“Cyborgs” are, fundamentally, just subjects of “human augmentation”—the use of technology to correct and enhance physical limits. At present, physical limits are typically brought about through disease or accident or birth variant. There has been some development concerning non-corrective augmentation—the enhancement of individual bodies—and this is not as large a scientific leap as one might suppose.
Writing about cyborgs back in 2014, Frank Swain pointed out: “There’s a big gulf between the fantasy vision of cyborgs, and the current reality of being dependent on an implant or a prosthetic in day-to-day life. If we’re to separate the two, we ought to pay close attention to those who are living in that world already.” That’s a lot of us, really, an important disruption of the commonly-held assumption that cyborgs are part of some imagined future rather than us.
Perhaps because the past year and a half has been a time of widespread social panic and conflict over disease; perhaps because we have had to struggle with isolation and the ubiquity of disability as a context of the threat of covid-19 exposure; perhaps because we just voted out a U.S. president who made fun of the differently-abled: the question of our bodies’ relationships with technology is again a topic of considerable conversation in articles on the internet.
“When will we all be cyborgs?” asked the title of Frank Swain’s recent essay in Daze. Apple, accused of taking over our bodies and minds, is the culprit in a recent Guardian article. And Science Daily told us last August that cybernetic tech has applications that can save us by increasing diagnostic technology and not just erase us. This last assertion is important. Even if we end up walking away from or rejecting some new advancements in cyber, it will be important for us to still recognise the possible benefits that also come from that technology.
There is still ongoing concern that cybernetics changes who we are as humans—the old Theseus’s Ship problem that asks, if you keep changing out the parts, at what point does the whole become something new, something different?
In “Who Wants to Be A Cyborg,” published late last year, philosopher Susan Schneider points out that we’re already there: “Several large research projects are currently trying to put AI inside the brain and peripheral nervous system. They aim to hook you to the cloud without the intermediary of a keyboard.”
Schneider is concerned that this is all happening in the context of capitalism: “For corporations doing this, such as Neuralink, Facebook and Kernel,” she says, “your brain and body is an arena for future profit. Without proper legislative guardrails, your thoughts and biometric data could be sold to the highest bidder, and authoritarian dictatorships will have the ultimate mind control device. So, privacy safeguards are essential.”
She wonders, as I also wonder, whether we can survive the kind of class divisions that will come from privatized enhancements, making people more competitive for jobs or college scholarships. Of course, we’ve been “enhancing” our bodies for centuries, and wealth has allowed some people to do that much better than others. Dental implants may be one of the salient examples, specifically because teeth are so visually representative of conventional constructions of beauty, influence and status in our society.
On top of that, Schneider is worried “that given the metaphysical uncertainty involving the nature of the person, we may face enhancement decisions before we have a clear, uncontroversial answer to the question ‘What is the nature of the self or person?’”
It is here, however, that I definitively depart from her critique. We have long stopped being pristine persons unaffected by internal or external technology. While I agree that the question of what “we” are is important—it lets us re-examine our values and judge our ethical choices—I do think that keeping “we’re always already cybernetic” in mind allows us to look backward in addition to looking forward. It lets us see history, with an understanding of economic systems and class divisions, which can inform present organizing and future visions and demands.