We Are All Cyborgs

Posted by Nishant Shah at May 24, 2012 06:15 AM |
The cyborg reminds us that who we are as human beings is very closely linked with the technologies we use.

Nishant Shah's article was published in the Indian Express on April 29, 2012

If you look at any illustrated history of human civilisation, you will quickly realise that it is also a history of technology. From the discovery of fire by Homo sapiens to the contemporary homo digitalis, there is no escaping that technologies of different kinds have not only changed the way we live but also helped us realise what it means to be human. Often, we treat these technologies as external to us, thinking of them as tools that we deploy to perform a particular task. However, as our technologies become more transparent, intimate and customised, we realise that we are developing relationships with the technological devices that surround us. So, if your laptop crashes, you feel crippled. There are people who proclaim that they feel amputated without their cellphone. It is quite reasonable to feel lost without the information compass of the internet.

This relationship between human beings and technologies has been very concisely defined in the idea of a cyborg. A cyborg is a human-technology synthesis which enhances our capacities to live as human beings. While it might seem like a slightly new idea, once you realise that we constantly live with technologies and often internalise them in our bodies, it is not difficult to wrap our head around it. Think of people with pacemakers or prosthetic limbs or different implants in their bodies, who experience technologies as an integral part of their everyday life. Similarly, think of the wide range of technology apparatus that you depend on to live a “regular” human life. We have also seen iconic cyborg representations in popular movies — from the absolutely unforgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator 2 to our very own dimpled Shah Rukh Khan as Ra.One — there has been a persistent imagining of the human being as we know it, evolving to become some sort of a super man, enhanced by advancements in digital technologies of virtual reality.

There has been a growing anxiety, almost a moral panic, about how technologies are alienating us, replacing face-time with inter-face time so that we are all growing “alone together”. There is also, across generations and users, a growing separation of those who work with technologies and those who don’t. There is much concern about the human becoming corrupt because of the ubiquitous presence of the pervasive and invasive technologies around us. In the face of these anxieties, the cyborg stands as a culturally significant and timely reminder that we, as human beings, are very closely linked with the technologies that we use. And that we need to stop thinking of technologies as merely gadgets and tools that surround us. The different objects that remind us of the presence of technology are not the same thing as technology itself. Technology is a way of thinking about things, a way of relating to the world around us. The most intrinsic forms of technologies are the ones that we don’t even recognise as a part of our innate mental make up.

Do this simple experiment. Right now, while you are reading this, do not look at any clock or time-measuring device and guess what time it is. Chances are that you will be, give or take a few minutes, more or less accurate. Even if you are temporally challenged, you will at least know what part of the day it is, morning, afternoon, evening or night. The point is that we are absolutely and completely creatures of time. We cannot think of ourselves outside of it and even when we might be dramatically wrong about it, there is no escaping the fact that we are always thinking of ourselves and the world around us through time.

We experience our lives and our relationships in cyclical notions of the clock’s face, thinking of our actions as borrowed from the future, lived in the present, and relegated to the archives of the past. It then, must come as a bit of a shock (it certainly did to me, the first time I was made to realise it) that time is not natural. Time is a human way of measuring a passage of actions. Time is a technology which has now become such a potent metaphor of life that we have forgotten to make the separation of the human and the technological.

And thus, whether you might be a tech-savvy digital native or a byte-fearing luddite, there is no denying the idea that when it comes to technologies of time, you are already a natural born cyborg. This ability of technologies to become transparent and an inalienable part of who we are forms cyborgs. The process through which they become transparent is not easily accessible, but it does begin by an internalisation of the technology’s processes in our everyday vocabulary. So the next time you think of yourself as a system that needs to be upgraded, or unable to pay attention because you don’t have enough bandwidth, remember that you are engaging in a flirtatious relationship with the digital. And slowly, but surely, we are all turning into cyborgs, as the new technologies rearrange patterns of our life and living.

[email protected]

Document Actions

Author

Nishant Shah

Dr. Nishant Shah is the co-founder and board member of the Centre for Internet and Society in Bangalore, India, and is a professor at the Institute of Culture and Aesthetics of Digital Media at Leuphana University in Germany, and is Dean of Research at ArtEZ Graduate School, the Netherlands.