Between technophilia and technophobia: cyborg citizenship

IssueMarch - June 2002
Feature by Chris Hables Gray

Technology has only become important to utopian proposals recently, but they have always depended on instrumentalist and rationalistic thinking. Plato's Republic, Tommaso Campanella's City of the Sun, and Thomas Moore's Utopia were all based on regimenting and bureaucratic ways of managing people.

We have to notice how these early utopias are incredibly authoritarian and, to our eyes, are really dystopias. Consciously created dystopias based on technologies such as genetic engineering, psychotropic drugs, and electronic surveillance, were common in 20th Century literature, as with Aldous Huxley's Brave New World and George Orwell's 1984, while attempts by scientific and nationalist socialists to build utopia, produced regimes in reality as bad as any imaginings.

Lenin thought that Taylorism (scientific management), electrification, and the vanguard party would produce first socialism, and then communism with its magical withering away of the state. The Fascists also believed in magic, especially toward the end of World War II when super-weapons were going to save them.

We know the results.

Utopia is nowhere

Today, the two main non-religious utopian visions put forward claims of anti-authoritarian premises, but they are quite opposite in their stance towards technology. The neo-primitivists look back to a golden age of hunter-gatherers or, perhaps, neolithic farmers who are liberated not just from new technological changes but from the last 3,000 years of invention as well. Meanwhile, the libertarian (in the US meaning of pro-capitalist) Extropians argue that technology will set us free, not just from governments and other oppressive institutions, but from death itself. Neither vision seems likely to come to pass. Simplistic thinking about complex things is what makes utopias possible and will, in the real world, get us nowhere. This is particularly true of technology.

Few things are as complicated as the relationship of humans and human culture to technology.


It makes some sense to actually define humans as technology-using and-producing creatures. Marx called us “homo faber”, “man the maker” or, as I prefer, humans-tool-users. Humans have never existed without tools for hunting, gathering, cooking and so on. Under most definitions, human culture is a complex system of technologies, and certainly such relatively recent inventions as agriculture, cities, and armies are. In many ways you could define early humans as tool-users, agricultural and urban (civilised) people as tool-system or machine users and, more recently, as tools and machines have become ubiquitous and integrated into human culture and human bodies at extremely intimate levels, you can talk about a cyborg society.

”Cyborg” is derived from the term “cybernetics”, which was coined by the mathematician Norbert Wiener to mean the study of systems of all kinds. Wiener argued that all systems, whether living or not, were governed by the same sets of rules and relationships. In 1960, the eclectic genius Manfred Clynes created the term cyborg from “cybernetic organism” to refer to that class of things that were self-regulating systems that included both living and artificial subsystems. His first example was a white rat with an osmotic pump attached that would automatically inject some drug into the rat's system when certain levels were reached. His initial point was that humans could eventually be modified in various ways (drugs, prosthetics, genetics) so we could survive in space without a space suit, but it soon became clear that such modifications were already taking place in many venues.

Being `borged

The term cyborg has been widely adopted in popular culture and in political debates, yet isn't much used in science and engineering.

Still, the reality is that such hybrid systems, combining the living and the dead, the artificial and the natural, the evolved and the invented, are proliferating at an incredible rate in our culture. From genetic engineering, to the man-machine weapons system of the military, to medical bio-implants, cyborgian techno-sciences and perspectives are everywhere.

The central and most interesting case is the ongoing modification of humans.

Even when we are not directly cyborged, as through vaccinations that reprogramme our immune system, or implanted chips to monitor our hearts or blood sugar levels, we are accelerating our integration with machines.

Most of us in the west and in the urban areas of the third world live lives that are almost completely mediated by machines. They deliver our music and entertainment, they deliver us to work and play, they analyse our productivity and our health, and they are, more and more, being implanted into our bodies to perform these and other functions more efficiently.

Militarisation & monoculturalisation

The effective integration of humans and machines is crucial for space exploration, high technology industrial production, today's medicine, mass media, and war.

The US invasion of Afghanistan has demonstrated how effective the high-tech version of this is, as the 9/11 hijackers who used knives to turn themselves into powerful cyborg suicide weapon systems have shown that there is a “low-tech” version of cyborg soldiers as well. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. The incredible growth of technoscience is behind these developments, as it is behind the invention of weapons of mass destruction, the destruction or monoculturalisation of much of nature, and many other trends that actually threaten the human future, including the engineering of our own replacements.

Within decades, some humans will be genetically modified to an extent that, in terms of their DNA, they will be different species: post-humans. Clynes, in his 1960 article (co-authored with Nathan Kline) that named cyborg, also wrote about how cyborg marked the beginning of “participatory evolution”. The issue isn't whether or not we're going to be cyborgs or even posthumans. We are already cyborged, and posthumans are inevitable. The question is, what kinds of cyborgs, what kinds of posthumans, and who will decide?


Donna Haraway raised this issue in her brilliant 1985 “Manifesto for Cyborgs” where she urged the left, especially feminists, not to demonise technology but rather to take responsibility for it. Instead of being naive about many of the militaristic and capitalistic origins of much cyborgisation, Haraway was actually among the very first to point them out. But, she argued, that doesn't mean that technology in general, or cyborgisation in particular, is wholly evil. It has many origins and it has many implications that aren't necessarily authoritarian, most particularly in medicine.

She also pointed out that as socially constructed creatures, cyborgs implicitly reject simplistic notions of naturalised gender and all other such givens such as race. It is no coincidence that it is cyborgian medicine that has allowed for trans-sexuality and transgender communities to exist, for example.

However, some folks on the left would rather pretend that cyborgisation is wholly evil and even that all technology is bad.

Recently the glossy high-tech AdBusters magazine hypocritically slammed such cyborgologists as Haraway with their own satirical manifesto with graphics that equated cyborgisation to Nazism. They also reprinted an article by John Zerzan, the leading neo-primitivist theorist, without noticing that the only way the neo-primitivist utopia will come into being is by the death of most humans and the destruction of civilisation as we know it. But at least Zerzan is relatively consistent in his anti-technological stance, although one has to remark that few things could be less humanistic than the eradication of most people and their works so that the few survivors could live lives of un-alienated bliss.

I find this vision not only undesirable, but unlikely, and much as I dislike many aspects of cyborgisation I don't believe they will all go away. Some of the worst can be stopped, with political struggle, but “progress”, even stupid progress, can't be completely stopped. I don't believe humans will stop inventing things, changing our environments, modifying ourselves with everything from tattoos to implanted machines, until we have either destroyed ourselves or transformed humanity into something else. I do think that we can, and must, reorganise society profoundly so that power over others (militarism) and greed (capitalism) are not the main forces behind such changes.

Everyone an activist

My vision is for a society where those who want to modify themselves can do so, and those who don't, need not, and where technology is developed on the basis of what is wanted and needed by society as a whole and not by small elites that have their own, usually insane, agendas. For this to happen we need a political revolution and at the heart of it there has to be a new idea of what citizenship entails. It isn't enough to vote and give a bit to charity and leave the specific political (and that means technological) decisions to the few. Cyborg citizens have to be much more involved in society than the citizens of today. Everyone must be an activist on some level, and in particular every technological decision has to be judged based on what it will do to the environment, human society, and ourselves.

Understanding that cyborgisation is, in part, a natural development of the longstanding human relationship to tools and machines is a start. Simplistic rejections of technology, that usually melt away when one's mum needs a heart pacemaker or when the latest electronic music hits the scene, are not helpful. It makes no more sense to hate all technology then it does to embrace every new thing. We have to choose what technologies we want, and let others choose what they want, as long as their choices don't compromise our freedoms, our communities, or the living nature that we are part of and that sustains us.

Topics: Technology, Utopias