This book is a dictionary of Cyborg Anthropology. In this introduction, we will familiarize ourselves with this strange discipline, characterize some of the salient features of the discipline, and provide some context as to the format of this book. Cyborg Anthropology, in short, studies the culture of new technologies that are re-defining our traditional notions of what it means to be human.
In April 2008 I began speaking about Cyborg Anthropology at conferences, and in May 2010 I created the Cyborg Anthropology wiki to help categorize and collect work related to the subject. Given Cyborg Anthropology's short history, this book is in the position of walking a thin line between a description of what this discipline has been and a manifesto of what the discipline should be. Despite my care in distinguishing my ideas from the scholarship that has come before me, these lines inevitably blur. I am not the holder of Cyborg Anthropology. Cyborg Anthropology is, and it is the right of everyone to be able to edit and contribute to its creation.
Its formal history is rather short. It was introduced as a formal subject of study in 1992 at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropology Association.
In their short presentation, Cyborg Anthropology was characterized "as an activity of theorizing and as a vehicle for enhancing the participation of cultural anthropologists in contemporary sciences”. A conference on the discipline was hosted in Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1993 which led to the collaborative book Cyborgs and Citadels. The Cyborg Handbook was published in 2001 as a reference book on the topic, and includes several essays on the field.
A preliminary sketch of the discipline is facilitated by looking at the two words that make up the name, “cyborg” and “anthropology”.
Anthropology, from the Greek “anthropos” (human being), is the study of humanity. There are four main branches of Anthropology, including Physical Anthropology, Cultural Anthropology, Archeology, and Lingustic Anthropology. Cyborg Anthropology falls most directly within Cultural Anthropology, but has intruiging links to the other branches of Anthropology as well. Cultural anthropologists seek to understand human cultures by immersing themselves in a culture and figuring out how each custom, ritual, institution, belief, profession, practice, and technology work together to form the complex whole we call “culture.” There have been entire libraries written on how to best undertake this task, but for now lets just say that the process tends to involve writing an “ethnography”, or a description of the culture based on interviews, careful observation, and questionaires. Historically, anthropologists would travel to exotic locations to do this research, but today anthropologists also write about cultures and sub-cultures much closer to home.
While Cyborg Anthropology is most closely allied with Cultural Anthropology, there are elements of the other branches of Anthropology that also inform Cyborg Anthropology. Archeology studies the material artifacts of a civilization--often a prehistoric civilization that lacked writing--and infers information about the culture based on these artifacts. Cyborg Anthropology diverges from Archeology in focusing on contemporary culture, but overlaps in its analysis of material culture as a means for understanding the less concrete elements of culture.
The other branch of Anthropology that offers intriguing links with Cyborg Anthropology is Physical Anthropology. Physical Anthropology studies the evolution of the human species in the context of our closest relatives, primates. Physical Anthropologists study the physical remains of various humanoids and uses this information to understand the culture, conditions, and evolutionary trajectory of hominidae. Many futurists have posited that technology is ushering a new era of human evolution by facilitating drastic changes to the human condition.# While we do not unequivocally endorse these arguments, they do highlight the pervasive ways in which technology is affecting our species. The prevalence of the evolutionary metaphor in talking about the role of technology in our lives implicitly challenges Physical Anthropology to join the discussion, and thus finds itself implicated in the project of Cyborg Anthropology.
The second major concept (and object of study) in Cyborg Anthropology is the cyborg. Broadly speaking, a cyborg can be defined as a system with both biological and artificial components. In one sense, the use of any tool that functions as an extension of one's abilities makes one a cyborg, but cyborgs are more narrowly understood to have physical technological prostheses. Thus in the narrowest sense, examples of cyborgs would include people with pacemakers, insulin pumps, or bionic limbs. In the broadest sense, the whole human-technological apparatus could qualify as a cyborg system (and since the border of a cyborg system has no inherent limits, the entire ecosystem could qualify as a cyborg). The narrowest sense of cyborg does not let us grasp the various combinations of biological beings and technological artifacts, while the broadest conception runs the risk of being so vast that the discipline cannot be defined. Couldn’t one call a neanderthal with a rock a cyborg? What about a swarm of bees and their vast architectural creations? Doesn’t any interaction with technology basically qualify as Cyborgs? The rest of this book will complicate and interrogate this definition, exploring the many permutations of the concept.
Given the elasticity of the concept, we will do our best to historically situate the cyborg through the actual history of the term and the discipline of cybernetics, both of which find their temporal home in post-WW2 America. This does not preclude applying the concept of the cyborg to other periods in history, but does focus our analysis to contemporary culture and avoids anachronistic projections.
The term cyborg was originally coined in 1960 by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in a paper about the advantages of human-machine couplings for surviving in space. The authors presented a case for humans augmenting their physiology to better adapt to the vicissitudes of outer space, including taking specialized drugs and using hypnotherapy. The idea was that if humans adapt to outerspace rather than taking their environment with them, they could avoid “being a slave to the machine” and be “free to explore, to create, to think, and to feel"..
The cyborg in popular culture is a cinematic concept. Works such as the Wizard of Oz, Metropolis, Robocop and Terminator are frequently referenced when the term Cyborg is mentioned in conversation. Cyborgs were also explored through different works of Science Fiction (although this tradition goes back to works such as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein). However, became a topic of widespread scholarly interest with the publication of Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” in 1985. It is here that the theoretical force of the concept of the cyborg really took shape. Haraway identifies the cyborg as a border creature, a non-entity that rejects the very notion of essentialization. The cyborg operates at the borders of the self. It takes the cohesive individual subject that has played such an important role throughout history and shows where the borders have become permeable and elastic through technological augmentation.
Another way to think about cyborgs by breaking down the term itself. “Cyborg” is short for “cybernetic organism”. For most, “cybernetics” is vaguely familiar concept that seems to have survived merely as a buzzword prefix, but the story of is through the discipline of Cybernetics. Cybernetics was a discipline that was pioneered in 1946-1953 during the Macy Conferences. The Macy Conferences were a series of conferences in which scholars from seemingly disparate fields came together to form a new meta-science. At these conferences the concepts of feedback loops, information, and systems were brought together to understand a wide range of phenomenon, from brains and computers to weapons and rats.
Besides the ubiquitous prefix “cyber”, Cybernetics has seemed to slip into the cracks of historical obscurity, but it’s basic assumptions are still found in the set of disciplines now called “Informatics”. Informatics include the disciplines of Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Bionics, Information Technology, Nanotechnology, Genetics, Artificial Life, Cognitive Science, Neuroscience, and the variety of sub-disciplines within these larger fields. The common link lies in the pervasive concepts of information, systems, and feedback loops, and their corresponding implicit metaphor of organism as machine, machine as organism, and everything understood as information. Every time someone says “I’m not wired for this type of work”, or “One second, my phone’s thinking”, they are propagating an extended metaphor that was incubated at the Macy Conferences. These metaphors can be useful in understanding certain processes and technologies, but they must be carefully scrutinized and discussed to keep the horizons of our future open.
The fields that make up Informatics are at the forefront of researching and implementing the technologies that are forming our cyborg condition--technologies like genetic engineering, brain-computer interfaces, smart phones, and prosthetic limbs. By grounding the cyborg in Cybernetics we avoid studying all technology--a monumental task for any discipline--and also trace a specific history in a field where history is often overlooked in the excitement for future technologies.
Anthropology and Methodology
The central unit of analysis in Anthropology is the ethnography, a snapshot of how a culture functions as a whole (often with some recourse to the notion of the "structure" of a culture, a metaphor that suggests unchanging stability). In this sense, anthropologists often spend less time considering how a culture has changed over time and instead try to understand how the culture functions as a synaptic whole. Cyborg Anthropology seems different in this respect. Because technology and interface are changing so fast, cyborg anthropology is much more likely to note the changes over time in culture and use this diachronic analysis to understand the ramifications of our cybernetic condition. The rhizome (a cybernetic, feedback-looping, adaptive, decentralized network) is the metaphor that replaces static structure. Insofar as Cyborg Anthropology is studying phenomena that have very little cultural precedence, it seems to be inextricably tied to historical analysis and theories of interface r/evolution.
Under this view, Cyborg Anthropology studies humankind and its relations with the technological systems it has built, specifically modern technological systems that have reflexively shaped notions of what it means to be human. But this still leaves the question of why the discipline needs to exist. If you find yourself reading this book, you probably have a good idea of why we should be thinking about how technology affects our lives. Humans and technology have co-created each other since the beginning of humanity. Katherine Hayles calls this dynamic “techno-genesis”, and it is the idea that humans and technology mutually define each other. A hammer extended the capabilities of the fist, and a knife extended the capabilities of the tooth. The increase in technological development went hand in hand with the logarithmic increase in population, leading to the proliferation of new technologies we see today.
With a basic understanding of Anthropology and cyborgs, we can start to understand why the resources of anthropology should be utilized to understand our technological condition.
1. Science erases it’s own culture in its efforts to strive toward perfect objectivity. There is nothing wrong with attempting to stay as objective as possible; after all, a surgeon should not practice in a sewer just because perfectly sanitary conditions do not exist. But this dynamic leaves little room for self-reflexive thought on how __________. Because we no longer have generations to integrate new technologies into culture, we need to use the tools of Anthropology to scrutinize our current condition.
2. The cyborg operates at the borders of the self. It takes the cohesive individual subject that has played such an important role throughout history and shows where the borders have become permeable and elastic through technological augmentation. The adaptation of information technologies doesn’t merely affect the border of the self, it derivatively affects many other pervasive concepts that we use to organize our world. Concepts like place, rootedness, cognition, consciousness, privacy, and many others are being challenged and reformed at an accelerated pace. To examine these pervasive changes we need to carefully study how technology is affecting all facets of our emerging techno-culture, a task that this book hopes to contribute to.
Form and Content
This dictionary was primarily created on a closed-wiki devoted to Cyborg Anthropology, with many sessions on Skype and Google Docs to supplement. A wiki is a unique creature. Rather than provide a linear narrative, a wiki is a node-based platform that mutates and evolves over time. We wanted the form to follow the content, and thus have tried to have the format follow the content of the book. Rather than a linear narrative that cohesively and definitively explains Cyborg Anthropology, we have chosen to create a cloud of concepts orbiting around the various nodes that make up Cyborg Anthropology. This book is not meant to be read linearly, but rather to be browsed at one's whims, just as one would scroll through an RSS feed. These entries are meant as small synaptic snapshots that weave together a rhizomatic sketch of possible futures. They are not meant to be read from cover-to-cover, although you are welcome to do this. We don’t claim to be objective, because there is no way to be objective about the future. Despite postmodernism’s warnings of the decay of master narratives, we are not stuck with purely subjective experience. In our compromise, a certain objectivity emerges out of a network of subjectivities, thus allowing for an emergent “postmodern objectivity.”
One of the major reasons for writing this book is to respond to the polemical visions that often vitiate discourses on the future. Historically, the first futurists were religious prophets, and too many writers, thinkers, scholars and media pundits follow in this tradition by proclaiming the imminent techno-utopia or ecological apocalypse. This dynamic is also fueled by the formidable influence of Science Fiction in guiding our thinking about the future. Regardless of the cause, we seek to mitigate the stark polarities of these master narratives by providing a set of concepts to think about the role of technology in the future of humanity. Following Keith Ansel-Pearson, we wish to “question, problematize, overturn, revalue, announce, renounce, advocate, interrogate, affirm, deny, celebrate, critique” technology and the role it is going to play in our future. Some of the entries are very optimistic about our future, while others express grave worry as to the effects of these new technologies.
This book is partially descriptive and critical, but it is also fundamentally evocative, and is meant to actively sow new memes for productively thinking about and designing for the future: a future that we would actually want to live in. Katherine Hayles captures this sentiment quite well in explaining the rational behind her book, How We Became Posthuman:
"If my nightmare is a culture inhabited by posthumans who regard their bodies as fashion accessories rather than the ground of being, my dream is a version of the posthuman that embraces the possibilities of information technologies without being seduced by fantasies of unlimited power and disembodied immortality, that recognizes and celebrates finitude as a condition of human being, and that understands human life is embedded in a material world of great complexity, one on which we depend on for our continued survival".
Is the the goal of this book to facilitate thinking about the objects that we hold and how they have transformed how we think, act and will evolve over the next century. It is a starting point for an examination of culture in flux.
- Dumit, Joseph. PhD, and Davis-Floyd, Robbie. PhD. Cyborg Anthropology. PDF. Also see Davis-Floyd, Robbie and Joseph Dumit (1998) Cyborg Babies: From Techno-Sex to Techno-Tots. New York: Routledge.
- Downey, Gary Lee, Joseph Dumit, eds. (1997) Cyborgs and Citadels: Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences, Technologies and Medicines.
- Clynes, Manfred and Kline, Nathan. Cyborgs and Space. Astronautics, Sept 1960. http://www.scribd.com/doc/2962194/Cyborgs-and-Space-Clynes-Kline Accessed Jan 2011.
- Pearson, Keith Ansell. Viroid Life: Perspectives on Nietzsche and the Transhuman Condition. Routledge: 1997.
- Hayles, Katherine. How We Became Posthuman, p. 5. in The Transhuman Condition: A Report on Machines, Technics, and Evolution. New York: Routledge, 1997. p.1.