I have been thinking about cyborgs recently. Are we that far from the science fiction notion of becoming half human, half machine? A pacemaker for my dodgy ticker, well that’s mainstream these days. Maybe I’ll chuck out the glasses and get some new eyes that can automatically enhance the information sent to my brain and adjust to different light qualities? Or a chip that can hear colours transforming the frequency of light to that of sound and hear it through bone conduction. A new hip perhaps, (a hip chip?) with a chip in it that makes it possible to ride a bike for longer periods over harsher terrain? New hands to replace useless arthritic claws, strong enough to open the devilish packaging now mandatory for food producers, or impervious to extreme temperatures but delicate enough to enable me to incise into my etching plates? At what stage do these enhancements change us from human to cyborg, or in fact make us posthuman, even transhuman?
The term cyborg is a little outdated as these days we can readily accept the intrusion of technology into our bodies, seeing those springy appendages of Oscar Pretorius as something to envy – only his legs mind you. The definition of a cyborg used to be a body which was dependant on something electronic or mechanical to exist, nowadays I cannot envision existing without my electronic devises, I feel diminished without them.
It seems that if the technology is good for the person and doesn’t threaten his/her humanity then it is acceptable but if it helps to make a person achieve beyond their human capabilities then this is perceived as threatening. Man as superman belongs in the comics or with Nietzsche, not our everyday lives. The ethical choice is that I have a right to enhance and you have a right not to enhance. It’s your body, your right to enhance as long as it doesn’t harm anyone, but there must be no coercion to enhance, or not to.
The tendency is to think that technology outside ourselves, when it can be turned on or off, is acceptable. I find myself sometimes making cyborgian assumptions, like the phantom rumble in my pocket where the phone usually resides even when it’s not there. Trying to scroll down a paper page. Searching my brain like it was a Google Search. Trying to pinch zoom the view like it was a screen when I just wanted to see a sign somewhere far away. So I suppose that most of us can be termed everyday cyborgs – when we wake up in the morning the first thing we do is check our mobiles, the device is the life-blood of our social reality, they symbiotically exchange information with the world. We don’t notice the device, we achieve social union using technology. We meld into the computer and become part of it.
And then, if our bodies are beyond helping what about our brains? Can our brains keep on living even after our body dies? Sounds like science fiction to me, but celebrated theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking recently suggested that technology could make it possible. “I think the brain is like a programme in the mind, which is like a computer,” Hawking said, “so it’s theoretically possible to copy the brain on to a computer and to provide a form of life after death.”
Some people are actively working to develop technology that would permit the migration of brain functions into a computer. Russian multi-millionaire Dmitry Itskov, for one, hopes someday to upload the contents of a brain into a life-like exoskeleton as part of his 2045 Initiative. And a separate research group, called the Brain Preservation Foundation is working to develop a process to preserve the brain along with its memories, emotions and consciousness, called chemical fixation and plastic embedding, the process involves converting the brain into plastic, carving it up into tiny slices, and then reconstructing its three-dimensional structure in a computer. This then offers the possibility of a machine which is dependant on human consciousness to exist – a reversal of our initial definition of a cyborg yet no less valid or frightening. I must ask, is this an attractive promise of possible life after death?
But are we not moving ever closer towards some kind of symbiotic relationship with the technological other? The technological construct now enters the flesh in unprecedented degrees of intrusiveness and the nature of the human-technological interaction has shifted towards a blurring of the boundaries between genders, races and species, following the trend of the contemporary inhuman condition. The technological other today – a mere assemblage of circuitry and feedback loops – functions in the realm of an egalitarian blurring of differences. Has cyborg tendencies inspired a philosophy that seeks to make us so superhuman that we will not die?