Cyborgs R Us?

In her TED Women talk from December 2010, anthropologist Amber Case explores the social and personal interfaces we’re building out of technology, arguing that as a result of this activity we’ve become cyborgs. Thanks to smartphones and tablets and GPS systems, she argues, we’re now so fully augmented that we’ve become composites of biology and machine. “It’s not that machines are taking over,” Case concludes. “It’s that they’re helping us to be more human. They’re helping us to connect with each other.” It’s a compelling point of view, one that many are voicing these days.

But when I watch implant hacker Lepht Anonym talk, I’m not so sure that iPhone or Kindle a cyborg makes. Anonym seems a broken person, but beautifully; her interest in implanted sensory augments carries her into troubling, painful, dangerous territory. These transformations aren’t undertaken with a credit card, and they’re much harder to reverse than a two-year contract.

Lepht Anonym reminds us that the concept of the cyborg emerged in thinking about the extraordinarily hostile environment of space; it was extended and elaborated in political and cultural dimensions by people who were not interested in augmenting the human person in ways that make it easier to do what we already do, but to transcend quotidian constraints. As blogger Tim Maly discovered in his project 50 posts about cyborgs, which he undertook to celebrate and explore the term on the fiftieth anniversary of its coinage, the cyborg condition was understood to be one of emancipation, but profound alienation as well. In contrast to the medical, electrochemical, and pharmaceutical enhancements first envisioned for cyborgs, the effects of our consumer appurtenances thus far remain superficial and reversible�stranded on an island without an iPhone, your problems are no different from those faced by Robinson Crusoe. If our helplessness in such an environment is due to our being cyborgs, than we humans have been cyborgs for a very long time.

Lepht Anonym’s cyborg erotics harken back to Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto, in which a political impatience with the biological conditions of human life urged a radical break with biological limits and the cultural baggage that comes with them. “The cyborg would not recognize the Garden of Eden,” Haraway writes; “it is not made of mud and cannot dream of returning to dust.” Where the retail cyborgs that Amber Case describes seem to be seeking that Edenic reunion, a numbing togetherness of family and community, made possible by tools that promise to make us “more human.” Troubling and total, Lepht Anonym’s cybernetic commitments remind us that we co-opted pseudocyborgs are domesticated version of the true cyborg: angry, damaged, and feral.

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