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What is a Cyborg?

by Chad Sanders
What is a Cyborg?

Avant-garde cyborg artists plug into nature

Transcendence is key to human evolution. Sometimes, it occurs naturally, and other times, through circumstance.

The original term, cyborg, came from scientists Nathan S. Kline and Manfred Clynes in an attempt to improve the possibility of mankind in space exploration. The principle being that it would be easier to alter a person for sustained space travel and colonization than it would be to terraform an artificial environment. As technology expands like the universe itself, the idea of what is a real cyborg moves in all different directions. It was only a matter of time before technology provided several possibilities. 

But how is this term applied? Are we talking about robots with human appearances or are we talking about prosthetic limbs? At what point does an appliance becomes part of who we are? How much of this discussion is about practical application and not a philosophical definition?

The polymorphic definition of cyborg requires further exploration.  Out-of-the-box ideas have led to body modifications and new perceptions with these “new” cyborgs spearheading a growing movement of art, research and civil rights.

What is a Cyborg?

Neil Harbisson

Born colorblind, this Spanish artist sought purpose growing up in a gray-scale world.  Mixing together his musical ability with a longing to understand our beautiful world, Harbisson worked with cyberneticist Adam Montandon in a revolutionary collaboration that led to what Harbisson refers to as his “eyeborg” — an antenna fused to the back of his spine picking up colors and translating those colors into vibrational tones Harbisson feels in his spine.

“I find (it) completely normal to hear color all the time,” Harbisson said during a TED talk in 2012. “At start, I had to memorize the names you give for each color. I had to memorize the notes. But after some time, all this information became a perception. I didn’t have to think about the notes.  “When I started to dream in color is when I felt the software and my brain had united,” Harbisson said. “That’s when I started to feel like a cyborg.”

Harbisson was officially recognized as a cyborg in 2004, when he was asked to remove his antenna while being photographed for his United Kingdom passport. After explaining how the antenna is non-removable, he was allowed to take a picture for the first government document to recognize a cybernetic appendage. Seeing as the antenna is apart of who he is, he was able to convince the passport officials to take the picture as is.

His antenna is a part of who he is. It is not removable, ever present. Some would see this as a drag, but he has embraced it as a part of him, just as much as his feet or hands may be.

What is a Cyborg?

Moon Ribas

While being trained as a dancer, Ribas was encouraged to incorporate technology into her performance. She attempted to do so, but not in a traditional sense. 

She wasn’t hip to the ways others were using technology. She wanted the technology to enhance her performance and herself, not dance while something tech-y was happening. Her philosophy was built out of the idea that dancing is movement. So she explored all that movement is in human beings and nature.

“Movement is inevitable, unstoppable and in most cases, invisible,” Ribas said during her TED talk in 2015. “There is no such thing as stillness. Everything moves.”

At first, she wanted to gauge people’s speed. She designed a speed reader to put on her arm. It gauged the speed at which people walked by. But this wasn’t enough for Ribas.  “I didn’t want to wear a sense. I wanted to have a sense.”

In collaboration with Michael Rodriguez, Ribas created earrings with built-in speed readers. Facing forward, she was able to interpret the speed in which things went by, translated as vibrations to each individual ear. Turning the earrings around, she was able to not only gauge her own speed, but could tell the speed of someone behind her. Through this, she was able to travel the world and gauge the speed in which the citizens of heavily populated cities walk. Using this as a reference point, she can now determine a specific speed in her dancing by such sped-up styles as “London Time” or sloth-like speeds as “Vatican City Time”.

Wearing the earrings created a perception of movement around herself, the ability to feel other people’s presence without having to use one of the other five senses. She calls it 360 degree perception. 

Ribas became more in tune with other people, but wasn’t a completed sense of nature. So, in 2013, Ribas had installed an implant in her elbow that connects to seismographs from all around the world. This signal translates to a vibration she can feel at any given time. Throughout her day, the vibration gives a sense of how the earth moves. Over the course of a few months, the vibrations have become a new sense for Ribas, changing her perception of reality and bringing her close to nature. 

Since the original implant, new implants have been installed in her feet. Also, she has been sent seismic signals from the moon. Ribas now refers to herself as sensornaut.

Thanks to her new perception, Ribas has created dance pieces about what she feels from the Earth. Just like Harbisson, she now identifies as a cyborg. 

“Now that I am a cyborg, now that my organism and cybernetics have united in an extra sense, I don’t feel closer to robots and machines.,” Ribas said. “I feel closer to nature, because I can feel my planet.”

What is a Cyborg?

Manel Muñoz

Muñoz original medium was photography. He wanted to understand his camera more, to have it become a part of him. Every photographer knows that a your relationship to the camera is really about light, and by attempting to better understand light, he realized his true inspiration.

“I’m inspired by nature,” Muñoz said in the “Outside the Box” video series by ESSEC Business School. “I’m inspired by the weather and the different shapes in the clouds I see in different places I go.”

With his inspiration now crystal clear, Muñoz designed an implant in his skull that reads barometric and atmospheric pressure. The implant sends a vibration to his ear, and changes the signal depending on the increase or decrease of pressure. 

So just like many animals, Muñoz can detect changes in the weather. Like the other new cyborgs, this new sensory input has changed his perception, and he can feel nature.

During speaking engagements, Muñoz uses his dog Blue as an example of how perception can be different. A dog can have a wider range of hearing than humans, see different scales of color and has an increased scope of smells. All these different senses created a different perception of reality for ol’ Blue, even though Blue and his owner, along with all of us and our pets, exist on the same plain. 

“All of the things make (it) so Blue has a different perception of reality,” Muñoz said during his speech at iMagination Week global BBA in 2018. “I want to say, there is no single reality. Everyone has a specific reality. The subject of reality depends on perception or in the sense everyone has.”

The Cyborg Foundation and The Transpecies Society

These forerunners have each achieved a different and new perception beyond the manner in which humans traditionally perceive. They did not do this in an attempt to be less than human or degrade the human race, but to push it forward. To them, transpecies is the next step in evolution. They have equally and individually chose to enhance themselves, the only difference between then and say, the X-men is the change wasn’t due to an evolutionary jump but a technological jump push. The three cyborgs believe themselves no longer only human and want to share their new philosophy with the world. In 2019. Harbisson and Ribas founded the Cyborg Foundation with the purpose of increasing cyborg awareness and cyborg art.

Along with Muñoz, Harbisson and Ribas founded the Transpecies Society to foster other people’s exploration into cyborgism while defending the rights of transpecies individuals. Even though transgender rights in the current civil liberty issue being explored, explained and defended at this moment, it looks like transspecies rights isn’t too far behind. 

The fundamental basis is the Cyborg Bill of Rights, written by professor Donna Harraway in “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century”. The Cyborg Foundation and Transpecies Society have adopted the Cyborg Bill of Rights to three principles:

  1. To help Humans to become Cyborgs
  2. To defend cyborg rights
  3. Promote cyborgism as a social movement.

In a world where cyborgs are synonymous with Scifi, we are more likely to think of “The Terminator” than we are an avant-garde dance performer or future freedom fighter. But through outreach, art and charity, these new cyborgs obvious intention is to move us forward and not bring us down.

Continue reading more in What is a Cyborg? — Part Two:  Becoming Whole Again

Hey, chum. These posts don't write themselves. If you wanna stay in the know, it's gotta be a two way street.*

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