On August 24, 1998, British engineer and cybernetics professor Kevin Warwick implanted a radio transmitter in his left arm. The device gave him the ability to manipulate computer-controlled heaters, lights, and doors—but this was just the beginning. He later extended the experiment by developing a neural interface which hooked him up with his wife. They installed matching implants which apparently enabled them to sense what the other was feeling 98% of the time.
A few years later, in 2004, colour-blind artist Neil Harbisson had an antenna permanently attached to his skull. Comprised of four separate implants, the antenna purportedly allowed him to hear colours (including infrareds and ultraviolets), receive phone calls, and go online without the need of an external device.
Directly fusing technology with biology, both Warwick and Harbisson have claimed to be the world’s original cybernetic organisms. Warwick may have got there first, but Harbisson holds the distinction of being the first cyborg officially-recognised by a government (Britain). Why would these men go to such extremes, literally risking life and limb? Were these efforts motivated by a desire to be at the forefront of scientific discovery; to extend the limits of human experience; shameless self-promotion; or, all three? Whatever their reasons, both men believed in the potential for technology to augment, enhance, and even transcend existing human ability. They represent a vital intersection of people and technology.
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Two extreme cases, you might say. From another point of view we are all cyborgs, and have been for a while. In Natural Born Cyborgs, writer Andy Clark provocatively suggests simple acts such as telling time with a watch, or writing with a pencil, qualify us for this description—as these are interactions with technologies that have extended human experience, and fundamentally shaped the way we’ve conceived the world and our place within it. Clark argues the portability of watches, for example, turned time from an occasional reference to a near-constant value. The ability to write allowed us to record experience and shape narrative in a new way—that’s why the term prehistory refers to the time before writing came into existence.
If it seems farfetched to think of yourself as a cyborg, ask these simple questions: How much time do you spend interacting with technology, and what would your life be like without it? Or to put it another way, how often is your cellphone out of arm’s reach? If the answer is not very often, it begs the question—just how close is this to having a radio transmitter installed in your arm?
Facebook stats from last month reveal that nearly half of the site’s users (47%) have only ever logged on from a mobile device, a staggering figure when you stop to think about it. This suggests that as technology has become ubiquitous, more advanced, and infinitely more portable, it has inched closer to being an extension of our body. It’s no wonder Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, in which the central character’s most important relationship is with an operating system, seems so plausible. It’s why a quick Google search reveals articles in which people describe ‘breaking-up’ with everything from Apple Watches, to internet browsers. There’s an intimacy that’s crept into how we feel about, and how we describe, our connection to technology.
It’s worth noting that this intersection of technology and body can be traced to the very origins of the terms digital and technology. Digital is derived from the Latin digitus, meaning “pertaining to fingers;” while techne, the Greek term from which technology originates, has been interpreted as meaning “cunning of hand.” A couple of thousand years later (give or take), and perhaps to the disappointment of Warwick and Harbisson, our hands are still the key interface between our bodies and the vast world of technology. Until smart-phones are routinely implanted into our wrists, and our nervous systems directly plug into the web, there’s a good argument that setting aside some time to develop digital capability—getting cunning with both hand and mind in order to to master technology to your best advantage—will be one of the most strategic decisions you can make. Want to become a better cyborg/student? In this fortnightly column I’ll aim to show you how, often highlighting research done right here at Victoria.
Matt works in the ITS Learning and Research Technology Team. You can email questions to email@example.com with ‘Salient’ in the subject line.
This week: Send in a short description of who your favourite cyborg is and why, and be in with a chance to win a $20.00 Vic Books gift voucher.