The Homeless Hippie Cyborg: Grokking Cyborgism

Cayden Pierce
8 min readMay 30, 2023

PREFACE

grok : to understand profoundly and intuitively

The ideas discussed here present a modern (but far from novel) view on the fundamental nature of what it means to be human. This article assumes that one accepts that humans have transcended our existence as biology alone and have become a more advanced system with biological and technological sub-components. I attempt to explain some of my personal experiments aimed at better understanding myself as biological and technological sub-components that together form a greater system — a cyborg. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

MAN AND MACHINE

We are all cyborgs, biological intelligent agents extended by the technology around us. We all know this, right? Everyone knows we’re “glued to our phones”. Everyone knows we use technology to sleep, eat, bathe, move around, communicate, go to the bathroom, exercise, learn, plan, etc. But do we really understand our relationship to technology? Do we really grok our positions as nodes in a massive human-machine network?

I’d argue that no, we don’t. Understanding requires recognition, and recognition requires contrast. Modern individuals did not experience the changes undergone by society as most of the technology we now take for granted was invented and adopted by the species. We were born into a state of assumed dependence on the technology that surrounds us. Our lack of personal historical experience and perspective means we lack the contrast to truly understand our relationship with technology.

Take, for example, running water. A simple piece of infrastructure now considered so fundamental that it is offered for free at most parks and public places in the developed world. We rely on this technology tens or hundreds of times every day. Taking away running water from an individual who has been born and raised with access to this technology completely undermines their ability to function. The individual would be without a way to eat, clean, “go to the bathroom”, bathe, or any number of the most basic human functions. Running water was only introduced in the 17th century and yet we have already built a society-level life-or-death reliance on this technology.

The same thought experiment can be repeated for a vast number of technologies that modern man considers a right, and that a human from 1,000 years ago would consider a marvel. As someone working towards developing the next step in the evolution of human-machine systems, I want to intuitively understand my relationship with technology. I want to not only think about myself in relation to technology — but to experience what it really means to be a cyborg.

THE PLAN

How can one artificially create an environment that reveals oneself as a human-machine system? I believe there are two extremes of existence that will reveal this truth. The first is to build a single, wearable machine that contains all of the technology that one uses day-to-day — every single piece of infrastructure, computers, hygiene tools, etc. and put it into a single wearable device. The second is to build a single, wearable machine that contains the absolute minimum technology required in order to support one’s life, with all of the technological frills removed.

Over the last 6 months, I built and deployed (lived in) both of these systems. Below I describe what they were, how they worked, and what they revealed about our cyborg situation.

ALL THE TECH

See the video of the lab here: https://youtu.be/AT1gPmQQkxI

Cybernetic Vehicular Research Lab

It’s easy to make something work in theory. It was easy to sit down and make a list of all of the technologies I use every day and imagine that this list was exhaustive. However, actually building a machine with all of these technologies integrated and then using it as one’s sole source of technological sustenance reveals just how much technology we really use day-to-day.

I bought a 1983 RV/motorhome and modified the inside to include a software and electronics lab. I had/renovated/installed kitchen, bathroom, water, heating, solar panels, batteries, desks, and a host of other technology that I believed encompassed all I needed to become self-sufficient in this piece of technology.

The first day that I took the RV out for a trip, I had not yet installed curtains. My entire life, I had always had immediate and easy access to a private room, a closed door, in which to perform the more private acts of life. However, with no curtains, there was not a single location in my home where I could not be seen. Immediately, within a few hours of “setting sail” in wearable modernity, I realised the fundamental need that I had developed for privacy. Curtains were never something I had considered a “technology”, and it was only after living without them that I realised the absolute necessity that privacy is.

Next was communications. Within a day, I had run through the few gigabytes of data that Canadian telecom had overcharged me for. I had originally planned to get a larger data cap, but this had been delayed. Having zero connection to the internet for a short period of time, I thought, would be fine. However, this quickly went south as I realised the true extent of the tools that I utilise which rely on an internet connection. My communications, maps, weather, calendar, storage, books, information sources, and all that my mental world held dear was ripped away. While this has its benefits (space to think), I promptly upgraded and installed the equipment needed to get me running with high speed internet at all times, all across Canada.

These and a host of other problems I encountered over the first few weeks of subsisting off of the machine that I had built which was theoretically supposed to contain all of the technology a modern human (and researcher + engineer) needs to survive. These issues made it immediately obvious that despite my best efforts, I did not have a strong understanding of the machine side of my human-machine system existence. My model of myself was lacking in awareness of the size and scope of my technological sub-components and subsystems (basically, the technology that I rely on daily). This was the eye-opening realisation that I wanted.

After working out some of the kinks caused by lack of understanding of my position as a human-machine system, I set off in the RV, leaving from Toronto, Ontario, Canada and driving across the country to Vancouver, BC, Canada. In one instance, I stopped in the Canadian Rockies for 8 days to read, focus, and work on the Wearable Intelligence System (https://github.com/emexlabs/WearableIntelligenceSystem). It was a time of ecstasy as I realised that I had achieved the goal of creating a machine, an extension of myself, which would become a single instance of all of my technological sub-components.

Reflecting on this time period, I began to think of myself less as my own body and more as the RV itself. Starting from pen and paper, I had designed a machine that would become me, which would slowly morph into an extension of mind the same way that the mind of a baby learns to recognise its hands and feet as its own. Despite all my efforts, there was still (and always will be) a need for input and output to the system. My RV human-machine subsystem ate and drank gasoline, sunlight, and groceries. It released exhaust, waste water, and heat. Over time, I identified less individually with my body and more with the vehicle in which I lived. Is the snail not also his shell?

MINIMAL TECH

Living in woods during engineering undergrad

After the ecstasy of experiencing myself as one human-machine system and the realisation that came with that, it was time to strip back everything non-essential, everything not entirely focused on the survival of my biological body. This was difficult as leaving the comfort of the system I had just created was the last thing I wanted to do at the time.

What did the new system consist of? A bicycle, tent, waterproof bags, one change of clothes, sleeping bag, a bit of food, and a few more odds and ends. I essentially limited my belongings and immediate access to technology to the articles which a homeless individual owns.

I knew that this experiment would not be realistic if I didn’t have access to more technology when the need arose — I was never under the impression that I would fully abandon my technological existence. I knew that more technology was needed, and I wanted to find out exactly what was needed to determine are the non-negotiable technological subsystems of my being. This was why I adopted my new lifestyle in an urban setting where all of the technology that I may need was close at hand. The real value in the experiment was playing things out and allowing my lifestyle to answer the question: what technological needs do I have that are so important and fundamental that they are worth stopping what I am doing, packing up my things, and biking ten minutes or more to acquire? Answering this question everyday painted a picture of the absolute technological necessities that I could not/would not do without.

Some realisations were more obvious than others — it took less than 24 hours to realise the intense need for a shower. Food was another realisation — I had known all along that I wouldn’t be foraging my own energy source, but I had neglected to consider the necessity of modern cooking technology. My initial attempts at eating included buying a single meal’s worth of food at the grocery store and eating it, picnic style, in the local park. I soon became well aware of the downsides of this approach as it was impossible to cook anything — and raw food can only go so far in a healthy diet. Another realisation was safety as, without the technological luxury of a locked house, my tent and camping gear was stolen in the second week of my adventure — which served as a signal to me that it was time to end my educational experiment early before I digressed further into this extreme lifestyle.

Most of the “problems” I mention here (and a host of others not mentioned) have simple solutions. The adventurous reader might quickly point out that biodegradable soap in a river, a propane stove, and a backpackers tent could have solved most of these issues. I concur, access to more technology would have freed me from these concerns. However, the demands of modern man in the modern world can only be met with technology, and it was this truth, which everyone knows but few people grok, that I wished to fully embrace.

WHAT I LEARNED

We (or our not so genetically distant ancestors) were relatively recently (2 million years ago) without any form of technology whatsoever. Man existed with the animals, using our hands and feet to forage and feast. Every technological development since then has also been a development of dependence — one cannot accept a tool without relinquishing one’s individual power to exist without that tool. 50,000 years of language and technology have created a species which doesn’t simply use technology — we are technology.

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Cayden Pierce

Cyborg creating and existing as augmented intelligence. I cover and envision future HCI including smart glasses, neurotech, XR, sensing, and some adventure.