Cybunny, 10 July 2007
When I read about cyborgs in the course of my research, I am often confronted by extreme versions of human-machine integration and hybridity. RoboCop, Terminator, the Six Million Dollar Man and the Bionic Woman, all represent "the" cyborg in some important sense: the cyborg is humanity placed in extremis, as the machinic or cybernetic takes over more and more of what was originally organic in a human body. This seems like the future, or a future, and often it feels like someone hit the fast forward button on participant evolution.
And of course there is a reason for this. Where are we headed? People want to know, to anticipate, to imagine. And so the Frankensteinian narrative of creating "life" in a godlike way but without godlike powers of vision is resurrected in these monsters of technological power. In many cases the technology is used because a human has been almost completely destroyed (the two Terminators are an exception to this). To read this like an English professor, there is a huge traumatic gap between the normal human and the cyborg marked by a violence of some kind. So the future promises - in these stories - to be a scary living out of this violent shift from recognizable human to monstrous cyborg.
I want to suggest a complementary way to view the notion of human-machines, one that allows a slightly different set of emotions and causalities to emerge. That is the notion of the mundane cyborg. The mundane cyborg, I argue, is all around us, and we enact this kind of pint-sized monster all the time. We are often mundane cyborgs, and as we grow more accustomed to our various prosthetics - cell phones, iPods and MP3 players, laptops, Blackberries, automobiles, remote controls, Bluetooth sets, televisions and GPS units in SUVs and mini vans - we move closer and closer to the extremity of the monstrous cyborgs of science fiction. Like lobsters in gradually boiling water, or like organisms adapting to multiple changes in environment, we aren't often conscious of the way these prosthetics affect our perceptions. But affect us they do, and it is this effect that I want to sketch out in the essay below.
But first, try this thought experiment: choose one or two of your precious devices. Your car, let's say, and your cell phone. Your digital camera and your GPS unit. Now, consider how using these devices alters two things: your sense of time, and your sense of space. Does the phone alter your way of using time, say, in your car? Does the phone put you more and more in situations in which you are having a conversation about one thing while in a completely different context? And if so, how does this affect the way we view "where we really are"? If you are on the phone to a client while your son and wife walk 30 paces ahead of you at Disneyland, where are you? And how are you experiencing the physical context or 'real' in which you are walking?
It may well be that this is an excellent time to consider these things, since I come from a generation that did not have cell phones, or most wireless devices for that matter, and so have some sense of what came before, what life before ubiquitous cell phoning or computing became a kind of norm. My students on the other hand (I teach at a community college in Silicon Valley) have not known a time when cell phones were not, and much more than I, they are natives to the Digital nation. I am more of an immigrant, though like many immigrants, I assimilated quickly and brought other perspectives to this Digital nation.
Cars, automobiles, exoskeletons, oh my!
Humans are endoskeletal; we don’t carry our houses or our armor on the outside. Of course we’ve always covered our nakedness, shameful or otherwise, with clothing, including protective gear like helmets, shields, gloves, jackboots, and so on. But with the emergence of cyborg-enabling technologies, especially those that allow integration of the nervous system with the machinic controls, the dream of powerful exoskeletons augmenting human powers has become a present reality.
Again, the extreme versions of this cyborg technology are everywhere: Gundams, for example, are huge battle-exoskeletons piloted or driven by humans. Many of my students smile in recognition when they see the Gundam poster in my office, and know hundreds of episodes via manga and anime. These Gundam fight in a post-nuclear future; Earth has been ravaged by wars and radiation, and corporate entities merge weirdly with nation state and military structures to produce a hybrid political entity. It is a world at once horrifyingly stark, and completely recognizable “inside” the bridges of spaceships and offices in skyscrapers, as wide eyes young Japanese men and women live out the same old story, a fight for love and glory, the eternal tragicomic human drives colliding and resolving and colliding again. The premise of these cartoons is absolutely contradictory: outside everything has changed due to technologies like Gundam, and inside we maintain “human” characteristics, as though the outside had no effect on the inside.
There are so many of these exoskeletons in cartoons, and yet very few in mainstream sci fi or film. This is partly because the mundane cyborg version of the exoskeleton, the automobile, is so completely accepted as inevitable and real by most 21st Century humans. I drive my car; it gets me there. End of story. Or – boys love their toys, and cars are the ur-toy to many grown up boys. Cars as toys, cars as sex objects, cars as racing devices, cars to have midlife crises in or transport kids en masse, cars as status symbols: the stories we tell about cars eclipse their role as exoskeletons for the most part.
So let’s tell the story a bit differently. You are a human being sitting behind the wheel of a modern automobile, one going let’s say 80 miles per hour. You are hurtling through space in a human-machine system, a metal exoskeleton weighing thousands of pounds. This exoskeleton changes your sense of speed and time. You translate space into time. Yosemite isn’t x miles away from my home in Santa Cruz; it is y hours. Your personal body space is massively extended; at a moment’s notice, you can be traveling in hours to a place that in previous cultures would have taken days or weeks. So we think of a huge number of places as within a day of us, as within our mundane sphere. Our sense of space is wildly expanded; at the same time, we scream past much of what is between here and there, so that it might as well be outer space for all the detail we are experiencing. Thus we have more space, but arguably less space, less specific details about the spaces that constitute the area between here and the there of our destination.
We all know this feeling, perhaps. We drive for six hours from the pacific ocean to the mountains, and the reality of what we pass blurs and diminishes; it is simply landscape, mostly uninteresting or not beautiful enough to capture our attention, which is on driving (or on the phone call we are making, or the iPod playlist we are scrolling, or the interactions between passengers within the speeding bubble of the car). We get something, and we lose something; often we drive six hours to get the thing that we lose in the driving: the specificity of the landscape, the scents of the air, the physical interaction with the slow land and its fauna and flora.
So as we walk down the sidewalk we have this exoskeleton waiting for us, this power that we break out when needed. We are Superman, mild mannered, or Peter Parker, alert to the sense that tells us we need our more than human powers, right now, at once, all at once. And if we do not own a car, can’t participate in the general experience of more than human, we are less than human, with all that entails. Of course I am overstating the case here, but my point is, the exoskeleton changes our feeling about space much the same way that airplanes do if we are affluent enough to take them; far away is near, as it is the young man in the Nine League Boots.
If our sense of space is changed, our sense of time is changed even more. Once again, I am in my car, behind the wheel. I go slowly out the driveway and merge into the great metal salmon run of cars; I thread the other cyborgs as we zip on surface streets. When we see a sign posting legal speed limits, we instantly add numbers to it; these speed limits are made by nondrivers, and we are drivers; 15 is 25 at least unless there is a cop or kids milling in the street; 25 is 34, 45 is 59, 65 is 75, 70 is 80, unless there is a cop visible. This is cyborg translation. Going 15 miles an hour for even a quarter mile feels like we are crawling, doesn’t it? Going 55 on a highway for many of us is like the forced slowness we must achieve as we walk down the aisle at weddings; it feels unnatural, exaggeratedly slow. It may call to mind funeral processions of cars as they drive at a dignified pace down the right side of the highway, ponderously and slowly flying by at speeds much faster than most humans can run for even a short distance.
In many places in the US and around the world, humans are less important than cars, and streets are killing strips not only for four legged animals. Pedestrians hurry across roads, their shoulders often hunched subconsciously, offering a nonthreatening aspect to the metal cyborg monsters coming at them from all directions. Meanwhile, a transformation has taken place inside the exoskeleton; the human is now fully engaged in cyborg time perception. Fly down the highway at 80, then get off at the exit, which banks so that you are forced to slow against what feels natural now; then zip up to the stop sign, as pedestrians wait to cross. They are not you; they are a different species. They often move so slowly, it feels like time has stopped; they are in your way, a nuisance of unevolved bipedalism. If they happen to be old, it is as if someone is torturing you; against your will, you are being held to a pace that is glacial. Or a fellow cyborg stops at a light and doesn’t punch the gas when the green light blinks on; or a cat or a dog wanders across the asphalt, describing a nonlinear path that seems designed to frustrate the natural acceleration into the next two minutes. Or as happened to me today, a road is littered with humans and machines digging up the road, paving the road, widening the road; this is all “for” my cyborg exoskeleton, and yet waiting as a little backhoe digs and then drops its pittance of rock elicits bitterly critical comments from the passengers in my car. We wait perhaps four minutes, which is later reported at 10 minutes, in a tone that suggests that these 10 minutes have the subjective feel of a two-year stint in the county jail.
I write about this with some humor because it is funny; it is the human response to many technologies or augmenting devices. The man on horseback looked down, literally and figuratively, on foot soldiers. But I want to make a larger point: technologies like cars change our perception and our proprioception. We are sometimes moving at the speed of the machine, merged with that speed, exulting in it, subject to it; this doesn’t simply go away when we disengage from the exoskeleton. In fact, when we do disengage and return to unaugmented bipedalism, we are in the subject position of the pedestrian: less powerful, more in the way, slow, unevolved. Not the windshield; the bug.
Cars are wonder-full, full of wonders of speed and grace that still thrill me at the advanced age of 52. Cars are terrible in the old sense of that word; we will certainly destroy huge amounts of our planet in their service, and we regularly sacrifice thousands of our citizens to them each year, like a cyborg Aztec ritual. Cars are cyborg in their dependence on huge networks, so that a car implies mind numbing combinations of factories oil pipelines refineries shipping parts tires marketing advertising pollutants laws regulations architectural and cultural adjustments. So they don’t just change our individual perception of time and space; they also exert a massive pull on our collective notions of space and time.
Cyborgs coming to consciousness: what would that mean? I guess it would mean humans coming to terms with how specifically they have become human-machines, and then shaping that reality. That would mean understanding how the systems a cyborg depends on actually work. It also means understanding how those systems affect and specifically degrade other systems we might call “organic.” And finally, it means that if we do want to be as gods…if we do want all that the machinic and all that the organic can offer us as conscious cyborgs…then we need to understand what the machinic gives and what it takes away. Cars augment our legs massively, so that we have nine league boots; but they also amputate our legs, paralyze them, so that we use them in very constricted spaces as determined by the design of the car. Drive more, and you may use your legs less and less, so that at a certain point, you no longer have your legs in the same way. And then we need to drive to nice places to run, or drive to the gym to ride stationary bicycles to make up for the sacrifice of our legs to the machine.
So I would like my readers to reconsider my offer. Take a mundane cyborg technology, and play around with it. Bring it up to consciousness. What does it offer, and how does that affect your experience of time and/or space? What does it perhaps take away from you? Could you imagine a way of using/being this human-machine differently, so that it took into account what is given and what is taken away? And finally, are we lobsters sitting in water that is on its way to boiling? Can we alter our relationship to our prosthetics to take into account both natural and human ecologies?
And – if you thought your car was affecting your mundane sense of time, space, the present and the real, consider your cell phone, my cyborg friend.
To be continued…in collaboration.
More coming soon.
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