Digital you

Neil Harbisson might have struggled to get a passport. The rules say passport photos can’t contain objects and Neil has an antenna. The antenna sticks out the top of his head and is wired into his brain allowing him to detect sounds, connect to Wi-Fi, and receive signals from satellites. Neil is a cyborg. He was the first legally recognised cyborg, which is how come his antenna is considered a part of him and so allowed in his passport photo.

Augmenting our bodies with technology is nothing new. The first internal pacemaker was implanted in 1958, using glasses to improve our eyesight started in the thirteenth century, and making tools goes back 3.4 million years. And nowadays many of us carry powerful data collecting devices in our pocket and wear sensing devices on our wrists. So in some ways maybe we’re all cyborgs.

The cyborg anthropologist, Amber Case, studies the symbiotic interactions between humans and machines. Her work considers how our values and culture are being shaped by having our lives increasingly mediated by technology. She studies the technologies that allow us to extend our physical selves, to go faster, remember more, hit harder, and the technologies that shape our mental and emotional selves. The former feels like it gives us an advantage, the latter seems to take something away from us. But Amber is positive about how our biology and technology is merging. She says that our technologies have shrunk time and space, that we can now stand on one side of the world, whisper, and be heard on the other side of the world. She says that our technologies don’t make us less human, they allow us to connect more in ways that make us more human. She says that our most successful technologies get out of the way and help us live our lives.

Mark Weiser said something similar. In 1991, he wrote a paper describing a vision of the Computer for the 21st Century. In it, he argued that the most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. He was right. When sensing technologies and the data they generate fade into the background of our lives so that we hardly even think about them, when we wear smart watches day and night, when we feel like we’ve lost a part of ourselves if we go somewhere without a mobile phone, then we are truly cyborgs. We are biological, technological, physical, digital beings.

Breaking down these boundaries between how we think about our biology and our technology, how we consider ourselves separate or connected, and to what and how, are themes Donna Haraway explored in ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’, along with considering the idea of the cyborg as a fusion of the physical and virtual. These are important philosophical questions.

Whereas we are aware of our physical selves because our senses show us our place in the world, the digital self exists because it is measured by a network of invisible technologies. Identity becomes not just about our sense of who we are in relation to others, but also about how we are measured, what data is held about us, what future behaviours can be predicted. If we think of our cyborg-selves as technologically enhanced humans, still mostly human but with more advanced tools, we may lose sight of how different we have become. We are a node in a network, connected to other nodes by the flow of data.

Realising and accepting we are cyborgs may be a transformative experience. It may encourage the construction of an identity fit for an increasingly partial, fragmented, contradictory world. No longer, ‘I, separate from the world’, but, ‘I, connected to the network‘. The question isn’t whether being cyborgs makes us less human, but about how interconnected we can possibly become.

So, carry your phone everywhere, wear your Fitbit or your Apple watch, generate the data, join the network, be a cyborg.

Your digital self is forging a path for the future of cyborgmanity.