cyborg

All posts tagged cyborg

[This is a in-process pre-print of an as-yet-published paper, a version of which was presented at the Gender, Bodies, and Technology 2019 Conference.]

 

INTRODUCTION

The history of biotechnological intervention on the human body has always been tied to conceptual frameworks of disability and mental health, but certain biases and assumptions have forcibly altered and erased the public awareness of that understanding. As humans move into a future of climate catastrophe, space travel, and constantly shifting understanding s of our place in the world, we will be increasingly confronted with concerns over who will be used as research subjects, concerns over whose stakeholder positions will be acknowledged and preferenced, and concerns over the kinds of changes that human bodies will necessarily undergo as they adapt to their changing environments, be they terrestrial or interstellar. Who will be tested, and how, so that we can better understand what kinds of bodyminds will be “suitable” for our future modes of existence?[1] How will we test the effects of conditions like pregnancy and hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in space, and what will happen to our bodies and minds after extended exposure to low light, zero gravity, high-radiation environments, or the increasing warmth and wetness of our home planet?

During the June 2018 “Decolonizing Mars” event at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, several attendees discussed the fact that the bodyminds of disabled folx might be better suited to space life, already being oriented to pushing off of surfaces and orienting themselves to the world in different ways, and that the integration of body and technology wouldn’t be anything new for many people with disabilities. In that context, I submit that cyborgs and space travel are, always have been, and will continue to be about disability and marginalization, but that Western society’s relationship to disabled people has created a situation in which many people do everything they can to conceal that fact from the popular historical narratives about what it means for humans to live and explore. In order to survive and thrive, into the future, humanity will have to carefully and intentionally take this history up, again, and consider the present-day lived experience of those beings—human and otherwise—whose lives are and have been most impacted by the socioethical contexts in which we talk about technology and space.

[Image of Mars as seen from space, via JPL]

This paper explores some history and theories about cyborgs—humans with biotechnological interventions which allow them to regulate their own internal bodily process—and how those compare to the realities of how we treat and consider currently-living people who are physically enmeshed with technology. I’ll explore several ways in which the above-listed considerations have been alternately overlooked and taken up by various theorists, and some of the many different strategies and formulations for integrating these theories into what will likely become everyday concerns in the future. In fact, by exploring responses from disabilities studies scholars and artists who have interrogated and problematized the popular vision of cyborgs, the future, and life in space, I will demonstrate that our clearest path toward the future of living with biotechnologies is a reengagement with the everyday lives of disabled and other marginalized persons, today.

CYBORGS AND MENTAL HEALTH[2]

The idea of systematically using technological and biochemical interventions to help a human person regulate their bodily processes to adapt to life in space takes its start from the work of two men: Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline. Even at a young age, Clynes’ work always seemed to engage with feedback and modulation and the interplay of different systems, and a correspondence with physicist Albert Einstein encouraged him and gave him the social cache to build a music career.[3] But in 1956, Clynes by chance met Dr. Nathan S. Kline, who was then the Director of the Research Center of Rockland State Hospital, where they both worked.[4] It was through this meeting that the two would become longtime collaborators and would come to coin one of the most resonant technoscientific imaginaries and conceptual tools of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries: The Cyborg.

Oddly, neither Kline’s New York Times (NYT) obituary, nor his biographies at The Nathan S. Kline Institute for Psychiatric Research and the International Network For The History Of Neuropsychopharmacology mention his role in coining the term “cyborg,” even though Clynes was drawn to Kline in large part due to the latter’s work on neurochemistry and the groundbreaking development of antidepressants.[5] Kline’s work on anti-depressants was specifically about the human use of exterior sources of neurochemicals to self-regulate their systems, and it was precisely this work which informed the later dream of unconscious chemical adaptation to any environment. Kline’s work on antidepressants stemmed from his recognition that certain neurotransmitters were not being produced by the brains of patients with certain types of depression. Kline sought a way to either induce the production of these chemicals, or to provide them from an outside source, in doses and at intervals which would allow them to more easily integrate into a human body.[6]  Kline envisioned this process as one of the intentional regulation of organic bodily systems, through specific chemical interventions.

Clynes and others saw much wider potential value in this work, especially as in the late 1950’s and early 1960, the United States of America (USA) and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) were in the throes of both the Cold War at the Space Race. Each superpower sought to become the first to put a human being into space, to claim it for their nations and the people therein, and it was in this context that Clynes and Kline wrote the paper “Cyborgs and Space,” and coined the term “Cyborg.”[7] In this paper, Clynes and Kline described a cyborg (a portmanteau of “cybernetic organism”) as a being which would have the means to regulate and alter previously autonomic bodily processes, through the use of chemical alterations, in a cybernetic feedback loop. The paper was largely a theoretical exploration of how we might use chemical biotechnological interventions to regulate autonomic nervous and pulmonary function, and also to make unconscious certain intentional functions and processes.[8] A cyborg would be able to survive the rigors of space travel—such as increased gravitational forces and radiation, long lightless stretches, and bodily degradation—by regulating the chemical processes of their body to adapt to each new situation, as necessary.

But as the Space Race wore on, and more and more humans actually went into space, there was an increasingly smaller focus on the alterations and adaptations that would be necessary to survive in space, and greater public emphasis placed on a narrative of the triumphalism of the human will and ingenuity. The narrative regarding humans in space became primarily about those who had “the right stuff,” rather than a question of what we would have to do in order to adapt and thrive, and so the image of the cyborg fell away and was altered. And a whole suite of possibilities for how we might have understood—and treated—different kinds of embodiment altered, along with it.

As Alison Kafer discusses in her book Feminist, Queer, Crip, feminist and ecological discourses in the 1970’s, 80’s, and 90’s gave rise to widely-read theorists such as Donna Haraway who use the “cyborg” concept in a rhetorical mode that locks it to particular ideals about bodily integrity and outdated notions like “Severe Handicaps.”[9] (Below, we’ll discuss how, in her Robo Sapiens Japanicus, Jennifer Robertson relates this to the Japanese concept of Gotai, or “Five Body.”)  Kafer links this discussion to the history of how Kline and Clynes’ work on neurochemical antidepressants at the Rockland Institute was very likely predicated on testing and treating patients—both via drugs and instrumental interventions—against their will. Additionally, throughout the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s, Rockland was subject to multiple accusations of patient mistreatment and mismanagement, including physical abuse, malnourishment, and even rape.[10] While it certainly might not have be the case that any of those more horrifying things happened under Kline and Clynes’ direction, they did happen on their watch, and the culture of testing institutionalized patients without their consent was widespread in the United States, well into the 1970’s.[11]

[Portrait Image of Nathan S Kline: A monochrome photograph of an older white man wearing glasses and dark suit, white shirt, and tie]

Throughout the long history of eugenics in the United States, ideas about what constitutes the “right kind” of person—be that on the basis of ethnicity, gender, physical or mental ability, or all of the above—led to events in which people institutionalized against their will were forcibly sterilized due to claims of their reduced “fitness” and mental facilities. People with uteri were given forcible hysterectomies and people with testes were chemically or physically castrated, and certain people were simply put to death because they were seen as “unfit” to ever reintegrate with society. All of these things happened starting at very early ages and as one might guess, issues of race complicated every facet of them. As Harriet Washington notes in her book Medical Apartheid:

Unfortunately, a black child is more likely than a white one to have his parent completely removed from the informed-consent equation. Black children are far more likely than whites to be institutionalized, in which case the parents are often unable to consent freely or are not consulted at all.[12]

Often, and to this day, children judged as even possibly having a higher likelihood “mentally unfitness” are just aborted outright, as in the case of Iceland and the Netherlands’ use of in vitro imaging technologies to determine whether or not a child has Down Syndrome.[13]

Kafer’s discussion of the Rockland Institute’s depredations serves to illustrate that even some of the most foundational work and well-respected researchers have been party to monstrous practices in order to make their discoveries. Even as Clynes and Kline’s ideal of the cyborg developed out of a concern for mental health and recognition that the human body was not developed to fit the niche of outer space, they did their work in a context built upon the degradation and predation of disabled and forcibly institutionalized persons. This understanding of marginalized persons as resources to be used or situated embodiments to be emulated has been unfortunately persistent, and it has changed the way we think about what a cyborg ought to be. Rather than being about recognizing that, as researcher of the intersection of philosophy, technology, and disability Dr. Ashley Shew has put it, we would all be disabled in space, and so would all need some form of cybernetic system of interventions to survive, a myth of the elite, perfectible human took root.[14] There are number reasons why that is, and many implications for what it’s come to mean.

CYBORGS AND DISABILITY[15]

In the last three decades, as things like the internet captured the public imagination, more theorists explored the image of the human as increasingly entangled with technology. Theorists of biology, sociology, and scientific history, such as Donna Haraway, came to use the notion of the cyborg as a way to describe how human lives may become entangled with nonhuman entities and systems.[16] At the same time, the understanding of a cyborg as some superhuman fusion of human and machine was being taken up and reinforced by popular culture, creating a what Shew, above, calls “Technoableism” and what anthropologist of  robotics and  Japanese culture Jennifer Robertson calls “Cyborg-ableism.”[17] In Techno- or Cyborg-Ableism, technologized bodies are ostensibly lauded as “superior,” but only by still being marked out as other.

Shew’s paper “Up-Standing, Norms, Technology, and Disability” explores how ableism, expectations, and particularities of language serve to marginalize disabled bodies.[18] Shew takes her title from the fact that most technological “solutions” designed for people who don’t use their legs are intended to facilitate their engaging the world as if they did. Many if not most things in human societies are designed to be used within a certain range of height that assumes the user is standing; if your default mode is sitting, then your engagement with the vast majority of the world will be radically different. This is just one example of what is known as the social construction model of disability, which says that it’s not the physiological differences themselves which disable, but rather the ways that spaces, architectures, and simple basic societal assumptions limit how a person is expected to intersect with the world and what kind of bodymind they “should” have.[19] Shew notes that, while we tend to think of cyborgs as some seamless integration of technology and bodies, wheelchair and crutch users consider their chairs as fairly integral extensions and interventions, as a part of themselves. The problem is that the majority of societies assume different things about these different modes. Shew mentions a friend of hers:

She’s an amputee who no longer uses a prosthetic leg, but she uses forearm crutches and a wheelchair. (She has a hemipelvectomy, so prosthetics are a real pain for her to get a good fit and there aren’t a lot of options.) She talks about how people have these different perceptions of devices. When she uses her chair people treat her differently than when she uses her crutches, but the determination of which she uses has more to do with the activities she expects for the day, rather than her physical wellbeing.

But people tend to think she’s recovering from something when she moves from chair to sticks.

She has been an [amputee] for 18 years.

She has/is as recovered as she can get.[20]

Shew is one of many researchers who have discussed that a large number of paraplegics and other wheelchair users do not want exoskeletons, and that those fancy stair-climbing wheelchairs aren’t covered by health insurance, because they’re classed not as assistive devices, but as vehicles. Shew says what most people who don’t have use of their legs want is to have access to the same things that people who do have the use of their legs have. Because ultimately, in around the time it takes for Apple to come out with a new iPhone—around about eighteen months—a person who has developed a disability—lost the use of their legs, the use of their sight, the use of their hearing, the use of their arms, whatever—will come to engage and to adapt to that new lived physical reality as normal. Many societies think about disability as a life-altering, world-changing thing—something that lasts forever and nothing will ever be the same for you—but the fact the matter is that humans are plastic, adaptable, and malleable. We learn how to live around what we are, and we learn it very quickly.

All of this comes back down and around to the idea of biases ingrained into social institutions. Our expectations of what a “normal functioning body” is gets imposed from the collective society, as a whole, a placed as restrictions and demands on the bodies of those whom we deem to be “malfunctioning.” As Shew says, “There’s such a pressure to get the prosthesis as if that solves all the problems of maintenance and body and infrastructure. And the pressure is for very expensive tech at that.”

Humans became seen as those creatures which self-analyze and then alter and adapt themselves based upon said self-analysis. Many philosophers of technology have argued that we are always technologically mediated, and that that mediation shapes and is shaped by our physiological and sociocultural experiences, and elsewhere, I’ve explored the questions of identity that come along with Ship-of-Theseus-like questions of bodily integrity that do not quite fit into this work.[21] Suffice it to say that even as promises of becoming “more than” human have flooded the public imagination, they have been met with equally ardent cries of “but if you lose a part of your body, you’re not really you!” Either of these positions serves only to erase and marginalize the real lived experiences of disabled people, for the sake of some assumption about what the human bodymind “should” or even just might be. Even into the twenty-first century, cyborgologists such as Amber Case, a self-described “Cyborg Anthropologist,” have argued that, thanks to augmented reality, smart phone devices, and the generally ubiquitous integration of technology in to the daily life of the modern human being, “We Are All Cyborgs Now.”[22] But something crucial gets lost, here, when we obfuscate or elide the real experiences of people with disabilities from the conversation about cyborgs and cybernetics.

In her pieces “Dawn of the Tryborg” and “Common Cyborg,” Jillian Weise specifically hones in on a great deal of the  foundation for the modern mythology of cyborg experience, including that which comes out of perspectives like Haraway’s and Case’s.[23] The idea that anyone with a smartphone or with a particular conceptual relationship to the world is automatically a cyborg, Weise says, does violence to the very real lived experience of people with prosthetics or artificial organs or implants that keep them alive. Those latter interventions need maintenance to keep them functional in the face of damage, to prevent life-threatening infection, and to adjust them for day-to-day changes, and while they are not necessarily “sexy,” they are a truer example of what the term’s originators thought it would mean to be a cyborg. “Tryborgs,” on Weise’s view, are those people who want all the glitz and glory of being interconnected with technology, without any of the practical implications. They are the transhumanists who believe that we will all be able to upload our consciousnesses and change our shape, at will, with no muss and no fuss. They want to be the inspirational figures, without having to suffer any losses or do any of the messy upkeep and maintenance, to get there. And they exist in many cultures.

[Port-A-Cath Chemo Port (Images from Cancer.gov {Left} and MySamanthaJane.com {Right})]

Jennifer Robertson’s Robo Sapiens Japanicus consists of a close investigation of Japan’s historical cultural engagement with robots, and her sixth chapter, “Cyborg-Ableism Beyond The Uncanny (Valley),” deals specifically with Japanese notions of disability, mental health, and cyborg-ableism.[24] Though she doesn’t directly consider of the roots of the cyborg concept, beyond Haraway and back to Kline and Clynes, Robertson delves into things like the removal of disabled veterans from streets for 1964 Olympics, the creation of the first Paralympics in 1948, the fact that one out of six people in Asia and the Pacific is born with some form of disability, and that Japan only ratified the UN’s and drafted its own disability protection legislation after many years and a great deal of foreign pressure.[25] And even with that pressure, Robertson says, it was only with the 2016 enforcement of these laws that all governmental institutions and private-sector businesses were required to remove the social barriers for people with disabilities.[26] Before then, many disabled athletes weren’t allowed to train with able-bodied teammates, and had to raise their own money to purchase prostheses, at which point many of them, if they were successful, got accused of exploiting their disability for monetary gain.[27] In this way, Robertson highlights a cultural indifference to or dismissal of disabled people, even as governments and businesses focused on and developed robotic prostheses.[28]

In a cultural sense, the desires to either fit in or to use technology to become “more” and “better than” are what tend to drive cyborg-ableist concerns. Robertson discusses Tobin Siebers and the concept of able-bodied passing, comparing it to queer folx and “straight passing;” in each case there are transitive and intransitive forms of passing, where one is either actively effacing their difference/otherness, or merely benefitting from outside observers simply not recognizing said.[29] To that end, many may choose to make their disability (or their queerness, or both) unignorable by way of stylized prostheses; in fact, much in line with Shew’s assertions above, while people who’ve recently lose a limb may start off wanting a lifelike replacement, they tend to shift to wanting something that works and feels better, rather than just looking a particular way. [30] So are stylized prostheses better understood as empowering or distracting? On the one hand, there is something empowering about the use of a prosthetic to reshape and change the way the outside world can understand you; on the other hand, “prosthetics can divert attention from the disabled limb to its replacement.”[31] But this replacement, in itself, can be a source of discomfort for able-bodied folx.

In the section “What is (and is not) the uncanny valley?” Robertson explores Masahiro Mori’s concept of Bunkimi no tani which Robertson translates as “the valley of eerie feeling,” rather than the more familiar “uncanny valley.”[32] Paired with shinwakan no tani or “familiar feeling valley,” Mori describes this as a kind of suddenly and shockingly frustrated expectation, when one is in the process of encountering and reinforcing increasingly familiar things. This concept depends heavily on Mori’s assumptions about what would constitute an “average, healthy, person” and what Robertson labels his “almost callous indifference toward disabled persons.”[33] In Mori’s graphs and descriptions of the Valley, he includes sick disabled people as on the upward curve of the “eerie,” moving away from  corpses, zombies, and prosthetic hands.[34]

While many people have taken the uncanny valley as some kind of gospel law, Robertson contends we should, rather, expect that the constituency or even presence of an uncanny valley would be a highly subjective thing, based on factors such as “physical and cognitive abilities, age, sex, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, education, religion, and cultural background;” and, indeed, Mori himself has said that it was meant only as an “impressionistic” guide.[35] Humans can adjust to and come to accept and embrace the unfamiliar and designers can avoid the uncanny valley, and many people on earth live in situations where injury illness and death are not “sudden and unfamiliar” or “eerie,” but rather are unfortunately everyday occurrences. But Mori’s response, and much of what is seen in the Japanese exoskeleton market, is just another example of Gotai, the traditional Japanese understanding that a “whole” or “normal” body is made of five constituent parts in combination: either the head, two arms, and two legs, or the head, neck, torso, arms, and legs.[36] This theory holds that anything that breaks this form breaks the person, a perspective which firmly binds these notions of “completeness” to notions of mental health.

Hirotada Ototake’s book Gotai Fumanzoku or “incomplete/unsatisfactory body” (English title: “No One’s Perfect”) is an autobiography about his tetra-amelia syndrome which prevented his arms and legs from developing during his gestation; stressing his “Normality” and his desire to be treated equally.[37] But, Robertson notes, the kind of whole-body championed by the Japanese culture exoskeletons are not ways for people like Ototake to regain Gotai, and that there’s a difference between prosthetics that replace a limb and those that “enhance” an existing but disabled one.[38] Robertson, here, in a move similar to but not directly referential of Kafer, touches on Haraway’s use of cyborg as a metaphor for relationality and reflexivity, and, offers a critique of Haraway’s seeming to conceive of “disability” as a singular category rather than the multiform variable conditions that can be linked under this label.[39] This, along with transhumanists like Max More and Natasha Vita-More’s ableist notions of what the “perfect” body should be, feeds into narratives that comprise this vision of cyborgs as a somehow “perfected” humanity.

But cyborgs were conceived as a means for humans to live in space, a situation which, again, would be a combination of constantly-dangerous processes of keeping close track of minute changes in the bodyminds of the astronauts and their relationship to their environment—processes that are already well-known to, e.g., diabetics or people with peripheral neuropathy. For a person within those lived experiences, always being aware of the state, position, and integrity of their body is always already a life-or-death scenario, in ways that have to be learned and mimicked by people who are otherwise able-bodied. Had we maintained disabled people’s stories as a part of the mythology of the cyborg, from the beginning, Western societies might now have a better relationship with concepts of disability and mental health. This relationship might have easily arisen from the recognition that most if not all disabled people are cyborgs, just as all spacefaring humans must become cyborgs, and that this, as Clynes and Kline understood, is precisely because all spacefaring humans will become disabled by the very act of existing in space. Which means that, in essence, spacefaring humans currently do and will continue to experience the social construction of disability.

[Members of the Gallaudet Eleven chat in the zero-g aircraft that flew out of Naval Air Station in Pensacola, Fla.; Credits: U.S. Navy/Gallaudet University collection]

But since we have not, in fact, reinforced that chain of understanding, contemporary theorist would be well served to presently explore the situated and lived experiences of people with different configurations of bodyminds, and to listen to what they know about themselves. As Shew has noted, those people who have experience with orienting themselves to the world via pushing off of surfaces or using their arms as primary means of propulsion would be better positioned move in weightless environments and to teach others new strategies to do the same. Because, ultimately, people with disabilities are often already interwoven with their technologies, in ways idealized by technologists, but their lived experience is not recognized and appreciated for what it is. If we take these lived experiences and incorporate the people who embody them, in conjunction with the original intent of the notion of the cyborg, we might have the beginning of a system by which we can rehabilitate the notion of the cyborg—but overcoming the historical trends that have led us here will take a great deal of work.

CYBORGS AND MARGINALIZATION

While it has long been assumed that the future of humanity would have to adapt both its forms and conceptual relations to multiform and multimodal embodiments, through our explorations we have come to understand how the category of the cyborg, which should have made fertile grounds for this expanded understanding, has instead become a site of disenfranchisement. As we’ve seen, Kafer’s project in Feminist, Queer, Crip aims to reframe disabled people as cyborgs because of their political practices rather than their bodies,  that enframing of politics, embodiment, and biotechnological intervention has roots and mirrors in other persistent forms of marginalization. Those other roots of racism and misogyny give rise to several questions such as, “Whose bodies will we make subject to or deign to include in tests for space exploration?” More to the point, if we are meant to the cyborg in terms of people whose embodiments are already technopolitically mediated, then who can and should we understand as cyborgs, now? Because there is a crucial difference between a group of people who have “disnormalized” themselves, and group which has been othered by people who don’t know or understand their lived experience.

Again, there are multiple sites of marginalization which can be demonstrated as having a force-multiplying effect on how people with implants, prostheses, or biochemical injection or ingestion regimens are either accepted or disenfranchised by the society in which they live. We can borrow, here, the framework of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw’s Intersectionality theory, to help make sense of this:

…problems of exclusion cannot be solved simply by including Black women within an already established analytical structure. Because the intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism, any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which Black women are subordinated. (Emphasis added.)[40]

Crenshaw centers Black women, here, but this isn’t to say that only Black women can be intersectional subjects. Rather, she uses Black women as an example of how groups of people that have been cast as only one kind of identity (Black, Woman) would be far better understood as the center of an intersectional process. Might we think of trans folx who sit at the center of their identities, biomedical technologies such as hormone replacement therapies (HRT) or binders or packers, of societies expectations about how their bodies ought to present and behave, and public technologies such as airport scanners of as cyborgs?[41] If so, they would have vastly different valences of legibility and operation than, say, a diabetic with an insulin pump—though similar ones to a person with an ostomy bag.[42] If we work to understand people in an intersectional way, we can recognize the many vectors for different kinds of oppression, in the world, and understand that even those intersectional subjects with shared component roots will have different particularities of expression and avenues by which we might redress their needs—a recognition that has been sorely and consistently lacking in much of our public discourse, to date.

When we again explore the histories of eugenics and medicalization, we find that even up to this point in the 21st century, there are well-regarded researchers and even textbooks on biomedical ethics which barely touch on these issues, let alone on understanding them through a lens of intersectionality of oppression. For instance, Francis L. Macrina’s Scientific Integrity is in its fourth edition, and yet still seems to lack any substantive contextual discussion of changes made in the history of research ethics standards and practices—such as what actually happened in the Tuskegee syphilis trials. Macrina mentions that the trials took place, and even the nature of the population on which they were conducted, but he does not at any point mention the fact that researchers targeted the study’s population because they were Black, and were therefore conceptualized as resources.[43] While it is, perhaps, unfair to expect Macrina to touch on every nuanced concerns of every human subject trial, the assumption that social features are not worthy of discussion serves to reinforce a whole host of other assumptions about things like the objectivity of testing criteria or the clarity of explanations in gaining informed consent. These assumptions, if ever scrutinized at all, would simply not hold up. At the very least it is clear that the Tuskegee patients, like Henrietta Lacks, were not seen or understood as being worthy of clear explanations of what was being done to them. After all, if they understood, they might have said “no.”

Focusing on the history of biomedical experimentation on populations of the forcibly institutionalized or systemically disenfranchised, and African American or female-presenting bodies, in particular, would do wonders to highlight the fact that the long-term effects of the trials were more than just some blanket distrust of medical experimentation, throughout American society. The trials in Tuskegee, Alabama fit into a longstanding pattern of treating Black bodies as resources to be used and as objects to be othered, dehumanized, and intervened upon in whatever ways the dominant society at the time has happened to see fit. And Black bodies are not the only ones.  Imagine if textbook writers such as Macrina more often took the time to discuss and contextualize events like how the government and medical providers tricked Black people in Mississippi into receiving vaccinations, or the forced sterilization of Black women, or how the intersection of mental health and institutionalization of women in general led to them being experimented on and sterilized at higher rates, or the long-term ethical and social implications of classifying certain people as “morons.”

More and more, the effects of these kinds of historical objectification are understood as linked to lowered health outcomes, higher rates of chronic illness, and greater morbidity for Black people and women in the United States, and a longstanding history of thinking of the neurodivergent and people with mental disabilities as “less than.” The omission of these discussions from textbooks and other broad public discourse exemplifies a persistent failure to fully contextualize the history and implications of these events. That this failure presents in so many ethical sub-disciplines might help to explain how people have so often managed to convince themselves that testing on marginalized populations without their informed consent can be said to serve the “greater good.” More often than not, “professional ethics training” or any other kind of take on the humanities within business or the so-called hard sciences becomes synonymous with a particular understanding of how not to get sued. The perspectives that get passed along are those of experts in the field in question, be it business, technology, medicine, or what-have-you. Leaving the social science and humanities training of students to people who were only ever trained in this narrow, subdisciplinary fashion is precisely what leads to the continual dismissal of ethical, moral, and sociopolitical considerations, and said dismissal then, in turn, gives rise to Technoableism.


[“Bladerunner” Created by Oliver Wetter / Ars Fantasio]

If various groups want to change bodily forms and embodiments, or even just change the way that we all interact with the planet on which we currently live so that we might survive the next 30 years, then they will have to radically reconsider how our sociopolitical forces and the elements of our lived experience impact the decisions we make about the science we do and tools we create. The historical positioning of the lived experiences of marginalized people in terms of race, gender, disability, and so on has meant that while we are more than happy to test and degrade certain people for their embodiments, we have been less than willing to allow those same to shape and direct the technoscientific discourse of which they have forcibly been made a part. This distinction, though unarticulated, matters a great deal, and its effects and implications run rampant throughout every facet of our society.

CONCLUSION

If humans do manage a future in which they travel into and live in space, they will need to change the kinds of embodiments and relations they have in order to survive; to do this, they will need to think in vastly different ways about the nature of technological and scientific projects they undertake. Our societal future imaginings are rife with assumptions about what kind of people are best suited to exist and these have been shaped by the historical positioning and treatment of many marginalized groups. Left unexamined, these assumptions and precedents will likely mutate and iterate into each new environment into which humans spread, and affect every engagement of human and nonhuman relationships. But, if we bring a careful, thorough, and intentional consideration to bear on the project of weaving together biomedical, interpersonal, sociopolitical, and technomoral concerns, then we might be better suited to both do right by those we’ve previously oppressed and agilely adapt to the kinds of concerns that will face us, in the future.

As Haraway discusses in her (flawed but possibly still salvageable) “Cyborg Manifesto,” the language of the cybernetic feedback loop does not belong only to humanity as a way to describe its own processes—cybernetic theory and the myth of the cyborg are also frameworks which can be used to describe the cycles and processes of nature, as a whole.[44] Through this understanding, Haraway and others have argued that all of nature is involved in an integrated process of adaptation, augmentation, and implementation which, far from being a simple division between the biological and technological is, instead, a reflexive, co-productive process. Using the theorists and examples above, I’ve argued for an understanding of biotechnological intervention and integration as the truth of our existence with and within technology. Our bodies and minds are shaped by each other and exist as bodyminds, and those bodyminds dictate and are shaped by the technologies with which they interact.

In order to carefully construct and live within vastly complex systems, it will be crucial to understanding the lived experiences of those whose embodiments and bodyminds have placed them at a higher likelihood of being marginalized by those who demand a “right kind” of lived experience. Only by allowing them to create a world out of the lessons of their lived experience will we be better able to intentionally craft what this system and its components will learn and how they will develop. What should characterize our understanding of the cyborg, then, is the reflexive, adaptive relationship between the sociotechnical, sociopolitical, ethical, individual, symbolic, and philosophical valences of our various lived experiences.

The point in saying that “Cyborgs Have Always Been About Disability, Mental Health, and Marginalization” is not to say that the category of the cyborg should be Disclosed to cyborg anthropologists and philosophers who say “we have always been cyborgs.” Rather, it’s about highlighting the fact that a category which was invented specifically to address the lived experiences of marginalized and oppressed people has been co-opted and transformed into a tool by which to erase the experiences of those very same people. We can, and indeed should, still make use of the Harawayan cyborg, the metaphor for entanglement and enmeshment, both as individuals and communities, but we must do so in a way that honours both the original meaning and the evolution of the concept. We must recognize that disabled people, the neurodivergent, trans folx, Black lives, women, queer individuals, and those who sit at the intersection of any number of those components comprise individual lives and communities of experience which are already attuned to changing and adapting to suddenly hostile environments, and it is these kinds of lives which should stand at the vanguard of how we understand what it means to be a cyborg, moving forward. Because the concept of the cyborg was never about a perfectible ideal, it was always about survivability, about coming into a new relational mode with ourselves, our society, and our world.

[1] “Bodyminds” comes from Margaret Price’s “The Bodymind Problem and the Possibilities of Pain.” in Hypatia 30, 2015.

[2] Parts adapted from Williams, Damien Patrick, “A Brief Historical Overview of Cybernetics and Cyborgs,” written for History of STS, Spring 2018

[3] Clynes, Manfred. (1955-10-02). “Simple analytic method for linear feedback system dynamics”. Transactions of the American Institute for Electrical Engineers

[4] Madrigal, Alexis C.. “The Man Who First Said ‘Cyborg,’ 50 Years Later.”

[5] Gruson, Lindsey. “Nathan Kline, Developer of Antidepressants, Dies.” The New York Times. February 14, 1983. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/02/14/obituaries/nathan-kline-developer-of-antidepressants-dies.html; Blackwell, Barry. “Nathan S. Kline.” International Network For The History Of Neuropsychopharmacology, June 13, 2013. http://inhn.org/profiles/nathan-s-kline.html.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Clynes, Manfred E. and Kline, Nathan S. “Cyborgs and Space.” Astronautics (September 1960), 26-27, 74-76. http://web.mit.edu/digitalapollo/Documents/Chapter1/cyborgs.pdf

[8] Clynes and Kline “Cyborgs and Space.”

[9] Kafer, Allison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2013. pg. 105, 111—115; Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, And Socialist-feminism In The Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature New York; Routledge. 1991.

[10] Kafer, Allison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. pg. 126—128

[11] Cf, Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid; Tuskegee University, “About the USPHS Syphilis Study.” https://www.tuskegee.edu/about-us/centers-of-excellence/bioethics-center/about-the-usphs-syphilis-study; Skloot, Rebecca. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks; New York: Crown Publishers, 2010

[12] Washington, Harriet. Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present. New York: Doubleday, 2006. pg. 293

[13] Verbeek, Peter-Paul. “Obstetric Ultrasound and the Technological Mediation of Morality: A Postphenomenological Analysis.” Human Studies, Vol. 31, No. 1, Postphenomenology Research (Mar., 2008), pp. 11-26; Springer. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40270638

[14] Shew, Ashley. “Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars.” Technology and Disability. November 11, 2017. https://techanddisability.com/2017/11/11/technoableism-cyborg-bodies-and-mars/.

[15] Parts adapted from Williams, Damien Patrick, “Technology, Disability, & Human Augmentation,” http://www.afutureworththinkingabout.com/?p=5162; “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” http://www.afutureworththinkingabout.com/?p=5087.

[16] Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto”

[17] Shew, Ashley. “Technoableism, Cyborg Bodies, and Mars”; Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus; Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2018.

[18] Shew, Ashley. “Up-Standing Norms.” IEEE Conference on Ethics and Technology, 2016.

[19] See Rosenberger, Robert. “The Philosophy of Hostile Architecture: Spiked Ledges, Bench Armrests, Hydrant Locks, Restroom Stall Design, Etc.” 2018.

[20] Shew, Ashley, in correspondence, 2016.

[21] Cf. Don Ihde, Albert Borgmann, Peter-Paul Verbeek, Evan Selinger, and other post-phenomenologists; Williams, Damien Patrick “Technology, Disability, & Human Augmentation,” “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” “Go Upgrade Yourself,” appearing in Futurama and Philosophy, Courtland D. Lewis ed.

[22] Case, Amber. “We are all cyborgs now.” TED Talks. December 2010. http://www.ted.com/talks/amber_case_we_are_all_cyborgs_now.html

[23] Weise, Jillian “The Dawn of the ‘Tryborg.’” November 30, 2016. NEW YORK TIMES. https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/30/opinion/the-dawn-of-the-tryborg.html?_r=1#story-continues-1; “Common Cyborg.” Sep 24, 2018. GRANTA. https://granta.com/common-cyborg/; Also Cf. Joshua Earle’s “Cyborg Maintenance: A Phenomenology of Upkeep” presented at the 21st Conference of the Society for Philosophy and Technology.

[24] Robertson, Jennifer. Robo Sapiens Japanicus; Robots, Gender, Family, and the Japanese Nation. pg. 146—174

[25] Robertson. pg. 146

[26] Ibid. pg. 148

[27] Robertson. pg. 149

[28] Ibid.

[29] Ibid. pg. 150

[30] Ibid. pg. 152

[31] Robertson. pg. 150

[32] Ibid. pg. 153—154

[33] Ibid. pg. 155—156

[34] Ibid. pg. 157

[35] Ibid.

[36] Robertson. pg. 168—169

[37] Ototake, Hirotada. Gotai Fumanzoku (“Incomplete Body”). Tokyo: Kodansha. 1998; No One’s Perfect. Tokyo: Kodansha. 2003.

[38] Robertson. pg. 170—171

[39] Ibid.

[40] Crenshaw, Kimberlé Williams. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” https://philpapers.org/rec/CREDTI

[41] Hoffman, Anna Lauren. “Data, Technology, and Gender: Thinking About (and From) Trans Lives”

[42] Dowd, Maureen. “Stripped of Dignity.” New York Times. April 19, 2011. https://www.nytimes.com/2011/04/20/opinion/20dowd.html; Crawford, Alison. “Disabled passengers complain of treatment by airport security staff.” CBC News. Sept. 27, 2016.  https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/catsa-airport-travellers-complaints-security-1.3779312.

[43] Macrina, Francis L. Scientific Integrity: Text and Cases in Responsible Conduct of Research. (Third Edition). Washington, D.C.: ASM Press, 2005. pg. 92.

[44] Haraway, Donna. “The Cyborg Manifesto.” Simians, Cyborgs And Women: The Reinvention Of Nature.

 

So The U.S. Transhumanist Party recently released some demographic info on their first 1,000 members, and while they seem to be missing some some rather crucial demographic markers, here, such as age and ethnicity, the gender breakdown is about what you’d expect.

I mention this because back at the end of June I attended the Decolonizing Mars Unconference, at the Library of Congress in D.C. It was the first time I had been in those buildings since I was a small child, and it was for such an amazing reason.

We discussed many topics, all in the interest of considering what it would really mean to travel through space to another planet, and to put humans and human interests there, longterm. Fundamentally, our concern was, is it even possible to do all of this without reproducing the worst elements of the colonialist projects we’ve seen on Earth, thus far, and if so, how do we do that?

[Image of Mars as seen from space, via JPL]

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[Direct link to Mp3]

[09/22/17: This post has been updated with a transcript, courtesy of Open Transcripts]

Back on March 13th, 2017, I gave an invited guest lecture, titled:

TECHNOLOGY, DISABILITY, AND HUMAN AUGMENTATION

‘Please join Dr. Ariel Eisenberg’s seminar, “American Identities: Disability,” and [the] Interdisciplinary Studies Department for an hour-long conversation with Damien Williams on disability and the normalization of technology usage, “means-well” technological innovation, “inspiration porn,” and other topics related to disability and technology.’

It was kind of an extemporaneous riff on my piece “On the Ins and Outs of Human Augmentation,” and it gave me the opportunity to namedrop Ashley Shew, Natalie Kane, and Rose Eveleth.

The outline looked a little like this:

  • Foucault and Normalization
    • Tech and sociological pressures to adapt to the new
      • Starts with Medical tech but applies Everywhere; Facebook, Phones, Etc.
  • Zoltan Istvan: In the Transhumanist Age, We Should Be Repairing Disabilities Not Sidewalks
  • All Lead To: Ashley Shew’s “Up-Standing Norms
    • Listening to the Needs and Desires of people with disabilities.
      • See the story Shew tells about her engineering student, as related in the AFWTA Essay
    • Inspiration Porn: What is cast by others as “Triumphing” over “Adversity” is simply adapting to new realities.
      • Placing the burden on the disabled to be an “inspiration” is dehumanizing;
      • means those who struggle “have no excuse;”
      • creates conditions for a “who’s got it worse” competition
  • John Locke‘s Empiricism: Primary and Secondary Qualities
    • Primary qualities of biology and physiology lead to secondary qualities of society and culture
      • Gives rise to Racism and Ableism, when it later combines with misapplied Darwinism to be about the “Right Kinds” of bodies and minds.
        • Leads to Eugenics: Forced sterilization, medical murder, operating and experimenting on people without their knowledge or consent.
          • “Fixing” people to make them “normal, again”
  • Natalie Kane‘s “Means Well Technology
    • Design that doesn’t take into account the way that people will actually live with and use new tech.
      • The way tech normalizes is never precisely the way designers want it to
        • William Gibson’s quote “The street finds its own uses for things.”
  • Against Locke: Embrace Phenomenological Ethics and Epistemology (Feminist Epistemology and Ethics)
    • Lived Experience and embodiment as crucial
    • The interplay of Self and and Society
  • Ship of Theseus: Identity, mind, extensions, and augmentations change how we think of ourselves and how society thinks of us
    • See the story Shew tells about her friend with the hemipelvectomy, as related in the aforementioned AFWTA Essay

The whole thing went really well (though, thinking back, I’m not super pleased with my deployment of Dennett). Including Q&A, we got about an hour and forty minutes of audio, available at the embed and link above.

Also, I’m apparently the guy who starts off every talk with some variation on “This is a really convoluted interplay of ideas, but bear with me; it all comes together.”

The audio transcript is below the cut. Enjoy.

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There’s increasing reportage about IBM using Watson to correlate medical data. We’ve talked before about the potential hazards of this:

Do you know someone actually had the temerity to ask [something like] “What Does Google Having Access to Medical Records Mean For Patient Privacy?” [Here] Like…what the fuck do you think it means? Nothing good, you idiot!

Disclosures and knowledges can still make certain populations intensely vulnerable to both predation and to social pressures and judgements, and until that isn’t the case, anymore, we need to be very careful about the work we do to try to bring those patients’ records into a sphere where they’ll be accessed and scrutinized by people who don’t have to take an oath to hold that information in confidence. ‘

We are more and more often at the intersection of our biological humanity and our technological augmentation, and the integration of our mediated outboard memories only further complicates the matter. As it stands, we don’t quite yet know how to deal with the question posed by Motherboard, some time ago (“Is Harm to a Prosthetic Limb Property Damage or Personal Injury?”), but as we build on implantable technologies, advanced prostheses, and offloaded memories and augmented capacities we’re going to have to start blurring the line between our bodies, our minds, and our concept of our selves. That is, we’ll have to start intentionally blurring it, because the vast majority of us already blur it, without consciously realising that we do. At least, those without prostheses don’t realise it.

Dr Ashley Shew, out of Virginia Tech,  works at the intersection of philosophy, tech, and disability. I first encountered her work, at the 2016 IEEE Ethics Conference in Vancouver, where she presented her paper “Up-Standing, Norms, Technology, and Disability,” a discussion of how ableism, expectations, and language use marginalise disabled bodies. Dr Shew is, herself, disabled, having had her left leg removed due to cancer, and she gave her talk not on the raised dias, but at floor-level, directly in front of the projector. Her reason? “I don’t walk up stairs without hand rails, or stand on raised platforms without guards.”

Dr Shew notes that users of wheelchairs consider those to be fairly integral extensions and interventions. Wheelchair users, she notes, consider their chairs to be a part of them, and the kinds of lawsuits engaged when, for instance, airlines damage their chairs, which happens a great deal.  While we tend to think of the advents of technology allowing for the seamless integration of our technology and bodies, the fact is that well-designed mechanical prostheses, today, are capable becoming integrated into the personal morphic sphere of a person, the longer they use it. And this can extended sensing can be transferred from one device to another. Shew mentions a friend of hers:

She’s an amputee who no longer uses a prosthetic leg, but she uses forearm crutches and a wheelchair. (She has a hemipelvectomy, so prosthetics are a real pain for her to get a good fit and there aren’t a lot of options.) She talks about how people have these different perceptions of devices. When she uses her chair people treat her differently than when she uses her crutches, but the determination of which she uses has more to do with the activities she expects for the day, rather than her physical wellbeing.

But people tend to think she’s recovering from something when she moves from chair to sticks.

She has been an [amputee] for 18 years.

She has/is as recovered as she can get.

In her talk at IEEE, Shew discussed the fact that a large number of paraplegics and other wheelchair users do not want exoskeletons, and those fancy stair-climbing wheelchairs aren’t covered by health insurance. They’re classed as vehicles. She said that when she brought this up in the class she taught, one of the engineers left the room looking visibly distressed. He came back later and said that he’d gone home to talk to his brother with spina bifida, who was the whole reason he was working on exoskeletons. He asked his brother, “Do you even want this?” And the brother said, basically, “It’s cool that you’re into it but… No.” So, Shew asks, why are these technologies being developed? Transhumanists and the military. Framing this discussion as “helping our vets” makes it a noble cause, without drawing too much attention to the fact that they’ll be using them on the battlefield as well.

All of this comes back down and around to the idea of biases ingrained into social institutions. Our expectations of what a “normal functioning body” is gets imposed from the collective society, as a whole, a placed as restrictions and demands on the bodies of those whom we deem to be “malfunctioning.” As Shew says, “There’s such a pressure to get the prosthesis as if that solves all the problems of maintenance and body and infrastructure. And the pressure is for very expensive tech at that.”

So we are going to have to accept—in a rare instance where Robert Nozick is proven right about how property and personhood relate—that the answer is “You are damaging both property and person, because this person’s property is their person.” But this is true for reasons Nozick probably would not think to consider, and those same reasons put us on weirdly tricky grounds. There’s a lot, in Nozick, of the notion of property as equivalent to life and liberty, in the pursuance of rights, but those ideas don’t play out, here, in the same way as they do in conservative and libertarian ideologies.  Where those views would say that the pursuit of property is intimately tied to our worth as persons, in the realm of prosthetics our property is literally simultaneously our bodies, and if we don’t make that distinction, then, as Kirsten notes, we can fall into “money is speech” territory, very quickly, and we do not want that.

Because our goal is to be looking at quality of life, here—talking about the thing that allows a person to feel however they define “comfortable,” in the world. That is, the thing(s) that lets a person intersect with the world in the ways that they desire. And so, in damaging the property, you damage the person. This is all the more true if that person is entirely made of what we are used to thinking of as property.

And all of this is before we think about the fact implantable and bone-bonded tech will need maintenance. It will wear down and glitch out, and you will need to be able to access it, when it does.  This means that the range of ability for those with implantables? Sometimes it’s less than that of folks with more “traditional” prostheses. But because they’re inside, or more easily made to look like the “original” limb,  we observers are so much more likely to forget that there are crucial differences at play in the ownership and operation of these bodies.

There’s long been a fear that, the closer we get to being able to easily and cheaply modify humans, we’ll be more likely to think of humanity as “perfectable.” That the myth of progress—some idealized endpoint—will be so seductive as to become completely irresistible. We’ve seen this before, in the eugenics movement, and it’s reared its head in the transhumanist and H+ communities of the 20th and 21st centuries, as well. But there is the possibility that instead of demanding that there be some kind of universally-applicable “baseline,” we intently focused, instead, on recognizing the fact that just as different humans have different biochemical and metabolic needs, process, capabilities, preferences, and desires, different beings and entities which might be considered persons are drastically different than we, but no less persons?

Because human beings are different. Is there a general framework, a loosely-defined line around which we draw a conglomeration of traits, within which lives all that we mark out as “human”—a kind of species-wide butter zone? Of course. That’s what makes us a fucking species. But the kind of essentialist language and thinking towards which we tend, after that, is reductionist and dangerous. Our language choices matter, because connotative weight alters what people think and in what context, and, again, we have a habit of moving rapidly from talking about a generalized framework of humanness to talking about “The Right Kind Of Bodies,” and the “Right Kind Of Lifestyle.”

And so, again, again, again, we must address problems such as normalized expectations of “health” and “Ability.” Trying to give everyone access to what they might consider their “best” selves is a brilliant goal, sure, whatever, but by even forwarding the project, we run the risk of colouring an expectation of both what that “best” is and what we think it “Ought To” look like.

Some people need more protein, some people need less choline, some people need higher levels of phosphates, some people have echolocation, some can live to be 125, and every human population has different intestinal bacterial colonies from every other. When we combine all these variables, we will not necessarily find that each and every human being has the same molecular and atomic distribution in the same PPM/B ranges, nor will we necessarily find that our mixing and matching will ensure that everyone gets to be the best combination of everything. It would be fantastic if we could, but everything we’ve ever learned about our species says that “healthy human” is a constantly shifting target, and not a static one.

We are still at a place where the general public reacts with visceral aversion to technological advances and especially anything like an immediated technologically-augmented humanity, and this is at least in part because we still skirt the line of eugenics language, to this day. Because we talk about naturally occurring bio-physiological Facts as though they were in any way indicative of value, without our input. Because we’re still terrible at ethics, continually screwing up at 100mph, then looking back and going, “Oh. Should’ve factored that in. Oops.”

But let’s be clear, here: I am not a doctor. I’m not a physiologist or a molecular biologist. I could be wrong about how all of these things come together in the human body, and maybe there will be something more than a baseline, some set of all species-wide factors which, in the right configuration, say “Healthy Human.” But what I am is someone with a fairly detailed understanding of how language and perception affect people’s acceptance of possibilities, their reaction to new (or hauntingly-familiar-but-repackaged) ideas, and their long-term societal expectations and valuations of normalcy.

And so I’m not saying that we shouldn’t augment humanity, via either mediated or immediated means. I’m not saying that IBM’s Watson and Google’s DeepMind shouldn’t be tasked with the searching patient records and correlating data. But I’m also not saying that either of these is an unequivocal good. I’m saying that it’s actually shocking how much correlative capability is indicated by the achievements of both IBM and Google. I’m saying that we need to change the way we talk about and think about what it is we’re doing. We need to ask ourselves questions about informed patient consent, and the notions of opting into the use of data; about the assumptions we’re making in regards to the nature of what makes us humans, and the dangers of rampant, unconscious scientistic speciesism. Then, we can start to ask new questions about how to use these new tools we’ve developed.

With this new perspective, we can begin to imagine what would happen if we took Watson and DeepDream’s ability to put data into context—to turn around, in seconds, millions upon millions (billions? Trillions?) of permutations and combinations. And then we can ask them to work on tailoring genome-specific health solutions and individualized dietary plans. What if we asked these systems to catalogue literally everything we currently knew about every kind of disease presentation, in every ethnic and regional population, and the differentials for various types of people with different histories, risk factors, current statuses? We already have nanite delivery systems, so what if we used Google and IBM’s increasingly ridiculous complexity to figure out how to have those nanobots deliver a payload of perfectly-crafted medical remedies?

But this is fraught territory. If we step wrong, here, we are not simply going to miss an opportunity to develop new cures and devise interesting gadgets. No; to go astray, on this path, is to begin to see categories of people that “shouldn’t” be “allowed” to reproduce, or “to suffer.” A misapprehension of what we’re about, and why, is far fewer steps away from forced sterilization and medical murder than any of us would like to countenance. And so we need to move very carefully, indeed, always being aware of our biases, and remembering to ask those affected by our decisions what they need and what it’s like to be them. And remembering, when they provide us with their input, to believe them.

Last week, Artsy.net’s Izabella Scott wrote this piece about how and why the aesthetic of witchcraft is making a comeback in the art world, which is pretty pleasantly timed as not only are we all eagerly awaiting Kim Boekbinder’s NOISEWITCH, but I also just sat down with Rose Eveleth for the Flash Forward Podcast to talk for her season 2 finale.

You see, Rose did something a little different this time. Instead of writing up a potential future and then talking to a bunch of amazing people about it, like she usually does, this episode’s future was written by an algorithm. Rose trained an algorithm called Torch not only on the text of all of the futures from both Flash Forward seasons, but also the full scripts of both the War of the Worlds and the 1979 Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio plays. What’s unsurprising, then, is that part of what the algorithm wanted to talk about was space travel and Mars. What is genuinely surprising, however, is that what it also wanted to talk about was Witches.

Because so far as either Rose or I could remember, witches aren’t mentioned anywhere in any of those texts.

ANYWAY, the finale episode is called “The Witch Who Came From Mars,” and the ensuing exegeses by several very interesting people and me of the Bradbury-esque results of this experiment are kind of amazing. No one took exactly the same thing from the text, and the more we heard of each other, the more we started to weave threads together into a meta-narrative.

Episode 20: The Witch Who Came From Mars

It’s really worth your time, and if you subscribe to Rose’s Patreon, then not only will you get immediate access to the full transcript of that show, but also to the full interview she did with PBS Idea Channel’s Mike Rugnetta. They talk a great deal about whether we will ever deign to refer to the aesthetic creations of artificial intelligences as “Art.”

And if you subscribe to my Patreon, then you’ll get access to the full conversation between Rose and me, appended to this week’s newsletter, “Bad Month for Hiveminds.” Rose and I talk about the nature of magick and technology, the overlaps and intersections of intention and control, and what exactly it is we might mean by “behanding,” the term that shows up throughout the AI’s piece.

And just because I don’t give a specific shoutout to Thoth and Raven doesn’t mean I forgot them. Very much didn’t forget about Raven.

Also speaking of Patreon and witches and whatnot, current $1+ patrons have access to the full first round of interview questions I did with Eliza Gauger about Problem Glyphs. So you can get in on that, there, if you so desire. Eliza is getting back to me with their answers to the follow-up questions, and then I’ll go about finishing up the formatting and publishing the full article. But if you subscribe now, you’ll know what all the fuss is about well before anybody else.

And, as always, there are other ways to provide material support, if longterm subscription isn’t your thing.

Until Next Time.


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This work originally appears as “Go Upgrade Yourself,” in the edited volume Futurama and Philosophy. It was originally titled

The Upgrading of Hermes Conrad

So, you’re tired of your squishy meatsack of a body, eh? Ready for the next level of sweet biomechanical upgrades? Well, you’re in luck! The world of Futurama has the finest in back-alley and mad-scientist-based bio-augmentation surgeons, ready and waiting to hear from you! From a fresh set of gills, to a brand new chest-harpoon, and beyond, Yuri the Shady Parts Dealer and Professor Hubert J. Farnsworth are here to supply all of your upgrading needs—“You give lungs now; gills be here in two weeks!” Just so long as, whatever you do, stay away from legitimate hospitals. The kinds of procedures you’re looking to get done…well, let’s just say they’re still frowned upon in the 31st century; and why shouldn’t they be? As the woeful tale of Hermes Conrad illustrates exactly what’s at stake if you choose to pursue your biomechanical dreams.

 

The Six Million Dollar Mon

 Our tale begins with season seven’s episode “The Six Million Dollar Mon,” in which Hermes Conrad, Grade 36 Bureaucrat (Extraordinaire), comes to the conclusion that the he should be fired, since his bureaucratic performance reviews are the main drain on his beloved Planet Express Shipping Company. After being replaced with robo-bureaucrat Mark 7-G (Mark Sevengy?), Hermes enjoys some delicious spicy curried goat and goes out for an evening stroll with his lovely wife LaBarbara. While on their walk Roberto, the knife-wielding maniac, long of our acquaintance, confronts and demands the human couple’s skin for his culinary delight! As Hermes cowers behind his wife in fear, suddenly a savior arrives! URL, the Robot Police Officer, reels Roberto in with his magnificent chest-harpoon! Watching the cops take Roberto to the electromagnetic chair, and lamenting his uselessness in a dangerous situation, Hermes makes a decision: he’ll get Bender to take him to one of the many shady, underground surgeons he knows, so he can become “less inferior to today’s modern machinery.” Enter: Yuri, Professional Shady-Deal-Maker.

Hermes’ first upgrade is to get a chest-harpoon, like the one URL has. With his new enhancement, he proves his worth to the crew by getting a box off of the top shelf, which is too high for Mark 7-G. With this fete he wins back his position with the company, but as soon as things get back to normal the Professor drops his false teeth down the Dispose-All. No big deal, right? Just get Scruffy to retrieve it. Unfortunately, Scruffy responds, that a sink, “t’ain’t a berler nor a terlet,” effectively refusing to retrieve the Professor’s teeth. Hermes resigns himself to grabbing his hand tools, when Bender steps in, saying, “Hand tools? Why don’t you just get an extendo-arm, like me?” Whereupon, he reaches across the room and pulls the Professor’s false teeth out of the drain—and immediately drops them back in. Hermes objects, saying that he doesn’t need any more upgrades—after all, he doesn’t want to end up a cold, emotionless robot, like Bender! Just then, Mark 7-G pipes up with, “Maybe I should get an extendo-arm,” and Hermes narrows his eyes in hatred. Re-enter: Yuri.

New extendo-arm acquired, the Professor’s teeth retrieved, and the old arm given to Zoidberg, who’s been asking for all of Hermes’s discarded parts, Hermes is, again, a hero to his coworkers. Later, as he lays in bed reading with his wife, LaBarbara questions his motives for his continual upgrades. He assures her that he’s done getting upgrades. However, his promise is short-lived. After shattering his glasses with his new super-strong mechanical arm, he rushes out to get a new Cylon eye. LaBarbara is now extremely worried, but Hermes soothes her, and they settle in for some “Marital Relations…”, at which point she finds that he’s had something else upgraded, too. She yells at him, “Some tings shouldn’t be Cylon-ed!” (which, in all honesty could be taken as the moral of the episode), and breaks off contact. What follows is a montage of Hermes encountering trivial difficulties in his daily life, and upgrading himself to overcome them. Rather than learning and working to improve himself, he continually replaces all of his parts, until he achieves a Full Body Upgrade. He still has a human brain, but that doesn’t matter: he’s changed. He doesn’t relate to his friends and family in the same way, and they’ve all noticed,especially Zoidberg.

All this time, however, Dr. John Zoidberg saved the trimmings from his friend’s constant upgrades, and has used them to make a meat-puppet, which he calls “Li’l Hermes.” Oh, and they’re a ventriloquist act. Anyway, after seeing their act, Hermes—or Mecha-Hermes, as he now prefers—is filled with loathing; loathing for the fact that his brain is still human, that is, until…! Re-re-enter…, no, not Yuri; because even Shady-Deals Yuri has his limits. He says that “No one in their right mind would do such a thing.” Enter: The Professor, who is, of course, more than happy—or perhaps, “maniacally gleeful”—to help. So, with Bender’s assistance (because everything robot-related, in the Futurama universe has to involve Bender, I guess), they set off to the Robot Cemetery to exhume the most recently buried robot they can find, and make off with its brain-chip. In their haste to have the deed done, they don’t bother to check the name of whose grave it is they’re desecrating. As you might have guessed, it’s Roberto—“3001-3012: Beloved Killer and Maniac.”

In the course of the operation, LaBarbara makes an impassioned plea, and it causes the Professor to stop and rethink his actions—because Hermes might have “litigious survivors.” Suddenly, to everyone’s surprise, Zoidberg steps up and offers to perform this final operation, the one which will seemingly remove any traces of the Hermes he’s known and loved! Agreeing with Mecha-Hermes that claws will be far too clumsy for this delicate brain surgery, Zoidberg dons Li’l Hermes, and uses the puppet’s hands to do the deed. While all of this is underway, Zoidberg sings to everyone the explanation for why he would help his friend lose himself this way, all to the slightly heavy-handed tune of “Monster Mash.” Finally, the human brain removed, the robot brain implanted, and Zoidberg’s song coming to a close, the doctor reveals his final plan…By putting Hermes’s human brain into Li’l Hermes, Hermes is back! Of course, the whole operation having been a success, so is Roberto, but that’s somebody else’s problem.

We could spend the rest of our time discussing Zoidberg’s self-harmonization, but I’ll leave that for you to experiment with. Instead, let’s look closer at human bio-enhancement. To do this we’ll need to go back to the beginning. No, not the beginning of the episode, or even the Beginning of Futurama itself; No, we need to go back to the beginning of bio-enhancement—and specifically the field of cybernetics—as a whole.

 

“More Human Than Human” Is Our Motto

In 1960, at the outset of the Space Race, Manfred Clynes and Nathan S. Kline wrote an article for the September issue of Aeronautics called “Cyborgs and Space.” In this article, they coined the term “cyborg” as a portmanteau of the phrase “Cybernetic Organism,” that is, a living creature with the ability to adapt its body to its environment. Clynes and Kline believed that if humans were ever going to go far out into space, they would have to become the kinds of creatures that could survive the vacuum of space as well as harsh, hostile planets. Now, for all its late-1990s Millennial fervor, Futurama has a deep undercurrent of love for the dream and promise (and fashion) of space exploration, as it was presented in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. All you need to do in order to see this is remember Fry’s wonder and joy at being on the actual moon and seeing the Apollo Lunar Lander. If this is the case, why, within Futurama’s 31st Century, is there such a deep distrust of anything approaching altered human physical features? Well, looking at it, we may find it has something to do with the fact that ever since we dreamed of augmenting humans, we’ve had nightmares that any alterations would thereby make us less human.

“The Six Million Dollar Mon,” episode seven of season seven, contains within it clear references to the history of science fiction, including one of the classic tales of human augmentation, and creating new life: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In going to the Robot Cemetery in the dead of night for spare parts, accidentally obtaining a murderer’s brain, and especially that bit with the skylight in the Professor’s laboratory, the entire third act of this episode serves as homage to Shelley’s book and its most memorable adaptations. In doing this, the Futurama crew puts conceptual pressure on what many of us have long believed: that created life is somehow “wrong” and that augmenting humans will make them somehow “less themselves.” Something about the biological is linked in our minds to the idea of the self—that is, it’s the warm squishy bits that make us who we are.

Think about it: If you build a person out of murderers, of course they’re going to be a murderer. If you replace every biological part of a human, then of course they won’t be their normal human selves, anymore; they’ll have become something entirely different, by definition. If your body isn’t yours, anymore, then how could you possibly be “you,” anymore? This should be all the more true when what’s being used to replace your bits is a different substance and material than you used to be. When that new “you” is metal rather than flesh, it seems that what it used to mean to be “you” is gone, and something new shall have appeared. This makes so much sense to us on a basic level that it seems silly to spell it out even this much, but what if we modify our scenario a little bit, and take another look?

 

The Ship of Planet Express

 What if, instead of feeling inferior to URL, Hermes had been injured and, in the course of his treatment, was given the choice between a brand new set of biological giblets (or a whole new body, as happened in the Bender’s Big Score storyline), or the chest-harpoon upgrade? Either way, we’re replacing what was lost with something new, right? So, why do many of us see the biological replacement as “more real?” Try this example: One day, on a routine delivery, the Planet Express Ship is damaged and repairs must be made. Specifically, the whole tail fin has to be replaced with a new, better fin. Once this is done, is it still the Planet Express ship? What if, next, we have to replace the dark matter engines with better engines? Is it still the Planet Express ship? Now, Leela’s chair is busted up, so we need to get her a new one. It also needs new bolts, so, while we’re at it, let’s just replace all of the bolts in the ship. Then the walls get dented, and the bunks are rusty, and the floors are buckled, and Scruffy’s mop… and so, over many years, the result is that no part of the Planet Express ship is “original,” oh, and we also have to get new, better paint, because the old paint is peeled away, plus, this all-new stuff needs painting. So, what do we think? Is this still the same Planet Express ship as it was in the first episode of Futurama? And, if so, then why do we think of a repaired and augmented human as “not being themselves?”

All of this may sound a little far-fetched, but remember the conventional wisdom that at the end of every seven-year cycle, all of the cells in your body have died and been replaced. Now, this isn’t quite true, as some cells don’t die easily, and some of those don’t regenerate when they do die, but as a useful shorthand, this gives something to think about. Ultimately, due to the metabolizing of elements and their distribution through your body it is ultimately more likely that you are currently made of astronomically many more new atoms than you are made of the atoms with which you were born. And really, that’s just math. Are you the same size as you were when you were born? Where do you think that extra mass came from? So, you are made of more and new atomic stuff over your lifetime; are you still you? These questions belong to what is generally known as “The Ship of Theseus” family of paradoxes, examples of which can be found pretty much everywhere.

The ultimate question the Ship of Theseus poses is one of identity, and specifically, “What makes a thing itself?” and, “At what point or through what means of alteration is a thing no longer itself?” Some schools of thought hold that it’s not what a thing is made of, but what it does that determines what it is. These philosophical groups are known as the behaviorists and the functionalists, and the latter believes that if a body or a mind goes through the “right kind” of process, then it can be termed as being the same as the original. That is, if I get a mechanical heart and what it does is keep blood pumping through my body, then it is my heart. Maybe it isn’t the heart I was born with, but it is my heart. And this seems to make sense to us, too. My new heart does the job my original cells were intending to do, but it does that job better than they could, and for longer; it works better, and I’m better because of it. But there seems to be something about that “Better” which throws us off, something about the line between therapeutic technology and voluntary augmentation.

When we are faced with the necessity of a repair, we are willing to accept that our new parts will be different than our old ones. In fact, we accept it so readily that we don’t even think about them as new parts. What Hermes does, however, is voluntary; he doesn’t “need” a chest-harpoon, but he wants one, and so he upgrades himself. And therein lies the crux of our dilemma: When we’re acutely aware of the process of upgrading, or repairing, or augmenting ourselves past a baseline of “Human,” we become uncomfortable, made to face the paradox of our connection to an idea of a permanent body that is in actuality constantly changing. Take for instance the question of steroidal injection. As a medical technology, there are times when we are more than happy to accept the use of steroids, as it will save a life, and allow people to live as “normal” human beings. Sufferers of asthma and certain types of infection literally need steroids to live. In other instances, however, we find ourselves abhorring the use of steroids, as it gives the user an “unfair advantage.” Baseball, football, the Olympics: all of these arena in which we look to the use of “enhancement technologies, and we draw a line and say, “If you achieved the peak of physical perfection through a process, that is through hard work and sweat and training, then your achievement is valid. But if you skipped a step, if you make yourself something more than human, then you’ve cheated.”

This sense of “having cheated” can even be seen in the case of humans who would otherwise be designated as “handicapped.” Aimee Mullins is a runner, model, and public speaker who has talked about how losing her legs has, in effect, given her super powers.[1] By having the ability to change her height, her speed, or her physical appearance at will, she contends that she has a distinct advantage over anyone who does not have that capability. To this end, we can come to see that something about the nature of our selves actually is contained within our physical form because we’re literally incapable of being some things, until we can change who and what we are. And here, in one person, what started as a therapeutic replacement—an assistive medical technology—has seamlessly turned into an upgrade, but we seem to be okay with this. Why? Perhaps there is something inherent in the struggle of overcoming the loss of a limb or the suffering of an illness that allows us to feel as if the patient has paid their dues. Maybe if Hermes had been stabbed by Roberto, we wouldn’t begrudge him a chest-harpoon.

But this presents us with a serious problem, because now we can alter ourselves by altering our bodies, where previously we said that our bodies were not the “real us.” Now, we must consider what it is that we’re changing when we swap out new and different pieces of ourselves. This line of thinking matches up with schools of thought such as physicalism, which says that when we make a fundamental change to our physical composition, then we have changed who we are.

 

Is Your Mind Just a Giant Brain?

Briefly, the doctrine of mind-body dualism (MBD) does pretty much what it says on the package, in that adherents believe that the mind and the body are two distinct types of stuff. How and why they interact (or whether they do at all) varies from interpretation to interpretation, but on what’s known as René Descartes’s “Interactionist” model, the mind is the real self, and the body is just there to do stuff. In this model, bodily events affect mental events, and vice versa, so what you think leads to what you do, and what you do can change how you think. This seems to make sense, until we begin to pick apart the questions of why we need two different types of thing, here. If the mind and the body affect each other, then how can the non-physical mind be the only real self? If it were the only real part of you, then nothing that happened to the physical shell should matter at all, because the mind? These questions and more very quickly cause us to question the validity of the mind as our “real selves,” leaving us trapped between the question of who we are, and the question of why we’re made the way we’re made. What can we do? Enter: Physicalism

The physicalist picture says that mind-states are brain-states. There’s none of this “two kinds of stuff” nonsense. It’s all physical stuff, and it all interacts, because it’s all physical. When the chemical pathways in your brain change, you change. When you think new thoughts, it’s because something in your world and your environment has changed. All that you are is the physical components of your body and the world around you. Pretty simple, right? Well, not quite that simple. Because if this is the case, then why should we feel that anything emotional would be changed by upgrading ourselves? As long as we’re pumping the same signals to the same receivers, and getting the same kinds of responses, everything we love should still be loved by us. So, why do the physicalists still believe that changing what we are will change who we are?

Let’s take a deeper look at the implications of physicalism for our dear Mr. Conrad.

According to this picture, with the alteration or loss of his biological components and systems, Hermes should begin to lose himself, until, with the removal of his brain, he would no longer be himself at all. But why should this be true? According to our previous discussion of the functionalist and behaviorist forms of physicalism, if Hermes’s new parts are performing the same job, in the same way as his old parts, just with a few new extras, then he shouldn’t be any different, at all. In order to understand this, we have to first know that I wasn’t completely honest with you, because some physicalists believe that the integrity of the components and the systems that make up a thing are what makes that thing. Thus, if we change the physical components of the thing we’re studying, then we change the thing. So, perhaps this picture is the right one, and the Futurama universe is a purely physicalist universe, after all.

On this view, what makes us who we are is precisely what we are. Our bits and pieces, cells, and chunks: these make us exactly the people we are, and so, if they change, then of course we will change. If our selves are dependent on our biology, then we are necessarily no longer ourselves when we remove that biology, regardless of whether the new technology does exactly the same job that the biology used to. And the argument seems to hold, even if it had been a new, diffferent set of human parts, rather than robot parts. In this particular physicalist view, it’s not just the stuff, but also the provenance of the individual parts that matter, and so changing the components changes us. As Hermes replaces part after part of his physical body, it becomes easier and easier for him to replace more parts, but he is still, in some sense, Hermes. He has the same motivations, the same thoughts, and the same memories, and so he is still Hermes, even if he’s changed. Right up until he swaps his brain, that is. And this makes perfect sense, because the brain is where the memories, thoughts, and motivations all reside. But, then…why aren’t more people with pacemakers cold and emotionless? Why is it that people with organs donated from serial killers don’t then turn into serial killers, themselves, despite what movies would have us believe? If this picture of physicalism is the right one, then why are so many people still themselves after transplants? Perhaps it’s not any one of these views that holds the whole key; maybe it’s a blending of three. This picture seems to suggest that while the bits and pieces of our physical body may change, and while that change may, in fact, change us, it is a combination of how, how quickly, and how many changes take place that will culminate in any eventual massive change in our selves.

 

Roswell That Ends Well

In the end, the versions of physicalism presented in the universe of Futurama seems to almost jibe with the intuitions we have about the nature of our own identity, and so, for the sake of Hermes Conrad, it seems like we should make the attempt to find some kind of understanding. When we see Hermes’s behaviour as he adds more and more new parts, we, as outside observers, have an urge to say “He’s not himself anymore,” but to Hermes, who has access to all of his reasoning and thought processes, his changes are merely who he is. It’s only when he’s shown himself from the outside via Zoidberg putting his physical brain back into his biological body, that he sees who and what he has allowed himself to become, and how that might be terrifying to those who love him. Perhaps it is this continuance of memory paired with the ability for empathy that makes us so susceptible to the twin traps of a permanent self and the terror of losing it.

Ultimately, everything we are is always in flux, with each new idea, each new experience, each new pound, and each new scar we become more and different than we ever have been, but as we take our time and integrate these experiences into ourselves, they are not so alien to us, nor to those who love us. It is only when we make drastic changes to what we are that those around us are able to question who we have become.

Oh, and one more thing: The “Ship of Theseus” story has a variant which I forgot to mention. In it, someone, perhaps a member of the original crew, comes along in another ship and picks up all the discarded, worn out pieces of Theseus’s ship, and uses them to build another, kind of decrepit ship. The stories don’t say what happens if and when Theseus finds out about this, or whether he gives chase to the surreptitious ship builder, but if he did, you can bet the latter party escapes with a cry of “Whooop-whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop-whoop!” on his mouth tendrils.

 

FOOTNOTES

[1] “It’s not fair having 12 pairs of legs.” Mullins, Aimee. TED Talk 2009

I’m working on having conversations with some developmental and family psychologists about the kinds of things you would expect I’d be talking to them–and then telling you–about. I’m also working with several other people to organize three or four different A/V conversations about various shows and films that’ve come out, this year.

Obviously, then, we’re in the middle of some detailed discussions which might take a little while, so until they take a firmer shape, let’s talk about something else near and dear to our hearts: Cybernetic Augmentations!

It’s actually been a pretty great few months for our advancements in wearable prostheses/augmentations, so I’m just going to list a few of my favourites and most recent ones, below:


 

  • ‘Ocumetics Bionic Lens Could Give You Vision 3x Better than 20/20’

    ‘”There’s a lot of excitement about the Bionic Lens from very experienced surgeons who perhaps had some cynicism about this because they’ve seen things not work in the past. They think that this might actually work and they’re eager enough that they all wish to be on the medical advisory board to help him on his journey,” DeLuise says.
    ‘”I think this device is going to bring us closer to the holy grail of excellent vision at all ranges — distant, intermediate and near.”
    ‘Pending clinical trials on animals and then blind human eyes, the Bionic Lens could be available in Canada and elsewhere in about two years, depending on regulatory processes in various countries, Webb says.’

 

  • 3D-Printed Titanium Jaw Lets Turtle Eat Again
    ‘Once the bionic turtle has made a full recovery, the team plans to release it back into the ocean to live happily once again. It’s hoped that this pioneering surgery will be able to help more injured sea turtles in the future and improve their chances of survival.’

 

  • Amputees Control Bionic Legs with Their Thoughts” (Video At Link)
    ‘As soon as I put my foot on, it took me about 10 minutes to get control of it. I could stand up and just walk away. Come back, sit down, use my muscles to move my foot in the position I wanted to use it. It was, like you couldn’t believe the feeling when you were moving your ankle. It was really strange. I couldn’t explain it. It was like, I was moving it with my muscles, there was nobody else doing it, the foot was not doing it, I was doing it, so it was really strange and overwhelming,” Olafsson remembered.’

 

What we’re looking at is a lot of potentially wonderful biomechanical interventions coming to fruition, right now and in the next few months and years. On top of that, for the past couple of weeks, NPR’s been a providing a great deal of coverage on autonomous created/generated machine intelligences and their applications for daily life. As we can see in this piece about Ellie, the interactive therapeutic system used to diagnose PTS, and depression, the level of sophistication in machine intelligences–not to mention the pace of their development–is increasing, and so, therefore, is the pressure to accept these developments as “normal.”

Now you well know (and others won’t hesitate to tell you) that the existences of these therapies, prostheses, augmentations, and systems are not unequivocal benefits, applicable to any and all experiential modes, but as the bullet list above shows, if we keep our minds about us, then we can apply them with discernment. And those applications can damn sure do many of us a lot of good.

[EDIT: While I was working on this post, The Washington Post published this piece:

Bolding mine and more information and a video at the link. So there’s that.]

I sat down with Klint Finley of Mindful Cyborgs to talk about many, many things:

…pop culture portrayals of human enhancement and artificial intelligence and why we need to craft more nuanced narratives to explore these topics…

Tune in next week to hear Damien talk about how AI and transhumanism intersects with magic and the occult.
Download and Show Notes: Mindful Cyborgs: Mindful Cyborgs: A Positive Vision of Transhumanism and AI with Damien Williams

This was a really great conversation, & I do so hope you enjoy it.