The figure of the cyborg serves as a tool for imagining and critiquing the integration of life into digital processors. To invoke the cyborg is to critically consider the dreams and nightmares of a world where the human body cannot be disentangled from the machines it has created.
The term cyborg was coined by the cybernetic researchers Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960. The word combines ‘cybernetic’ with ‘organism’. And, in doing so, attempts to imagine the engineering of systems of feedback and control that would incorporate or be coextensive with the living body. Clynes and Kline were seeking solutions to the problems posed by the volume of information an astronaut must process as well as the environmental difficulties of space flight.
The cyborg is startling because it imagines the human body as entirely dependent on, or bound up with, the artificial life-support systems and atmospheres it creates. The space suit is one example, but so might be the smartphone – for many of us. I’m kind of joking, but I’m kind of not. Think of all the ways in which the smartphone is a space suit, an artificial life support system. We have created societies that are functionally dependent on digital media.
The concept of the cyborg is even more important though because of the way it was pulled out of the lab, and imagined by Donna Haraway as part of a socialist feminist critique of technocultural capitalism. Haraway is one of many to reckon with the question of what the creation of artificial intelligence and digital prostheses means for our bodies, and the possibility of their redundancy. Haraway’s 1985 Cyborg Manifesto has been described in Wired magazine as, ‘a mixture of passionate polemic, abstruse theory, and technological musing…it pulls off the not inconsiderable trick of turning the cyborg from an icon of Cold War power into a symbol of feminist liberation’. It made her a pivotal figure in the cyberfeminist movement. The essay sparkles with energy and originality, and more than thirty years later remains a critical one for anyone trying to think about the relations between our bodies, technology, capitalism and power.
The cyborg is both a ‘creature of social reality’, that is actual physical technology already in existence and a ‘creature of fiction’ or metaphorical concept to demonstrate ways in which high-tech culture challenges these dualisms as determinants of identity and society in the late twentieth century. The cyborg is a way of adressing the present and reclaiming the future. Haraway is critical of popular ‘new age’ or feminist discourses that arose out of Californian 60s counterculture that essentialise ‘nature’ and gender. ‘I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess," she proclaimed in an effort to reject the received feminist view that science and technology were patriarchal forms of domination that blighted some essential natural human experience.
As a socialist-feminist, Haraway pays particular attention to how a technocultural, science and information driven mode of capitalism reshapes human relationships, societies, and bodies. She proposes that feminists think beyond gender categories, rejecting in a sense the binary of ‘man’ and ‘woman’ as socially and historically constructed categories always bound up in relations of domination. For her, the cyborg is both a way of understanding how our bodies are becoming organism/machine hybrids, and a political category for articulating bodies outside of established modes of power that classified and controlled bodies using categories of gender, race, sexuality, and so on. Haraway echoed cybernetic ways of thinking, she was interested in how feminism might break down Western dualisms and forms of exceptionalism by taking on the critical insight that all of us – humans, animals, and ecology of the planet itself, intelligent machines were all communication systems.
Haraway’s cyborg aimed to ‘break through’ or challenge some of the foundational patriarchal cultural myths of the West, ‘the cyborg skips the step of original unity, of identification with nature in the Western sense’. Unlike the hopes of Frankenstein's monster, the cyborg does not expect its father to save it through a restoration of the garden; the cyborg must imagine, determine and program its own future. The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. And, in this sense, the cyborg contains the possibility of transcendence – of breaking down established categories used to mark and dominate bodies. With the cyborg we could start again – creating a body, and human experience, outside of patriarchal, militaristic, capitalist domination. For
Haraway, cyborgs as a construct resist traditional dualist paradigms, capturing instead the ‘contradictory, partial and strategic’ identities of the postmodern age. Haraway’s cyborg explodes traditional ‘dualisms’ or binaries that characterise Western thought, such as human/machine, male/female, mind/body, nature/culture and so on. In this she signals, ‘three crucial boundary breakdowns’ that lead to the cyborg.
First, by the late twentieth century, the boundary between human and animal is thoroughly breached. We can see this in animal rights activism, scientific research that demonstrates the many similarities in biology and intelligence between humans and other species, and the development of biomedical procedures that combine animals and humans. For instance, the human ear grown on a mouse. The cyborg as hybrid, is able to identify with both humans and animals. Furthermore, Haraway argues for the critical politics of humans recognizing their companionship with non-human species.
The second boundary breakdown is between living organism and machine. Haraway points out how earlier machines, ‘were not self-moving, self-designing, autonomous’. Computer assisted design, artificial intelligence and robotics had – by the late twentieth century however had collapsed the distinction between natural and artificial, mind and body, self-developing and externally designed. The capabilities of technology begin to mimic our personalities and surpass our abilities so that, as Haraway comments, ‘our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.’ Technological determinism does not necessarily guarantee the ‘destruction of ‘man’ by the ‘machine’ but rather as cyborgs our amalgamation with machines ensure our survival. Intelligent machines do not obliterate the human, the enhance, alter and transform them.
The third breakdown is between the physical and non-physical, material and immaterial, or real and virtual. This breakdown is evident in the ubiquity of microprocessors in contemporary life. The miniaturised nature of digital chips change our understanding of what a machine is. The microprocessor does not create objects as such, they are ‘nothing but signals, electromagnetic waves, a section of a spectrum, and these machines are eminently portable, mobile.’ Haraway argues then that, ‘a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet…From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines, not afraid of permanently partial identities and contradictory standpoints.’
A cyborg world is one where bodies are integrated into digital circuits in technical and cultural ways. In this process, it is no longer clear ‘who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine’, … ‘no longer clear what it mind and what body in machines that resolve into coding practices’. The distinction between machine and organism, of technical and organic becomes impractical, and perhaps even undesirable, to attempt. The embodied experience of those of us who live in today’s integrated digital circuits of smartphones, smart homes and biotechnologies know nothing other than a life lived within technocultural atmospheres sustained in part by the weaving of life into digital processors. We cannot leave them behind, we are posthuman in the sense that we are now knitted together with our artificial life support systems. That’s what a posthuman technoculture is. If we are cyborgs – part biology, part machine – then our bodies are the site where the power of digital media to engineer life operates. The body is the touchpoint between life itself and the power of digital technologies to shape life. The body is the interface where power expands, and where it might be jammed or rerouted.