50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.

Prologue

(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.

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

6 thoughts on “50 years of cyborgs: I have not the words.

  1. Felix Pleșoianu

    As for the fact that us mighty cyborgs still have to floss our teeth, remember how at first sci-fi was about conquering the galaxy? Then as we learned more it became about conquering the solar system, and finally about conquering ourselves (a.k.a. transhumanism)? Turns out, some problems are HARD, and reality doesn’t simply bend to our wishes. :razz:

    That said, I love your article. My mind is a-buzz with ideas after reading it.

  2. NemaVeze

    Would dentures make you a cyborg?

    (When the hell is English going to get a gender neutral pronoun to match our newly gender neutral roles, damnit?)

    We do. It’s singular “they.”

    Also, your wireless keyboard is way better than mine.

    BTW, a hipster at a bike swap meet once told me that a person on a bike is a cyborg, and a person on a fixie is a more perfect cyborg. I considered this seriously for about a week, and concluded that a bike doesn’t make me a cyborg any more than the stick that I wanted to go back and hit him with.

  3. Steve Witham

    A good example of the inverse cyborg is the call center where the machine decides who to call, makes the call, and then presents a script for the human “operator” (operatee) to follow. Or an online customer service chat setup. The human is a rubber bushing partially smoothing the glitches in the computer/ customer interface.

    Maybe just the word “borg” is what you want. Borgisms? I think it’s been long understood that the organic part of a cyborg (“cybernetic organism”) isn’t necessarily in charge or the center. _Robocop_ got that across nicely with the way the robocops and prototypes had mechanified personalities with human remnants bottled inside.

    I suppose just glomming tools to ourselves– or pouring ourselves into them like universal hermit crabs– doesn’t make us cyborgs, just borg-ready. There has to be something “cybernetic” to be cyborg. But, computerization tends to make the glomming *less* noticeable, not more– with Facebook one is stepping into a model of a Friend who Shares things with Friends and plays fun Games. We introverted nerds on FB aren’t conscious of inhabiting a highly simplified personality authored by someone else. Borganization has prefixes like “i,” “my,” “social,” and “community.”

    Btw, I agree with NemaVeze, when someone says they wish there were a gender neutral singular pronoun, they’re missing something right under their nose.

  4. Josh W

    Now we understand the lesson of the idea of a cyborg, we can bring it back as what it has shown itself to be; a continuum. So things can be more cyborg or less, depending on their level of interaction with people. How heavily they are blended into their life, on how many levels, and how irreversibly.

    So what is the backwards cyborg machine? If a cyborg is machines built more into a human life, perhaps the opposite is a human built more into “machine life”, specifically instead of an explosion of their own purposes, an expansion of their freedom, by building other parts into a self repairing system, the person is being built into a world of tools that must be repaired, that are open to others to use and do not consider their own survival. In other words, perhaps the opposite of a cyborg is exploitation.

    But the funny thing is that becoming a cyborg already has exactly those connotations, for all the freedom of the pill, it makes you part of a pharmaceutical system beyond your control. My grampa has artificial lenses that allow him to see much better than before, but those will need to be repaired or replaced externally as he ages, assuming some other medical advances keep him with us longer.

    So cyborg-iness is a knitting of mechanical systems into yourself, and yourself into the wider economy. It is physically a part of you in the sense that it is now a required component of your physical biological existence. Might not be connected via wires or tubes, but it’s a life support machine nonetheless.

  5. quinn Post author

    NemaVeze: My wireless keyboard is awesome and I <3 it a lot. Is ‘they’ as a singular settled? I still feel awkward using it, and it still seems controversial. Is it taught that way now? It certainly wasn’t taught to me that way.

    Josh W: Brilliant comment, I think you are absolutely right about the paradox of health and augmentation in a social system.

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