Sep 212011


I so dislike the writer who begins a piece with a definition, but I want to, and since I’m in charge here, I can – and here it is: A cyborg is a “cybernetic organism.” A being with both biological and artificial (e.g. electronic, mechanical or robotic) parts.

Many disabled peopleDick Cheney. And lots of epileptics. Already cyborgs. Have been for a while.

The media has of late put forth a lot of “gee-wiz neato” and “there goes our humanity” hand wringing about recent developments in cybernetics, the relative morality of becoming super-humans, transhumanism as a movement, and just where we’re all headed as a species (SOME LINKS AT THE BOTTOM). But here’s the thing…

We’re Already Made Better.
We’ve Had the Technology.

Now, when we think “cyborg,” we’ve basically got what pop-culture has conditioned us to think – that the future will likely bring the Terminator or RoboCop or some murderous barely-human villain – or if we’re lucky, Steve Austin. While human cybernetics is extremely fascinating and rapidly advancing and just, you know, cool, the reality is that cybernetic organisms are already here, their enhancements much more subtle, much less sci-fi, and much more pedestrian than it might seem. And, future cybernetics will probably be much more physically seamless and less obviously in- and extrusive than we imagine. It’s been happening for a long while – a slow burn, a steady merger of the biological with the non. It moves forward – some even believe that if you use a smartphone, you’re automatically a cyborg – connected to the world with a not yet embedded information prosthetic (see Amber Case at TED).

Your Mom Might be a Cyborg

In truth, cybernetics is all around us – it is us – and it should not be frightening.It’s not an erosion of our humanity, it is, rather, an essential and fundamental expression thereof. As my 6 regular readers know, the purpose of this site is to share and promote the idea that creating technology is at the core of what it means to be human. Nothing of our global society would exist without it – we’d be another screeching primate – albeit hairless and more attractive.

Human is as Human Does

I’m always bewildered by declarations of technology A, B, or C representing a fundamental attack on our humanity, and we better should ought to start tip-toeing through the technological tulips before we destroy ourselves. Of course there are dangers to runaway destructive technologies (MAD), but to believe with conviction that humans won’t find a way to manage and minimize such dangers kinda negates the nobility of preserving the essential “humanity” of us all. Not to get all political or analogistic, but it’s like a Tea Party member who drives on paved roads, demands police presence, and collects a Social Security check.

All this stuff we’re doing to make ourselves better, it’s really just an expression of who we are as a species. Carl Sagan believed we need a frontier, and we’ll always find one – and the frontier is both within and without ourselves. The gradual merger of humanity with it’s technology is not novel. It is not a threat. It’s just, well, what we do. It’s human nature to be unnatural.

Consider the average Bronze Age human – physically indistinguishable from anyone on the street today, but with a life expectancy about 1/3 of humans in the developed world – and in all likelihood possessing a relatively horrific sense of barbaric morality. In the stretch of time since, with the addition of myriad technologies and advances in absolutely every area of human endeavor, have we become more or less human? More or less humane?

Choose Your Own Adventure:

Let’s say, for example, as a thought exercise, you are in some serious trouble. You need some heavy altruistic help of a very selfless nature. Who would you want to decide your fate? The “purer” Bronze Age human from 5000 years ago? Or the hyper-augmented cyborg from 2061?

Yep. That’s what I thought.

[The Cyborg in Us All – NEW YORK TIMES] Good piece. Nice accessible overview.
[Why I Don’t Want to be a Cyborg – SLATE] The thicker position, but asks some good questions and makes some good points.

Cut Out the Bad Eye. Put in a Camera. Walk Around and Investigate
Can a computer be as intelligent as a human? Or, Asking the Wrong Dumb Question.
In Defense of Being an Always-On Human
Technology Created Organized Religion. Next Project: Cults For & Against the Singularity
Cyborg Dick Cheney has no Heartbeat – Soon to be Wirelessly Powered