Interviewing the everyday cyborgs

Gill Haddow

Since 2014 I have been interviewing people and their significant others who have had an implantable cardiac device about how it feels to live with a cybernetic technology.  Here is an abstract from the chapter of a book I am working on at the moment that will have a chapter in it based on these interviews.  The book is preliminary called ‘Embodiment and the Everyday Cyborg: Technology and Altered Lives’

Originally, the cyborg was used to describe the bodily modifications required to create a homeostatic feedback system for ‘men’ to survive future space exploration in hostile environments (not cardiac arrests) (Clynes and Kline 1960).  Cyborg is short for cybernetic organism and the key focus is on the term cybernetic (meaning feedback-controlled) (Haraway 1991).  This essentially puts the ‘cyb’ into ‘cyb-org’ and is useful in defining who is and is not an everyday cyborg.

In the original use of the term, to define an organism with an implanted feedback controlled adaptation, this would not affect who the men were during space exploration leaving their identity essentially unchanged and unchallenged by modifications.  This adaptation would not affect who the men were.  The extreme cyborg monsters depicted in science-fiction and popular media, also tend to be male and the technology does affect their identity, and crucially, their humanity.  Apart from Steve Austen in the ‘Six Million Dollar Man’, in science-fiction the cyborgs are the ‘Borg’ in Star Trek, the ‘Cybermen’ in Dr Who, or Alex Murphy in ‘Robocop’ who are visible organic-inorganic machinations typically portrayed as a cyborg monster bereft of emotions and feelings.  Even, the monster created by Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’ was a montage being of different materiality but male nonetheless.  All are visible organic-mechanic hybrids typically, but not always, portrayed as being incapable of feeling or demonstrating emotions – of being both inhuman and inhumane.  Although there may be some notable exceptions to the cyborg’s masculine identity, the cyborg is generally popularly portrayed as male (or asexual at best).  The exception in popular media, it could be argued, is the overtly sexualised female cyborg whose technological modifications focus on female traits such as the ability to listen or female reproductive anatomy (Six Million Dollar Woman and Seven of Nine in Star Trek).  This cyborg generally has the physical attributes of strength and power and overt musculature co-existent with the dominant Western idea of masculinity (Connell, 1995), partly explaining the popular portrayal of the cyborg of being male.

The gendering of the cyborg is dealt with more critically in the science, technology and innovations studies (STIS) literature (Gray, 1995a, Gray, 2000, Gray, 2001, Gray, 2011, Gray, 2012, Haraway, 1991, Hayles, 1995) and in feminist STS literature (Kirkup et al., 1999, Penley et al., 1990, Henwood et al., 2001).  In this STS literature, and taking the lead from Donna Haraway (1991), technology is a means in which boundaries between animals and humans; the physical and the non-physical and animal-human/machines dissolved.   The everyday ICD cyborg is not necessarily an icon of liberation envisioned by Haraway (1991; 2003) and generally is male form that is envisaged in the cyborg-in-space or science-fiction.

Cybernetic technology in the form of implantable medical devices puts the ‘cybernetic’ into ‘organism’ – a cyborg.  Creation of a cyborg existence varies dependent under the conditions it was inserted in and for, and the permanence and complexity of the device; that is the possibility of removal, as well as the complexity of its functionality or as, taking examples of Haraway’s C3I as an example of a feedback-loop discussed in the original cyborg (colloquially, ‘the device functions by itself’).  The creation of a cyborg existence is not solely constructed through the integration of cybernetic technology but experienced in the ambiguity of embodiment embedded in social life.  That is to say, it is how it changes the life experienced socially and personally by the recipient.  For example, cochlear implants are autonomous technologies and change perceptions of reality for the recipient as well as allowing them to have a simulation of hearing.  Contraceptive implants release a steady dose of contraception but are not permanent but may change the lives of women they are implanted in by decoupling sexual activity from reproduction.[1]  Invivo biosensors have a communication role as they monitor the activity of a tumour but do not have any command or control functions but may save the life of cancer patients.  DBS are examples of a cybernetic technology that take the 3CI into the brain affecting the quality of life of the person suffering from Alzheimer’s.  Here the ICD is the focus of study demonstrates the more invasive the autonomous permanent functionality of the device the more vulnerable the everyday cyborg might feel as well as the impact it can make on their lives.  For cyborgs with ICDs, unlike any other cybernetic technologies, their very existence depends on the technology autonomous functioning.

[1] I am focussing on auto bio technologies that help repair or replace organs and their functioning.  Hip implants and prosthetics are also equally worthy of discussion insofar as they are life altering for the everyday cyborg but their functioning may be less autonomous and responsive to the biological environment; they are not reactive within a physiological feedback loop and they do not have communicate-command-control technology.  Hence, I have chosen to focus on implants that are ‘smart’ and ‘active’ insofar as they are autonomous.

Here is a link to a presentation I gave in April 2015 at the Sanger Institute presenting some ideas about muddles, hearts, everyday cyborgs and xenotransplantation: