Monthly Archives: September 2010

50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.


(This is a post for Tim Maly’s #50cyborgs project, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the word cyborg entering the language. He starts the project here, and collects it here.

For a sense of place to my moment, I will tell you I am on a wireless keyboard, swinging on a homemade swing on the first floor in the three story high living room of the person that would be my it’s complicated on Facebook if I had a Facebook.

My computer itself is on the second floor. As I type these words into the air I have no way of knowing for sure that they are not ephemeral, nothing to confirm my progress and therefore distract me from my thoughts. I strongly suspect that for all the weirdness of the moment, they are (in fact) among the least ephemeral words penned by mankind, the majority of which are lost to the vagaries of mulberry bark and vellum, then paper, then pre-web computing.

We are sitting in a maker/artist community in a converted factory in Oakland called the Vulcan, one of the many ground zeros for the Maker movement. We are positively surrounded by burners and recently returned from Burning Man ourselves, where we spent a week in the desert pouring our own and our society’s resources into a weeklong art festival and dance party, which is meant to vanish without a trace shortly after Labor Day.

He (the Facebook “it’s complicated”) is playing an xbox game where little cartoon zombies trundle into his yard trying to eat his brain while he quickly plants transgenic killer plants (with eyes) that do things like shoot giant peas at them. It’s called Plants vs Zombies. It’s very popular right now, taping into the historical moment’s zeitgeist of anxieties. After all, in an automated society that consumes knowledge workers, what’s a better symbol than a shambling soulless throng that wants to eat your mind and make you irrevocably one of them? As for the transgenic killer plants on the perfectly manicured American backyard lawn as tower defense, that’s so rife with cultural suggestion I get dizzy at the thought of looking too closely. And, to be honest, a touch nauseous.

So in a way, I feel whatever I can tell you about the extraordinariness of the cyborg might be a bit mooted by the strangeness of our present moment. If we’ve learned anything in the last 50 years, it’s definitely that there’s more that one way to skin the culture’s collective cat.)

The early vision of the cyborg was about man changing himself in preparation for his rocket age. It was about “the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space,” according to Wikipedia, right now. Man would add to and modify the body to make the impossible doable, to ease the way into an environment of extreme hostility. It was all bionic arms and lungs and artificial exo and edo skeletons, powered jump suits and then brain computer interfaces as we went on talking about it. But the Space age was DOA, it never really made the changes we’d dreamed up, and by the time my post-moon generation was growing up in the 70s and 80s, it was all looking like a wash.

But a cyborg revolution was happening the same year Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline coined the term. A hostile environment was being tamed by a newly and artificially capable people. It escaped notice and critique though, because the modified weren’t men, and then environment wasn’t space. The modified were women, and the environment was men. The women of the 60s were the first to modify and control their uteruses. (Yes, menfolk, you can be a pretty brutal environment.)

Two years before the We Will Go to the Moon speech, Enovid, the first birth control pill, hit the market. The IUD came into its own in 1968 with the copper T, the year before we landed on the moon. While the Jetsons were giving us a space future to look at, the heirs of Margaret Sanger were quietly destroying the social institution it portrayed. And for all the attention and resources the Space Race consumed, and it consumed a world, the world was changed by the women freed from the tyranny of biology and no longer (as) subject to the whims of men.

Over 100 million women worldwide are probably using an IUD right now, though it’s really hard to count that kind of thing. Each is mechanically modified to invisibly control biology with near perfect success. It’s the most popular form of reversible birth control, though the number of women using IUDs is still smaller than the number of women sterilized, made forever into unmothers-to-be by surgery that otherwise leaves them strong, healthy, and invisibly different. Last citation I could find estimated 138 million women sterilized in the developing world, millions more in the OECD. Yet millions more are using pills, sponges, creams, gewgaws, doodads and even female condoms to exist in a world full of fucking and no particular desire to shoulder an equal burden of childrearing afterwards.

And then, in the last 50 years, women got seriously uppity. “Cyborgs not only disrupt orderly power structures and fixed interests but also signify a challenge to settled politics, which assumes that binary oppositions or identities are natural distinctions.” – ripped from context, but you can google it with the quotes intact. What single bit of technology has changed society more in so short a time? She looks so innocently fuckable, but what cyborgs were so quickly ubiquitous, and so invisible?

I don’t think we’ll ever notice the age of cyborgs, because we do these things one at a time. We roll them out in small ways, and increment them across society. We quietly piece together a know-everything machine, make its connections invisible, then put it in a small box we built as a talk-to-anyone-machine, and carry it around with us. (The first and ultimate prosthetic of the species being community, and so our most powerful magics will always be incantations to one another.) We hand out drugs to everyone that make them more ready for capitalism as a warm, tasty beverage. While we talk about powersuits and armies of robots, we get into metal boxes next to explosion chambers and extend our proprioception to their edges. We do this so that we can then hurtle down ribbons of death we’ve built all around the landscape at speeds not naturally found very often this side of celestial interaction. We call this commuting and consider it one of the most boring things humans do.

An Aside

(Despite all my cyborgian features and posthuman ways, my augmented senses and depleted neurotransmitters, my postmodern sexuality and self-conscious interaction with my environment, I still have to remove the waste of bacteria from my mouth by scraping it off with a soft brush and a thin string. I still have to remember to pull the string below the gumline on both sides of each tooth everyday of my life. I’m king of annoyed that I can have a phone with GPS and even an interface to countless mechanical turks, I can have a Northpaw and I can control my fertility, I can fly anywhere in hours with money I don’t have on a plastic card and be merely contracting rather than earning or stealing, but I have to scrape my teeth in an ever losing battle to keep them, still. I mean, seriously, WTF?)

It seems like the discussion of cyborgs in the time since 1960, echoing the discussion of robotics, bounced between news of DARPA and DARPA-like Sci-fi projects none of us will ever really see and Critiques on how We’d All Been Cyborgs, Really, Since We First Picked Up Sticks. I want a middle ground. I want to say there are inflection points where the scale of things changes the nature of what they do. And my fucking smartphone is not a stick, even if it uses the same neural infrastructure in me. I want to say I will beat you with a stick if you say it is, which is funny and you know I’m joking because despite the fact that I am talking to you I am not even in the same room as you. So you know that at my worst, I would have to use the phone to call you and make stick slapping noises.

We need new language to talk about the shit we don’t see. Cyborg is a start, but it was coined by the very forces of big phallic rocket male domination that cyborgs were about to fuck up in the darkened alleys of the collection consciousness. Like, that day. We need language that lets us talk about the terrorism of little changes. Be they good or bad, they are terrible in aggregate.

Also 50 years on, we need another word, one that describes the inverse of the cyborg, to describe what we are filling the world with. What I mean by inverse is this:

In 2006 in a NATO report I found the description of a particular anti-coalition IED encountered in the field in Iraq. It works like this: the insurgent digs out a hole in the wall, and plants a grenade sans pin there. (S)He (When the hell is English going to get a gender neutral pronoun to match our newly gender neutral roles, damnit?) Anyway, s(he) pastes an anti-coalition propaganda poster on top of it. When the American soldier comes along and tears down the poster, (s)he pulls the lever. There are many booby traps, what makes this one of interest is that part of its mechanism is a specific frame of mind in its victim. This is a device augmented with an organism. It’s not just, or even mainly incorporating the mind of its creator from the moment of its creation, but the mind of the victim in the moment of its function.

But we don’t have a word for organically augmented machinery, even though they are fast filling the new and vacated niches of the environment. It’s there when an API calls up Mechanical Turk, it’s there when Google uses the soft, human touches of links to create meaningful relationships for an otherwise indifferent server farm to traverse. It was noticed even in 1968, next door temporally to the copper T, by Alan Kay: “The user at the console is considered to be inside a process description which in turn is interior to the FLEX system and environment.” It turned out we didn’t always have to obviously merge with our machines to become cyborgs, and the reverse holds. They don’t have to merge with us to become something more, something augmented beyond what they could have possible hoped to contain within their endogenous mechanics. They can just use us, too. But how do we talk about it without sounding mad when we have to reuse language meant for other things?

We have not the words.


With many thanks to @genmon, @mala, @sgtkeso, and @tezcatlipoca for their eyes, ears, and minds.

Privacy, Ephemerality, and Self @ Tedxsoma

I gave a talk on privacy on Friday for Tedxsoma. I deviated from my notes a great deal, as this was a new talk for me. But here’s my talk, as written:

In my reading of history, this is the first time we’ve had to deal with the issues around privacy and openness that we’re dealing with today. My work largely deals with human identity- by which I don’t mean your driver’s license or your website logins, I mean the stories you tell yourself and others about who you are, what matters to you, and consequently what you can and will do.

I don’t have answers. In fact, hopefully by the time I’m done with this talk you’ll have fewer answers than you have now, but your questions will be more interesting.

Often when we talk about these issues, we use the idea of private information and secrets interchangeably. They’re not the same thing. Secrecy is a technical implementation, and therefore approachable with technology and policy. Privacy is, and always has been, a social norm.

Secrets are mostly boring. When we talk about identity theft, we’re talking about people stealing secret numbers for the most part. No one steals your identity, not really. No one is going to start telling people that they have a love of manga but never really like their mother’s cooking because they stole an identity of someone who loves Akira but really can’t take any more of that meatloaf.

Privacy is different. It often has emotional content, and we share private information, we want to and need to, but we also want control over who sees it.

This is the epitome of a private, but not secret, event, the height of the social construction of privacy. It’s an AA meeting. There’s no security to ensure secrecy, but the promise of private camaraderie allows people to talk about incredibly personal things. In fact, any technical enforcement would be destructive to the complex private/social magic that makes something like AA possible.

But I found a picture of that meeting on the net. It’s the control of privacy which we’re losing right now. The net is architecturally incapable of respecting social norms. Its default behavior could largely be described as save everything, transmit upon request. It’s like we have the universe’s biggest Asperger’s peering over our shoulder remembering everything we do. The biggest loss of privacy the net visits on us is the loss of the fourth dimension of privacy, ephemerality. Our ability to forget is key to how we form our identities and change over time. Our ability to forget what someone has done is key to letting them change, and learning to trust them. The net doesn’t forget, and it doesn’t talk less about our past as we go through time. It remembers and keeps all our previous selves ready at all times.

Weirdly, there’s some great benefits to that. The power of positive affinity networking turns out to improve our quality of life so much that it’s worth losing privacy over. Our ways of building intimacy and trust are moving from the shared secret to time and attention, and to shared media. We are encouraged to open up more, and we see the edges of our homophilies- we’ve never seen that. We even have a growing idea that living in homophily might be bad for us and the human race. That very notion is about as strange and new as anything we built in the 20th century.

We all need to lie sometimes, even if it’s lies of omission. We all need to have our own business to mind, and to not mind other people’s. Minding your own business is the greatest social lubricant ever.

It’s arguable that every vulnerable population put into proximate danger by the loss of privacy might also have its vulnerability reduced over time by exposure. And in fact, that was my biggest hope about a society that loses privacy. I wanted to think that a world where everyone knew everyone’s business, what everyone had been and done, that would be a world in which tolerance was cognitively enforced, were we had to learn to get along with people different from us.

That’s what I want to be true about humans, but I don’t know about that anymore. Why I don’t think that doesn’t works can be well described by the no true scotsman fallacy, which goes like this: (Explanation of the No true Scotsman fallacy) Because of our ability to rationalize, which serves us so beautifully elsewhere, a society of transparency will never lead to a universal tolerance. It’s simply different when I do it than when you do, whatever it is.


In 2007, partly in a fit of pique, I deleted myself off the internet. I took down my blog, deleted my Livejournal, canceled my Twitter account, made my old webpages non-readable, and with the exception of my Flickr account, I went dark. You could certainly google me, but you’d only really find other people talking about me, about things I’d done and said. I, myself, was a ghost in the internet archive.

When I did it I remember thinking, the grown up thing to do here is to sleep on it. But I didn’t want to, I had the energy and the will and I just wanted to do it before I lost the momentum. Some moments in life are like that. And when it was done, I felt like I could breathe deeper. I have never for a moment in the last three years regretted it.

I had been writing about my life online since 1994, when I put up my first webpage. I had gone through relationships, friendships, the death of my father, the birth of my daughter, the beginning of my marriage, and its end. A peripatetic career path that ranged from sys admin to school teacher to stand up comic. I took the net with me through it all, musing about love, technology, the people I met and the places I went. Lost dreams and high hopes.

When it went dark friends called to make sure I wasn’t going to kill myself. I told them I was fine, in some ways I felt better than I had in years.

I didn’t do it to reclaim what people normally seem to mean by privacy. I did it because my personal life had become a performance piece, and I didn’t want that much personal life anymore.

I did it out of a profound need to just be boring for a while. I had felt your eyes on me for years, and I had decided you could get your kicks elsewhere. I needed to be someone different. I have come to realize in the time since that I was doing the net’s best equivalent of moving away to start again. I was reclaiming the ephemeral in order to change the self. But I also did that at the cusp of it being possible- the privacy that time affords us is slipping away.

the room to grow and change hasn’t been common in human history. we have a model for the ephemeral and anonymous aspect of privacy diminished by small town life. There you are- consider the role of urban vs small town in modern and even somewhat in pre-modern life. Ee have a long standing story of going to the city to get the privacy we need to change as people. We go to the city to be anonymous, so no one knows about us and we aren’t tied to our past. It was even codified into the law about serfs in England at one point: a year and a day on the run unbound you from the land. That’s enabled a lot of great art and science in the time since we started having cities. But what if your small town is stapled to you forever, everywhere you go? Does that disrupt the velocity of culture? A friend of mine said to me the other day “everyone growing up in this society has a practical education in brand management.” I think that’s too much to ask of our children. I think that’s a bad new social norm.

I think maybe the better answer looks a little like personal space. We don’t enforce laws on when we’re allowed to touch each other. We learn and socially enforce that. And perhaps we need to learn not to ask questions we don’t want the answer to, so that we may give each other permission to be strange and grow and change with time.

1000 ledes n + 22: Prologue

For the want of a better word from a time before words, before names, before almost any of the story of life, XDFJVTH loved GHSTDF. They were close family, and their Last Common Ancestor was a mere 2 generations earlier. Their LCA, LOGOS, was struck by a rush of chaotic, if this word can mean much before the invention of intentionality, confused electrons in the middle of miosis. The perfection of its genetic code thus disrupted, something new and strange was built into both the resultant cells. A curse that made no sense for survival.

Both GHSTDF and XDFJVTH are humanity’s ancestors. They were the first family. We only get our genes from GHSTDF though, who never really loved XDFJVTH. Not even in the vague and mechanical way they had in those day. They shared resources, signaled to each other and the rest of the colony when they found food, where they found danger, but GHSTDF was cooperative, did it out of a biomechanical prisoner’s dilemma, always for creating the most long term personal gain. GHSTDF was never going to bring anything new into the world, any new way of being. XDFJVTH was different, it had a magic locked into it that would change everything, a beautiful mutation. XDFJVTH followed GHSTDF’s signals, put resources in its way. It wanted to be near GHSTDF, to be one with GHSTDF.

One day when the phage attacked the colony, XDFJVTH found itself infected. It desperately signaled DANGER DANGER to GHSTDF, but GHSTDF didn’t move away fast enough. XDFJVTH found it had a magical ability, first ever in the world, jumping through its DNA. Sensing GHSTDF there, threatened by its own soon to be phage ridden cytoskeleton, it began to tear itself apart, ripping its own struts apart and watching its organelles bleb out into the resources, painful, terrible, but there was GHSTDF, safe. GHSTDF carried XDFJVTH’s gift, but latently transposonded off, safe for it, safe from the love that makes you kill yourself.

GHSTDF divided many times, and most of its child died defending it, infected with XDFJVTH’s poisonous love as well as phages. The phages were not doing well out of the deal. The population dropped as little crystals collapsed on the sides of GHSTDF’s children, and no more phages emerged. GHSTDF’s death cry echoed for billions of years, the first selfish eukaryote, surrounded by the selflessly transposed and loving children trying to be part of one greater thing for it, with it.