cyborg was the ideal technocratic hero, the miracles of modern technology literally one with the flesh.  The timing of the coinage is especially interesting — the idea pushed into science fiction at the same time that the founding myths of the computer revolution were being constructed.  The cyborg became the new standard-​bearer for the romantic hero, rugged and independently changing the world.  The concept has wavered and shifted over the intervening time, but it's had a remarkable degree of influence and staying power.

Reflections of it show up in fascinating little flashes, as in the of-​the-​moment expression of digitally-​enabled lifestyle minimalism, so-​named Technomadism” by Sean Bonner of Boing Boing.  I think there's actually a much better model for this than the cyborg, but the cyborg is definitely there in the minimal and technical aesthetics of the idea — a pop culture shadow of the concept.

The cyborg is an augmented being, but the West has a history of hostility to augmentation — we get squeamish when an invisible line in the flesh is crossed.  The exception is when we construct augmentation as restoration — raising someone up to an imaginary normal is accepted without question.  We stop professional athletes from using substances that can improve performance, but accept laser eye surgery even when it gives them better than natural vision, because the palliative ritual of a medical condition has been observed.  As cyborgs become more visible and technology moves from the novel to the lab to the garage, will we tolerate more augmentation?  As augmentation becomes more understood and borders of the body are broken more often, will our understanding of 'normal’ broaden?  Will we feel less need to invent a malady for every new intervention?

If augmentation becomes normal, how will we think about our original bodies?  Will the cult of youthful 'natural’ perfection shift toward a collective desire for the perfect construct?  Will our bodies be workshops, kits of parts?  What about personal autonomy, outside of the sphere of medical influence?  In the current legal regime, you have more control over the average DRM-​loaded, warranty-​laden piece of electronics than over your own body — just try to take a scalpel to yourself!

The shift toward personal autonomy in physical modification may be driven as much by technological simplification and availability as by the desire for identity formation.  We already see many people rejecting natal biological determinism as the defining narrative of their identity, whether that means changing sexes, shifting appearances in response to social values (the vast cosmetic surgery industry), functional modifications like sixth-​sense magnetic implants, or simply decorating their skin.  These modifications, outside of the narrow category of cyborg, still constitute a shift in the means of identity creation.  At what point does an intervention change from 'simple’ plastic surgery to something else qualitatively different?

Pop culture influence aside, the cyborg has always represented the best and brightest of the military-​industrial complex — indeed, the two phrases originated only months apart, and share similar received connotations of unease.  The military-​industrial complex, Eisenhower's term for the warlike conglomeration of corporations influencing the world more than they should, and cyborgs, no-​longer-​quite-​human creatures whose very existence shows the degree to which the human body is porous and its limits frangible both breach the limits of the expected order of civil society and humanity.

The limits of humanity are a cultural object, just like any other kind of identity — humanity is a role we perform.  In these terms, the fact that your heart (replaced by a smooth-​running pump) no longer beats is far less important to your identity and your humanity than the way your interactions with the world are filtered and mediated.  The cybernetics that begot cyborgs was control theory applied to homeostasis, but it spread and shifted, most interestingly into the social sciences.  The scope of cybernetics that the cyborg embodied also shifted, and here the performance of humanity gets complicated, when conscious thought and decision-​making is abdicated to things not-​of-​us.  Here too, the decision to take on 'cyborg’ as an explicit identity, or the failure to notice that one has done so, is most important.

In the past fifty years there have been two information-​centric revolutions.  The first, the computer revolution, pushed us to digitize and quantize thought and led to model-​making as a fundamental worldview. This was a centralized, offline, and largely impersonal mentality.  Cyborgs, as part of this world (and to the extent that we can speak about actually existing cyborgs), could only exist as focal points for larger organizations.  The independence of cyborgs has always been mythological — like all technocratic nodes, they require a massive and varyingly invisible infrastructural grid to support them.  When applied to social cyborgs, this positions them as only an end-​effector.  They're I/O devices to a world of models and simulations which express the predetermined worldview of whatever large military-​industrial organization is responsible for ther technological maintenance.  In cyborg fiction, this becomes one of the central conflicts, where the still-​human fragments fight against the purely machine parts representing the physical will of the larger grid, an internal struggle for the decency and mercy of humanity.

Our second revolution is the ongoing revolution of the network.  It's perhaps an exaggeration to speak in terms of revolutions as such; the reality is more blended, but the shift is still distinct.  Where we had centralized models explicitly encoding a dominant mindset, we now have a networked emergence with no coherent model.  Instead, every sub-​group of individuals has their own set of shared and shifting understandings of the world, bound together by protocol.  Large organizational interests still play a part, defining, influencing, or undermining protocols and extracting revenue, but in fundamentally different ways.

In the popular imagination, a cyborg carries all of its hardware around on its person — a head full of chips, maybe a conveniently portable “deck”, a la Gibson's Neuromancer, plugged into a socket at the base of the skull.  Keeping all of your mental prostheses in a data center somewhere in the cloud doesn't make you any less of a cyborg, though, nor does accessing them by more expedient means — the real point of difference is that your basic view of the world is mediated, altered.

The modern face of the military doesn't look like a classical cyborg either, even as we come closer to fulfilling the original vision.  Instead, we see the military trying to keep up with insurgent networks so loosely organized that calling them a single adversary seems like a failure to comprehend the modern battlefield.  In return, the Western military, especially the US, tries to push more machine intelligence into the individual soldier, without giving up on a hierarchical command structure.  They're getting smarter about it though, trying to flatten out the way information moves around on the battlefield — less tree, more network; less model, more emergence.  Alternately, they flip things around entirely, fielding constructs that are mostly robot but outsource some small portion of their intelligence and their morals to a human in a cubicle, the human's situational awareness entirely driven by the network.

When you take up some simple task — picking which restaurant to go to tonight, say — you may bring an array of technology to bear on the problem that the cyberneticist of the 60's never dreamed of.  Moreover, you do it largely unconsciously, either through habit or through simple unawareness.  If you ask Google a question, you get a set of answers that's based on what they know about you, who you know, and what Google knows about them.  You don't see this filtering, and you have little insight into it even if you go hunting.  When you examine the total process, both front and back end, this is a fundamental change in how you thing, how you perform humanity.  The order that information is presented to you in a search acts as a filter on your perception of and interaction with reality, and on the choices that you see as available and that you make.  There are control loops involved, based on what you tell Google, what you do, and what else Google observes.  This is the definition of a cybernetic process.  Add enough of them up, integrate them tightly enough into your identity and your interactions with the world, and you've definitely become a cyborg.

Maybe.

Your cyborg-​nature is an emergent property and it's a shared collective identity, different for you than it is for everyone else, but shared in facets among your friends, among people like you, too, your personal meme-​space and set of filters.  We're moving further and further in this direction — every object we can imagine is starting to relate to us, to integrate into our data cloud, from our cars to our toasters to our jeans.  Even the media that we put out into the world can be seen as an extension of our cyborg bodies — see Robin Sloan's piece on Snarkmarket about the media body of Kanye West.  Network culture is a shared space, a place of both production and consumption, almost interchangeably, even as corporate interests bear down on it.  We are getting so good at building our own personal worlds, our in-​groups and sub-​cultures, and the technology of network culture allows us such a more effective isolation that there is cause to worry that not only may the possibility of a shared mass culture have passed, but that the most recent rise of fundamentalism and network culture may be more than accidentally co-existent.  We may not be losing the capability to relate across cultural divides, but we may increasingly have less reason to do so.

The sudden explosion of interest in DIY and craft production is in part a reflection of the rise of network culture in material goods.  Mass-customization in lean industrial manufacturing certainly reflects the same kind of logic, and the explosion of small, well-networked producers is similar.  The latter can be seen as a reification of older, pre-industrial production means, but the reality of it is anything but; if nothing else, the movement has yet to come to terms with the necessarily industrial nature of production or arrived at the understanding that the core of what makes 'handmade’ goods important is variation and personal customization, that ethical production should be supported but not by trying to push network-age factories back into cottage crafting.  As the craft movement continues to gain popularity and new production technologies, like 3D printing, make personalization easier, it will be apparent that this is all the consumptive/productive reflection of the identity of a collected and interlinked but not collectivized public.

Inside our cultural silos, none of us stands alone any more, even to the degree that we ever did, without our social contexts, our infrastructure, and our connections.  So why does the cyborg still hold so much draw for us?  If our culture isn't something that we can carry with us as individuals but rather is shared among our network, why do we cling to a romantic, independent hero as an icon?  We're shifting from identity culture to affinity culture, a politics of personal cultural bricolage, repurposing odd bits of history, remixing them into our lives, outsourcing our choices and decisions to a shared statistical model of who we are, and we're all doing this together.  Each of us maps in different parts of this pool of collective culture, and we gather around constantly shifting strange attractors that briefly illuminate collections of individuals and give us something we can hang a name on.

The Borg, from Star Trek, are the emblematic cyborg collective, but they're really nothing like a proper network-​culture cyborg clustering — they're a single executive intelligence, a single unified will.  Rather, the network culture that we live in is (will be) some seven billion individual wills, shifting and pushing, aligning and fracturing.  None of us exists independent of the others, none of us can be separated from the others — in Buddhist terms, dependent co-arising.  Of course, this is and has always been true, at every level of the world — isolated, independent models can't actually be made fully real.  As our cultural iteration speed and density of interlinking increase (even if we filter as often as link), the unavoidability of interdependence becomes more obvious.

We don't yet have an architecture that properly reflects this new way of being ourselves.  Especially in the West, we are ever more physically mobile as a species, but also likely to fly around the world without ever leaving our subcultures.  We need a built environment that both supports transient humanity, in the deep sense, and provides cultural agoras.  We have the architectures of non-​places, locationless branded spaces, server farms, airports, and hotel rooms, but these places rarely let us perform 'human’, not in the way we know we should be able to.  The meeting places we have, when they are most human, are often also most strongly supportive of our sub-​cultural isolation.  Can we take this understanding of ourselves as a constellation of social connections and push it back into the built environment, to allow us to flow through the world in the context of a mobile, ad-​hoc, interchangeable environment which avoids the no-​place, which lets us keep our humanity, however we perform it?

What's going to happen when we push more and more of our decisions into the cloud, into the network?  Will we, some day, outsource our personal judgment on deeper matters?  Questions that fifty years ago, when cyborgs where new, we would only have asked very close friends, we now ask of strangers on the Internet.  What will it mean for the performance of humanity if it becomes reasonable to, for instance, ask a statistical cultural cloud-​model if you should cheat on your partner, or if you really want to have children right now?

In this future, we may still be human, but do we understand where our boundaries are, anymore?  If the physical boundary of our skin is no more important than the edges of our data cloud, do we really know where our self ends and our infrastructure begins, or where we end and our closest friends begin?  Moreover, does it matter?

We need a new word for our new way of being augmented; a word that recognizes that our interconnection runs deep and that we are closer to mist in a cloud than star-​ranging self-​contained heroes.  A word that grants us our accreted identity and our personal performance of humanity, and maybe lets us feel cool while we do it.  We're not all cyborgs any more, we're something else.  What are we?

Eleanor Saitta
Brooklyn, 2010.09.17
ella at sldrc dot com / @dymaxion
Editing by Ari Lacenski