Monday, December 11, 2006

The Cyborg Subject

The cyborg is the interface of the organic with the technological; the technicizing of the human and the humanizing of technology, i.e. the body as both the hardware of machines and software for machines

(Fitzpatrick 1999: 97, cited in Bell 2000: 5)

In this statement we are offered the understanding that machines and humans are merging together for some mutual gain. We see this benefit very clearly if we consider the medical cyborg: a fusion of machinic and organic elements that improve, prolong or extend an otherwise vulnerable human life.

This entry reflects upon one Cat Jones, a medical cyborg whose heart is fused with an implanted cardioverter/defibrillator (ICD). These are the recommended implants for those that, like Cat, have inherited Long QT Syndrome. This means her heart beat is arrhythmic, too long, and beats less per minute than normal hearts.

This implant monitors her heart rate and if required it will ‘pace’ the heart for her if its rate drops to below 50 bpm, or ‘reboot’ the heart if it shuts down entirely. It is battery powered, requiring a change every five years or after each full defibrillation. It has an onboard memory, and stores information on all of its own and the heart’s activity. It has a wireless transmitter/receiver, allowing external diagnostics to be run without opening the chest cavity.

My battery-powered girlfriend visited the hospital for her annual diagnostics recently. I learned that heart specialists must now have technical as well as medical knowledge when dealing with these cyborg patients; that instruction manuals for these electronic devices are now a part of medical literature; and that diagnostic devices which monitor the electronic output of her implant now form the basis of her medical care. After the initial diagnosis, she relies more on technicians than on doctors. This is another interesting example of the closing gaps between the human and machine world. Ultimately, it would be better to replace all of Cat’s organs with electronics. This would ensure a long, healthy and efficient life. This is the direction that medical science is taking. Pepperell (1995: 180, cited in Bell 2000: 5) states that:

“All technological progress of human society is geared towards the redundancy of the human species as we currently know it. … Complex machines are an emergent life form. … As computers develop to be more like humans, so humans develop to like computers more.”

His suggestion is that we are being taught to assimilate machines by the machine world. This twist in our cultural evolution has already started a trend toward a more complete cyborg self: a fetish for technology.

The desire to get closer to our technology is decidedly McLuhanistic. Witness subjects like Huffman, a cosmetic cyborg and early-adopter of machinic cyborg technologies (cosmetic because his extensions are non-essential and purely for his personal enjoyment). He is quoted as saying “In modifying my body I have ever so slightly altered the way I organize the world in my mind. I eagerly await the day in which I can integrate more elaborate senses into myself.” (Larratt, 2004). He seems now addicted to sensory input, and seeks to find further ways to become a ‘sex organ of the machine world’.

De Kerckhove (1997: 175) postulates that:

The last boundary to the true biotechnical relationship between human and machine is the interface itself. This may not necessarily be desirable, but it should not obscure the fact that we have been entertaining quasi-bionic relationships with our inventions all along.

He is correct that it is not wholly desirable to make this interface: a combination of moral and ethical issues arise through the manipulation of the pure human form. Homo sapiens are on a cultural trajectory that will see us merge with the machine world’s parallel trajectory. At the collision point, the next step in cultural evolution begins: transhumanism.

De Kerckhove suggests that despite our current addiction to “mainlining electricity” (1997: 179), we do not yet have the correct interface to co adapt further. At Reading University’s cybernetics department, a prototype bodily enhancement is being developed so that its developer can ‘feel’ the information on web-pages that they are browsing, by means of a wire inserted into the arm. It works by stimulating the nerves in the user’s arm with mild electrical impulse.

Is this the “mainlining electricity” to which De Kerckhove refers? This technology represents a further alignment between human physicality and the machine world, a sensory interface between the two universes. This has huge implications for how we might experience reality in the dawning age of transhumanism.

The meme for transhumanism is spreading like a thought-contagion, influencing some individuals to merge with the technologies that surround them. Our tools are becoming ourselves, and our reality is changing irreversibly to accommodate the new, auto-amputated self.

Technology has adapted to reflect our environmental needs: machines can pump your heart for you. We look to the machine world for enhancement of the self: the nervous system can integrate new electronic senses. Genes are redundant in the age of the transhuman: the meme is the new currency of human evolution. The meme has flourished on the internet, perhaps accelerating humanity’s further integration with the machine world. Digital memes are working us over, shaping our trajectory as we enter the next phase of evolution, transhumanism.

I think I know what was in that jar of memes: Homo superior.

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