The cyborg we are becoming


Neil Harbisson looks like an anglerfish: the antenna coming out from his nape slings like a cane in front of his eyes. Neil has achromatopsia: he can only see grayscale. Neil, also, is an artist and his prosthesis allows him listen to colour. He is the first person ever to be recognized by a government — United Kingdom — as a cyborg:

– I do not wear technology. I am technology.

His antenna –the eyeborg– is always on. It is a photoreceptor that transforms colour signals into vibrations. That is why he can listen to different colours, including the infrared and ultraviolet ranges, invisible to the human eye. Given Neil’s digital condition, he can perceive signals from outer space with the same ease with which you read this text.

What could be seen as a blessing by some, is intimidating to others. In 2012, his “eyeborg” was severely damaged when the police thought they were being recorded by the photoreceptor. Neil decided to create, along with choreographer and activist Moon Ribas, the Cyborg Foundation, to defend cyborg-rights, promote cyborg art and help humans to extend their senses: “We are all disabled when we compare our senses with those of other animal species.” Neil hopes the foundation will help people to accept the cyborgs in the same way his new capacity has helped him increase his empathy for other species.

What was once reserved for futuristic comic books is the daily life of more and more people: carbon fiber legs, devices that help us see infrared, magnets inside our fingers that help humans to feel a microwave, laptop or microphone’s functioning –each as a different texture– are real examples of what a human cyborg can make nowadays. But perhaps his most important “power” consists of questioning the essence of what it means to be human.

For now, if someone wants to have a new sense or a new body part implanted, they have to do it secretly. It will be almost impossible to find a hospital or a doctor willing to explore this field. “What is happening now is very similar to what happened in the fifties with sex change operations,” Neil explains. Then it was believed that sex change operations were unnecessary and unethical.

Such prejudices will end for the truth is that we’re all becoming cyborgs. We do not need to go under surgery for this, it does not really matter: we extend ourselves using technology. John Roberts, the current President of the Supreme Court of the United States declared in June 2014, in the case Riley vs. California, that modern cell phones are such a pervasive and constant part of our everyday life that “a visitor from Mars might conclude that they are an important feature of human anatomy.” We use devices that follow our steps and record our heartbeat, our phones are not embedded in our hands, but our relationship with them can not be more addictive, Is there any real difference between tracking your phone and tracking you?

Humans have rights through which they retain some control over their bodies. Machines, on the other hand, are slaves of uncertain masters. But, who would Stephen Hawking be without the technology that assists him? His normality is closely linked to the technology he uses, his right to express himself and our right to learn his science would not exist without those pieces of hardware and software. We doubt when it comes to protect –with our rights– the technology that extends us. It may be a foreign concept to us, or it’s really difficult to see the machines as part of us, but in doing so –neglecting our rights to the devices that we are– we enter a very dangerous ground.

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As we transform into cybernetic beings, we are also hackable. Edward Snowden, who stripped espionage systems of the United States, described in an interview with Brian Williams how much he dreaded the power he had while working for the National Security Agency: they could not only see the final communications, but the whole process of drafting emails from people they were surveilling. “How they wrote sentences, erased mistakes, changed their words and pause for a moment to think about what they really meant, and then change it back,” he said. It was not just a process of information, but –according to Snowden– to decipher something much more complex, valuable and perverse: “The way you think.”

It is not only governments that have access –legal or not– to what we could phrase as our computerized wireless organs. The cardiologist of Dick Cheney, former vice president of the United States, ordered disabling his patient’s pacemaker wireless connectivity –apparently to prevent a hacking attack. In Europe, there is a growing concern due to data collection by companies like Facebook, even when one does not use the service. Facebook knows you’re going to start a romantic relationship before you do.

Companies want us to be hackable. Each new innovation from Google is an answer to the question “how do you make users’ data extraction look cooler?”. Think about that for a moment. If you have used its social network, it already suggested you to add information about your friends which you will not share with anyone, but Google. LinkedIn, Twitter, Snapchat, Whatsapp, Instagram, they all offer “free” services while marketing with your information, your digital-self. The cyborg part inside you.

In the past, selling people’s bodies was a very lucrative business. We used to call it “slavery”, and today we feel uncomfortable when talking about it. But maybe it’s time to ask an ever more awkward question: How do we name the business of selling everything that makes up the essence of a person, except for their bodies?

Cyborg-rights are our defense for the foreseeable future. They will help us to defend the integrity of those who depend on machines to live fully, but will also change the concept of how we treat our digital beings, the information that rests in our machines and differentiates our smartphone from that of others: the human part of that machine.