Bidirectional Penetration

This is the third assignment for ‘Introduction to Cyberpunk Literature’ at P2PU.org. An essay on where the line should be drawn between humans and machines, and whether or not such a distinction is necessary. Androids will be discussed briefly, with more deserved attention going largely to cyborgs.

“The physical union of human and machine, long dreaded and long anticipated, has been an accomplished fact for decades, though we tend not to see it.” – William Gibson

The term ‘android‘, referring to an automaton in semblance of the human form has been around since the late 19th century, predating ‘robot‘ and making it an altogether pretty old-fashioned idea. Somehow though it still manages to cause people enough discomfort to avoid obsolescence and toils away in steady employ as a tired science fictional trope. Androids are often confused with cyborgs, a confusion far reaching in our culture at large and in my estimation mostly due to Hollywood screenwriters being lazy, poorly informed hacks. Let’s have a quick pop-culture line-up to illustrate the difference. Here’s team Android:

Annoying little shit, Rachael, Futura, T-800 M-101 & Bishop

These are machines built in humanoid form. They come from labs & factories, and require programming that allows them an attempt to pass themselves off as human. You can get into a “Well what if they are such perfect replicas we can’t tell the difference?” type debate, but the simple fact of the matter is that in reality, that isn’t going to happen. Us humans are all products a of dirty, diseased earth, millions of years of evolutionary compromise and the compound effect of each individuals experience on their severely strange psychology. No machine will ever have that. Once they get anywhere close they will already be something else entirely. The machine-human replica is a trope and is more than likely to remain just that. Now here’s team pop-cyborg:

Colonel Steven ‘Steve’ Austin, Locutus, Luke, Batou & Murphy

Here we are dealing with humans, augmented to varying degrees with machine parts. Again you can go down the philosophical rabbithole of questioning at which point they no longer retain their humanity, but the direction of transformation should make the distinction clear. An additional and more important difference is that cyborgs are not just the domain of fiction but an everyday reality. They are omnipresent as active members of our society, making them far more interesting subject matter than the rather quaint android.

The term cyborg was first coined in the mid 20th century, as a couple of NASA scientists kicked around the idea of altering the human body in order to allow it to survive the harsh conditions of space travel. The apex of this ‘classical’ notion of the cyborg finds itself in Frederick Pohl‘s 1974 novel ‘Man Plus‘. Around the same time the potential horror of the cyborg was also being explored by David R. Bunch through his ‘Moderan‘ sequence, in which mans’ mechanization leads to a dehumanized, denaturalized world where war is the social currency, hate is to be cultivated and any truth realized is to be inflicted by means of suffering and pain.

The cyborg became a real staple of science fiction in the 1980’s. New levels of consumer individualism, enhanced commodification and personalization of technology were being reached, putting previously ‘high-tech’ tools into the hands of anyone. Anyone who could afford them anyway, but the constantly decreasing cost meant that would be practically everyone soon enough. Being culturally perceptive avant-gardists, the cyberpunk movement were quick to co-opt the cyborg as a means through which to express this trend, and kitted it out to suit the age. Now cyborgs were no longer a chosen few individuals who had their modifications imposed on them through advanced military medical programs, but started to come thick and fast in many flavors. The element of horror is retained in order to keep the reader turning pages, but the nature of the cyborg has become far more trivial. People undergo heavily invasive body modifications in street clinics as matters of practicality and in many cases, mere vanity.

“It’s easier to depict the union of human and machine literally, close-up on the cranial jack please, than to describe the true and daily and largely invisible nature of an all-encompassing embrace.” – William Gibson

Steve Mann in 1980, the mid 80’s, early 90’s, mid 90’s & late 90’s

An important work in cyborg theory is Donna Haraway‘s 1985 ‘Cyborg Manifesto‘, which utilizes the image of the cyborg as a means to argue an forward looking, post-modern world view. Unfortunately Haraway’s intended irony is wasted on many and the paper has since been misconstrued in almost every way imaginable, leaving a long slimy trail of derivative academic drivel in its path.

The inevitable backlash to these dregs of papers came in the 90’s with Charlie Laughlin‘s Evolution of Cyborg Consciousness, which deplored the metaphorical and fuzzy application of the concept of the cyborg and attempted to bring some sense to the discourse by steering it back towards relevance and practicality. The inevitability and cultural mustability of the cyborg being sincere grounds for us to consider in depth its impact on the evolution of human consciousness.

“Female body-builders and fashion models, are cyborgs. They’re made; they’re more artificial than human.” Bruce Sterling

The people shown above are not victims of an experimental bionic-scout leg transplant program. They just really like to ride their bikes. Are they cyborgs? The fuzzy metaphorical post-modernist may say so. It is certainly the case that an intimate relationship with a machine plays a large part in shaping their bodies and lives. Others however will argue that some degree of invasiveness or nervous connection is required in order for the relationship to qualify them as actual, matter-of-fact cybernetic organisms.

What should be clear is that there is no line that can be drawn to divide man and machine, you couldn’t even draw a line to connect the dots. There is an infinitely multidimensional spectrum of interdependent configurations connecting us, the very survival of our species depends on ever more efficient machines and continuing advances in science and technology. Any attempt to look forward viewing their realms as distinct from ours would not only be unnecessary at this point, but even counter-productive.

“Our species future is thus as open as anyone could imagine. The human body, human sensing, and human thought are all apt for profound transformations by new forms of intimate technology.” Andy Clark

Recommended Reading:

Cyborgs and SpaceManfred E. Clynes & Nathan S. Kline, 1960 The Evolution of Cyborg ConsciousnessCharles Laughlin, 1996 In the Visegrips of Dr. Satan (with Vannevar Bush)William Gibson, 2003 Interview with Andy Clark – Author of ‘Natural-Born Cyborgs’ – Institute for the Future, 2004 You Are Cyborg – An Interview with Donna Haraway – Hari Kunzru, 2004

Recommended Viewing:

Cyborgs, Dogs and Companion Species Donna Haraway, author of ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’ speaking at the EGS. She talks briefly about cyborgs and then gets into what she’s really interested in now that cyborgs are old hat. Then she answers some questions about cyborgs. – Donna Haraway, 2000