The Cyborg at 50: Greg J. Smith interviews Quiet Babylon author and cyborgian Tim Maly on technology, flesh and fiction.
TIM MALY is the author of Quiet Babylon, a blog dedicated to exploring technology, culture and warped futurism. Exactly fifty years ago scientists Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline introduced the term "cyborg" to describe beings with both biological and artificial components. To celebrate this anniversary, Maly commissioned 50 Posts About Cyborgs from a diverse group of multidisciplinary thinkers. The results include ruminations on mediated environments, arboreta, gaming and even Kanye West. In the midst of coordinating this avalanche of content, Maly took some time to chat with me about gadgets, the body and speculative fiction.
Current Intelligence (CI): Aside from coinciding with a significant anniversary of the coining of the term, why is right now a good moment to think about cyborgs?
Tim Maly (TM): I think it’s always a good time to think about cyborgs! That’s a holdover from a misspent youth in the science fiction aisle of my local library, growing up on cyberpunk and its many mutations. I guess your real question is why everyone else should be thinking about them.
My pitch goes a little like this:
First, after something like two decades of this weird body/soul split between the physical and the digital, we’re seeing the re-embodiment of information. Cyborgs are about the collision between technology and bodies. This is pocketable/wearable computing, augmented reality (AR), sensors everywhere, smart homes, spimes and so on.
Second, there’s an ethical dimension about our relationship with the world. Cyborgs grow out of a need for non-hereditary adaptation. How do we adapt ourselves to the environment? How do we adapt the environment to ourselves? In the midst of a massive uncontrolled experiment in geo-engineering, these are questions worth considering.
Third, real products are shipping today that look a whole lot like the enhancements of the last 50 years of popular imagination. It seems like a good idea to hold up all those older ideas under this new light.
CI: Regarding portable and wearable technology, AR and sensors – If 50 Posts... were to spin off into a gadget blog, what are a few devices and projects that you would you be tracking right now?
TM: The risk for our fledgling hypothetical gadget blog is that it’s already a pretty crowded space. Steve Jobs demos the iPhone 4 and has massive connectivity problems because there are 570 WiFi base stations running from bloggers and journalists in the theatre. That’s a lot of journalistic attention and a pretty cyborgian situation to begin with.
So how do distinguish our little corner? Imagine a gadget blog that published no industry news, but replaced that with coverage of prosthetic tech, sports gear, surveillance, and smart-environments. I’d keep an eye on the Maker community and whatever’s left of Craft Magazine too.
I’m really interested in the LilyPad Arduino people, in paralympic sports gear, in prosthetics and military gear for soldiers before, during and after battle. I’d like to be doing a better job of keeping up with medical tech as well. A few people I know have recently had eye surgery for cataracts. It’s outpatient work now! I had no idea.
I’d also like to be doing a better job of keeping an eye on the most science-fictional stuff that comes out of piercing and tattooing people. The bleeding edge of cosmetic enhancement is an area that is generally neglected in the tech community but street docs and warranty-less upgrades are the bread and butter of one kind of cyborg fiction.
CI: That point about bleeding edge cosmetic enhancement is a good segue for my next question: cyborgs and robotics used to be the domain of NASA theorists, futurists and science fiction writers, a quick scan of your list of participants in the 50 posts... project reveals a cast of landscape architects, cartoonists, design bloggers, technology evangelists and writers from the gaming industry. Has ‘cyborg culture’ proliferated to the degree that everyone has something to say on the topic now? More obliquely, did the once-speculative fusion of man and machine already happen without our really noticing it?
TM: I don’t know about cyborg culture, but I’d say the cyborg metaphor has. I think it did that very quickly. Remember, once cybernetics gets invented (to solve an engineering problem), it becomes a kind of universal acid, and people start applying it everywhere. So you get this flurry of cybernetics + [whatever discipline]. Cybernetic architecture, cybernetic economics, cybernetic social sciences. Now, a cyborg is not the same as cybernetics, but it has a tendency to flow along similar channels.
I think that really pushed it over the edge was Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto (1985), which argues that we have all always been cyborgs. The seeds for that are planted by Kline and Clynes though. Non-hereditary adaptation? What would be more non-hereditary than a pair of eye glasses and a nice warm coat?
I tend to side with the thinking that we’ve been more or less fused with our machines all along. I worry about this. As one commenter said, “Congrats. You've redefined ‘cyborg’ into meaningless oblivion.”
But I’m not convinced that’s true. For one thing, there is a clear alternate attitude towards tech and humanity, one of authentic nature vs artificial nurture, not to mention the clean me vs. not-me split of enlightenment subject/object divisions. The cyborg attitude brings with it a much blurrier sense of identity boundaries.
Steve Mann goes through airport security after the WTC towers fall and they make him take off the gear that he’s been wearing versions of for decades and he ends up needing to be helped on board in a wheel chair. I forget my cellphone at home and I feel marginally stupider. You reach into someone’s chest and tear out their pacemaker and they die. (What is wrong with you?) These are differences in degree, not in kind.
CI: Steve Mann’s Wearcam project is a great referent, and I suppose a clear descendant of that work is Rob Spence’s Eyeborg. More broadly, Marshall McLuhan and David Cronenberg have both contributed immensely to discourse about perception and media. Do you have any thoughts on the sizable impact Canadians have had on thinking about the body and technology?
TM: Not to mention William Gibson! How sure are you about the premise of your question? Meaning are you sure that Canadians have had an outsized impact? Or it is more or less the amount of impact you’d expect from a country our size. Meaning, sure we have Cronenberg, but the US has got James Cameron, Steven Lisberger and Paul Verhoeven.
CI: Lets zoom in on a moment from James Cameron’s work: in your post considering the definitive characteristics of cyborgs, you point to Ripley’s cargo-loading exoskeleton in Aliens as a model of an ideal relationship with technology. Could you expand on this and point to some contemporary real world devices, contraptions and workflows that strike a similar balance?
I don’t want to go so far as to say I know about an ideal relationship with technology, but I think that an exoskeleton makes so much more sense for mechanised enhancement than the cyborg images we’re more used to; RoboCop, Molly Millions, or Jaime Sommers.
The problem with permanent implants is that they combine all of the maintenance hassles of mechanical gear – they wear out, break down, get old, don’t heal - with the medical hassles of regular body parts – you can’t swap them out for better ones, all repairs are while-U-wait, they can get infected, major surgery is involved in installing them. The only thing we can say for sure about them is that they’ll be obsolete within a few years. Who wants to go under the knife every time you change service providers or upgrade your rig?
Far better to have hot-swappable parts wherever possible. That way you can change your loadout for the task at hand, and when something better comes along, you can switch easily. That said, two of my three examples are people who would have died, if not for the artificial equipment. If the only way for the thing to work is under the skin, then it’s a necessary evil, which is why pacemakers and cochlear implants make some sense, even though every year the tech for these gets better.
As for real world examples, I know that I think differently when I have a keyboard at my fingers, and to the extent that you are willing to go along with me when I say that a smartphone is like a portable brain extender, that regime works pretty well. If memory is just the ability to pull up relevant information, then a connected web browser makes my memory much, much larger (though quite a bit slower) than it used to be. I can even remember things that I never knew.
I’m really interested in the gear of paralympic athletes, especially winter paralympic athletes. They have these sleek, stylized hyper-specialized prostheses that they use to do one sport really, really well. Then they switch up when they are off the field.
But all of that assumes cyborgs are mechanical devices grafted to humans. Clynes and Kline were more focused on osmotic pumps that injected useful cocktails of pharmaceuticals, which is much more like installing robust hardware and then making software upgrades. And more than likely, the next set of interventions will be more along the nanobot scale, which will be about ingesting or injecting helpful little whatevers.
CI: Interventions, injections and pharmaceutical cocktails – are we still talking about cyborgs when the technology becomes invisible and/or bio-Medicinal? How do you think the definition of ‘cyborg’ will change in the future?
TM: Well I think that Clynes and Kline would say that they were talking about drugs right from the start. Or are you talking more about artificial cells or other nano-tech type inventions? I think that those are clearly in the cyborg lineage. The visibly half-human half-machines are that way for a pragmatic reason, namely they need to be visibly different for us to understand them in the context of the medium of film. They’re a visual shorthand, in the same way that Frankenstein's monster gets bolts and stitches when he goes on screen.
Unless you are going for an extreme fashion statement, or our cultural standards change dramatically (and despite the thousands of instances cyborg girl pin-up art, I think this is unlikely) subtle to invisible enhancements, or easily replaced ones (i.e. more clothing than implant) will be the order of the day.
I don’t know how likely the definition is to change in the future. Doctor Who gets Daleks in 1963 and Cybermen in 1966, the creature/machine hybrid ends up being the cultural touchstone pretty early on. If I had to guess, I think the next stage will be seeing the term expand to include more non-human organisms. When we graft a camera and some control mechanisms into an insect and use it for a spy place, what other than a cyborg can it possibly be?
CI: An insect awakes one day and finds itself militarized and half-machine, sounds like a great premise for a novel. So, as 50 Posts... winds down, does that inform your agenda at Quiet Babylon at all (or is it always cyborg month on your blog?) What have you got in the works?
TM: After a month of hardcore cyborg focus, I am planning to circle back around to the other half of my obsession: architecture. It’s always a balance for Quiet Babylon, sliding back and forth along the scale between adapting the environment and adapting to the environment.
I have a few other projects in the works, nothing at the stage for announcement. Lately, I am really interested in projects that end. So many sites and other things are set up with the secret or explicit hope that they will one day become some kind of institution. But there’s only room for so many institutions that last and last. Besides, I think that can rob them of their urgency and of a strong closing.