We’ve talked about a lot of things in class. Most striking was the ongoing debate on whether or not someone is human based on whether they use something to assist a function, such as a cane or eyeglasses, and the answers that came up were quite varied. World views on cybernetics are almost as varied, where the more fundamentalist groups think that it is a crime to replace any part of the human body, while others see it as either a full replacement or an augmentation, and would greatly benefit humanity. So, what exactly defines a cyborg? What determines when cybernetic implants overtake the human body, and the person is no longer human – or even a cyborg? Is there a point where a person becomes inhuman, or, even more important, is there a point where the cybernetic augmentations become so hard on the body that they actually harm or even destroy it?
By one definition, “A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.” (Haraway) So this definition means that the entity has parts that are both organic and machine. But this definition leaves some questions. What about external attachments that would enhance a sense, such as eyeglasses? This is where the discussions held in class started to take a different turn. Some thought that such augmentations would make a person “less human”, even with something simple as a filling. I don’t view it that way, as there are a lot of different things that can enhance a person without physically affecting their body construction, and that’s where the definition leads. If a person has an artificial leg, then that person could be considered a cyborg, but is also still human. Same thing goes with joint replacement, since the original organic part is being replaced with an inferior part. I say inferior because no machine that man makes can withstand the wear that the human body does. Anything that is replaced in a person will have to eventually be replaced again; it simply can’t repair itself. A hearing aid, on the other hand, would not make someone a cyborg, as it does not change the person’s body structure.
Now there is the metaphysical aspect of humanity. Some cultures, particularly those of the American Indians, view the body as a composition of physical and spiritual parts. The physical body can be changed, whether by tattoos or loss of limb, and will remain that way, but the spiritual essence, which travels with the body, does not change. If you remove the physical kidney of a person, the essence of the kidney remains with the spiritual body, even if its physical form is removed. In this case, if you believe in a soul and that the human/animal/etc body has one, then there is no point at which a person loses their humanity, so long as the soul remains intact. Only thing that needs to be determined is where the soul actually is, and make sure that that isn’t replaced. But the soul doesn’t factor into whether a person is a cyborg or not. It’s the physical make-up of the entity. For example, in Snow Crash or Neuromancer, people are able to plug into a virtual internet, be it the metaverse in Snow Crash or the matrix in Neuromancer. These people use this as an escape from their world, or, in some cases, make it their world. However the human body still continues to live on, despite being in the respective world. It works similarly in the movie The Matrix, except that the people that live in the Matrix are completely dependant on it. Without it they (theoretically) can not survive. If the reality of the situation were ever made clear to them, they would panic. Also, the people are subject to the programming of the Matrix, which can build its own defenses and take over people under their control. While the person’s human body is alive, it is little more than a base. Without the connection to the Matrix, a person wouldn’t be able to live, since the body is significantly weak, and anyone who is connected to the Matrix and unplugged while there is lost. What happens to the psyche is unknown, but I assume it is lost to the code. These people are cyborgs because they can not exist for an extended period of time outside of the programming (note that this does not include those rescued or those not born to the Matrix). With the metaverse or Neuromancer’s Matrix, a person can survive outside, but can be prohibited entry. Hiro is a pizza delivery boy in Snow Crash outside of the metaverse, and in Neuromancer Case is blocked from the Matrix. It is possible to be affected by occurrences in the metaverse, but it isn’t something necessary to live, hence these people would be human, and the virtual internets would only be semi-realistic and in some cases dangerous diversions.
Other views come with the novels Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and Schild’s Ladder. Both of these feature a slightly different twist on the animal/cyborg relation; artificially created biological beings. Whether these are clones or not is a matter of conjecture. In Androids, animals are created, fully biological, but with a chip implanted in their brain. Since most life in the novel was wiped out, humanity was forced to compensate by creating biological constructs. Only the wealthy could have living pets, since they were so rare (Androids, 32-33). Right now, very few people would want an ostrich, much less pay $30,000 for one. But for the real thing in a world that was destroyed by war, someone could conceivably want to pay for one as a sign of status. But these simulacra are alive; even though they have an electronic brain, they are still biological beings, and thus fall under the biomechanical construct. Same goes for the humanoid androids; they have a will to live and are able to act on their own, but are still constructed with the electronic brain. The same is true of the entities in Schild’s Ladder; they are not human by any means, especially since they can travel at will, abandon their bodies when they leave a planet, and exist for millennia. They can store their essence in the Qusp’s, and even if their body suffers a local death, they are able to relocate the Qusp to a different body, and pick up where they left off, only losing what they experienced before they “saved” themselves. Tchicaya did this often, and also had left numerous bodies behind on different planets. He has nine different copies of his body in various places, and makes it clear that the bodies can be recycled for the biological material if they are not going to be used again, as he tries to recycle his tenth-oldest body (Egan, 47-48). The bodies people have are able to adapt to whatever they deem necessary as well, in terms of sexuality, such that these people are no longer human (103-104). In a sense, the human has become a biological cyborg, by acquiring what they feel is necessary for their partner, and a cybernetic cyborg with the Qusp’s.
A cyborg is a biological entity that, through whatever reason, has had a machine or computer attached to them to assist them in some way. In some cases this line becomes blurred. The debate that someone can not function without their tools, or that someone is only completely human if they never had anything added to them, taken from them, or attached to them. But a lot of this debate comes from a persons belief in what a human is, whether the human be a soul that is attached to the body, or if it is simply a human being until it has something changed on them. Defining the fictional aspects of humans and cyborgs is a much harder endeavor, because the lines are even more fantastic and even less defined; humanoid simulacra exist, people can be created from simple biological materials to be whatever it was that they wanted to, and people are able to live inside a virtual world. The only ones who are cyborgs are the ones who have to rely on machines to function. A cyborg is no more or less a living being than any other living being, so long as it has its own will and can function.
Dick, Philip K. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep New York: Random House Publishing Group 1968
Egan, Greg Schild’s Ladder New York: HarperCollins, 2002.
Gibson, William Neuromancer New York: Berkely Publishing 1984
Haraway, Donna “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html.
Stephenson, Neal Snow Crash New York: Bantam Dell 1992