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Why I Walked Away from the Word “Cyborg”

Today’s guest post is by ST&B’s upcoming speaker Michael Chorost who will be at the Library on March 20 to talk about How to Put Your Brain on the Internet: Lessons From a Cyborg and sign copies of his books  World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet (2011) and Rebuilt : How becoming Part Computer Made Me More Human (2005) , which will be for sale at the event. Michael Chorost is a Washington, D.C.-based author and lecturer. He has published in Wired, Technology Review, New Scientist, and other magazines, and frequently gives lectures in the U.S .and abroad.

The circuitry of the cochlear implant Michael got in 2001. This particular one was made by Advanced Bionics, a company in Los Angeles. More recent models by this company have casings that are more MRI-compatible, but the electronics remain essentially the same. Image used by permission of Advanced Bionics

In my first book, Rebuilt, I used the word “cyborg” 157 times. Rebuilt was about going completely deaf and having a computer (that is, a cochlear implant) installed in my head to make my auditory nerve transmit sound signals to my brain. The book was about what it was like to lose a part of one’s body and have it replaced with silicon circuitry. It came out in 2005, and did well; one reviewer called Rebuilt “the first cyborg memoir.”

In my second book, World Wide Mind, I used the word “cyborg” only once. Yet World Wide Mind is even more about human-machine fusions than Rebuilt. It’s about the possibility of communicating directly from one brain to another using implanted devices. I wrote at length about exotic emerging technologies like optogenetics, which reveals and controls neural activity in unprecedented detail. Optogenetics has already transformed how neuroscientists study the brain.

So why did I use the word “cyborg” only once? The simple answer is that I needed the word for my first book. When I got to my second, I didn’t need it anymore.

A few weeks after I went deaf, my audiologist handed me a cochlear implant that had been opened up so that the circuitry was visible. It was shocking. This thing, this circuit board, this maze of chips and wires and resistors, was going to go inside my head. Permanently. That was scary enough, but what was even more intimidating was knowing that it would forever change the way I perceived the world. It wouldn’t give me normal hearing. It wouldn’t even give me back the poor and partial hearing I’d had since birth. Things would sound completely different in a way that no one could describe to me.

My body was about to change in a way that it hadn’t since puberty. We don’t really have words for that kind of change in adulthood, and certainly not for changes imposed by technology. I needed words. More than that, I needed models; I needed examples; I needed stories that could help me make sense of what I was about to go through.

I found them in science fiction. The most useful story for me was in fact the original Cyborg, the novel Martin Caidin wrote in 1973. It was the inspiration for the TV series The Six Million Dollar Man. The novelistic version of Steve Austin struggled with his new limbs and raged at his doctors when they didn’t work right. He became a surly and sullen adolescent, physically awkward, anxious about sex, and uncertain of what to do in his new life.

Book Cover of Rebuilt : how becoming part computer made me more human by Michael Chorost (Mariner Books, 2005)

I was going through all of those things myself, and Cyborg helped me a lot. Rebuilt was a coming-of-age memoir, in which at age 36 I grew up into a new body and new life.

But when I started writing World Wide Mind, the word “cyborg” didn’t work for me anymore. For one thing, I didn’t need to borrow other people’s stories and terms anymore. I’d had a cochlear implant for six years by then. In Rebuilt I had written my own story, in my own words. To be sure, I’d used the word “cyborg” generously, but I’d wrestled with the word. I’d examined various definitions of it and had offered my own.

But Rebuilt, as successful as it was, didn’t have the power to transform the way people used the word “cyborg.” It was still used to describe a science-fictional kind of body, and it implied that the owner of that body would have very specific characteristics and ideologies. People could get away with that in the 70s and 80s, when there weren’t any cyborgs. Science-fiction writers and literary theorists were free to make up exotic fantasies about what human-machine fusions would be like, unfettered by medical reality. They poured all sorts of heavily theorized ideas into the word. They imagined superheroes, secret agents, robots from the future, feminist post-humans, and on and on. None of that was even remotely like actual users in the 90s and beyond. People like me.

Book cover from World wide mind : the coming integration of humanity, machines and the internet by Michael Chorost (Free Press, 2011).

Most of all, the word “cyborg” had become all but irrelevant when I wrote World Wide Mind. It described a body, and only a body, and only a particular kind of fantasized body at that. Now that we have real cyborgs, the label isn’t very useful anymore. We have much more specific terms now: cochlear implant user, retinal implant user, user of a brain-machine interface for controlling a robotic arm, and (maybe someday) user of an osseointegrated prosthetic limb. These are precise and descriptive terms that don’t have ideological baggage.

I think the word “cyborg” mostly belongs to the transhumanist movement now, where it expresses an aspiration rather than a medical reality: to expand human powers and wisdom, and to be free of the limitations of organic bodies. It has a strong eschatological strain. As others have said, transhumanism is the rapture of the geeks, and cyborg technologies are their anticipated means of getting there. But when I wrote about human-machine fusions in World Wide Mind, I was talking about concrete technologies and exploring how they might change the way real people communicated in the real world. So I didn’t need the word “cyborg.” I used the more specific terms that had emerged in the 1990s and early 2000s.

I do still use the word “cyborg” sometimes, like in the title of my upcoming lecture at the Library of Congress. (Details below.) But in those cases I’m using the word tactically. It catches the eye and gets people’s interest. I don’t mind invoking its overtones of the exotic and transcendental now and then. For, after all, the things I write about are incredibly exotic and potentially transformational. I am totally deaf, yet I hear. Brain implants are an emerging technology, but in the past few years it’s become possible to speak concretely about what they could do, extrapolating from real work in science labs. The ultimate implications of that work are exotic indeed. It’s becoming possible to glimpse the engineering details of how people’s brains could be physically interconnected for communication and collaboration. Such work is emerging now, as in, for example, work at Duke Universityin connecting one rat’s brain to another via the Internet. It could ultimately let people communicate in ways we can’t even imagine now.

In the end, the word “cyborg” is a tool. It helped me when I was writing my first book, and I still use it occasionally from time to time. But that’s all it is, a tool, and no longer a particularly useful one. I have better tools now, and I used them in World Wide Mind.

On March 20, 2013, at 11:30am, Dr. Chorost will speak on “How To Put Your Brain On The Internet: Lessons From A Cyborg.” Library of Congress, Mumford Room, 6th Floor, James Madison Building, 101 Independence Avenue SE, Washington D.C. The lecture is free and open to the public; tickets are not required. Full details can be found here.

[Update 5/28/13- How to Put Your Brain on the Internet: Lessons from a Cyborg lecture is available for viewing on the Library’s webcast page and Youtube channel- Topics in Science playlist. ]

2 Comments

  1. Nancy Janitz
    March 13, 2013 at 9:05 am

    It is truly like a “SCI-FY” Movie! I think about my GRANDPARENT AND how they. Couldd even COMPREHEND SOMETHING LIKE IT?! I would be “Nervous” esp. After havinng Google Messing with me on my previous Android PDF! To have A GOOGLE IMPLANT IN MY BRAIN?! That WOULD BE EXTREMELY FRIGHTENING!!! But, I am disabled & if there would be a new invention that would keep me walking, without pain forever, I think I might just GO FOR IT!! I’ve always had thougth that I could live without hearing (I had one eardrum broken yrs ago) N But I could not deal with the Possibility of Going BLIND & Living in Total Darkness! That would be Too hard to except! I am impressed & facinated about the way you have handled this”Invasion of your Minfd”! Thank you for Sharing it so well!

  2. Thea
    March 13, 2013 at 2:27 pm

    I like the more specific terms, but we’ll have to have a shorthand when people have so many prosthetics and add-ons that the specific becomes unwieldy.

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