What exactly is a cyborg?

Paul Raven @ 06-09-2010

“You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The word cyborg makes for a great example of rapid semantic drift; in the fifty years since it was coined, its definition has both broadened and narrowed, depending on who is using it, and to what ends. As an early salvo in the 50 Posts about Cyborgs series (as mentioned a few days ago), Tim Maly takes it back to basics:

I want to present you with a different vision of cyborgs, one that derives in part from the work of feminist theorist Donna Haraway, author of A Cyborg Manifesto.

In it, she argues that we are all and have always been cyborgs, hybrid entities that combine biology, culture, and technology into a single blurry unit. Haraway wants to move away from the essentialist narratives of gender, race, and politics but in doing so, she ends up taking the rest of us along with her.

There has never been a moment when we did not integrate with tools.

(Rather reminiscent of of Timothy Taylor’s theory of the artificial ape, no?)

Our tools define and shape us, they tell us who we are. We use them to extend our literal selves out into the world. When you get into an accident, you say “she hit me” not “her car hit me” and not “her car hit my car”.

We are embraced and enveloped by the technosphere and even if we try to escape and smash the system, we find we are part of it.

50 Posts About Cyborgs is going to be a really interesting collection of work… things will be quiet(ish) here at Futurismic for the next week and a bit, so you might want to head on over there to bolster your daily diet of geeky brainfoods.

But why are things going to be quiet(ish) here? Fear not! The next post will explain it all… 🙂


Which came first: the humans or the tools?

Paul Raven @ 27-08-2010

It’s very nearly the fiftieth anniversary* of a word well-used here at Futurismic: cyborg. So what better time for an anthropologist/archaeologist to advance his theory that homo sapiens sapiens is in fact the first cyborg species, evolved more in response to the facilitations of its own technology than to the environment it inhabits? [via ScienceNotFiction]. Take it away, Timothy Taylor:

Darwin is one of my heroes, but I believe he was wrong in seeing human evolution as a result of the same processes that account for other evolution in the biological world – especially when it comes to the size of our cranium.

Darwin had to put large cranial size down to sexual selection, arguing that women found brainy men sexy. But biomechanical factors make this untenable. I call this the smart biped paradox: once you are an upright ape, all natural selection pressures should be in favour of retaining a small cranium. That’s because walking upright means having a narrower pelvis, capping babies’ head size, and a shorter digestive tract, making it harder to support big, energy-hungry brains. Clearly our big brains did evolve, but I think Darwin had the wrong mechanism. I believe it was technology. We were never fully biological entities. We are and always have been artificial apes.

[…]

Technology allows us to accumulate biological deficits: we lost our sharp fingernails because we had cutting tools, we lost our heavy jaw musculature thanks to stone tools. These changes reduced our basic aggression, increased manual dexterity and made males and females more similar. Biological deficits continue today. For example, modern human eyesight is on average worse than that of humans 10,000 years ago.

Unlike other animals, we don’t adapt to environments – we adapt environments to us. We just passed a point where more people on the planet live in cities than not. We are extended through our technology. We now know that Neanderthals were symbolic thinkers, probably made art, had exquisite tools and bigger brains. Does that mean they were smarter?

Evidence shows that over the last 30,000 years there has been an overall decrease in brain size and the trend seems to be continuing. That’s because we can outsource our intelligence. I don’t need to remember as much as a Neanderthal because I have a computer. I don’t need such a dangerous and expensive-to-maintain biology any more. I would argue that humans are going to continue to get less biologically intelligent.

Interesting… and could be taken as a vindication for the hand-wringing of Nick Carr et al over how teh intarwubz be makin uz dumb.

But change is neither good or bad; it just is. Should we lament this outsourcing of our intelligence (I’d prefer the word outboarding, myself, but it’s not so trendy and probably makes people think of motorboats)? Is biological intelligence necessarily more desirable (or even “right” or “good”) than our cybernetic symbiosis? Taylor, thankfully, is not advocating a return to hairshirt primitivism in response to his theory… but I’d bet good money that a whole bunch of folk will do.

[ * There’s a reason I’m aware of this anniversary, and it’s not that I’m obsessed with the etymological history of neologisms**. You’ll find out how and why I possess that nugget of knowledge in the near future. ]

[ ** Actually, I am obsessed with the etymology of neologisms. It’s like butterfly collecting for the altermodern age. ]