How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Cyborg

When we hear the word “cyborg,” we think of an emotionless being that has completely lost or was never granted its individuality or right to privacy. We think of the worst kind of collectivist entrapment, a state of perpetual mindlessness that seeks only to follow directives passed down from some higher authority. We think of the Terminator, Robocop and Star Trek’s Seven of Nine.

cyborgs

That being said, the negative attitude we harbor toward the idea of cyborgs has led to a massive backlash against Google Glass, which many people feel is an assault on privacy and individuality. An advocacy group, Stop the Cyborgs, is in fact campaigning to limit the use of intrusive devices such as Google Glass with the intent to “stop a future in which privacy is impossible and central control total.” Likewise, some businesses have already banned it from being worn on their premises. The first such establishment, the 5 Point Cafe in Seattle — which describes Google Glass as a “new fad for the fanny-pack wearing never removing your bluetooth headset wearing crowd” — has now aligned itself with Star Wars’s droid-hating Mos Eisley Cantina.

Google_Glass

It should be noted that the 5 Point Cafe’s banning of Google Glass is done somewhat out of respect for its patrons’ right to privacy, somewhat to be sardonic, somewhat to rabble-rouse and attract media attention — but mostly because the thing looks, well, dumb. Its faux-futuristic, Apple Store aesthetic doesn’t fit in with the cafe’s Seattle counterculture, hole-in-the-wall reputation. Their slogan, after all, is “Alcoholics serving alcoholics since 1929.”

The 5 Point Cafe’s disapproval of Google Glass also says a lot about the majority of Americans’ attitudes toward what they perceive as a gradual loss of privacy and individual freedoms due to technological intrusion. Smartphones are just as guilty of this as Google Glass, but the latter’s always-visible, always-on, always-pointed-at-you functionality crosses a line that makes many people uncomfortable. We just want to be left the hell alone. The idea of being secretly filmed — by any device, for any reason — makes us squirm, even though we’re knowingly caught on surveillance cameras dozens if not hundreds of times a day. We desire privacy and respect for what makes each of us unique, and when we don’t get it, we feel less-than-human. We feel as if we’re being treated like an animal.

Or worse, we feel as if we’re being treated like a cyborg, which is essentially a tool. And since tools don’t receive empathy or privacy, neither should a cyborg.

So maybe this is why the Mos Eisley Cantina’s barkeep gets all huffy when Luke tries to enter with his recently acquired droids. Although they appear to have emotions and personalities, C-3PO and R2-D2 are really cybernetic frauds, artificial charlatans trying vainly to pass themselves off as equals to other Cantina patrons. It’s an insult. To the surly proprietor, droids’ transparent mimicry of self-awareness and entitlement to certain rights sentient beings enjoy mocks the privilege of actually being a sentient being.

This repulsion toward androids and cyborgs can be described as the uncanny valley effect, first described by roboticist Masahiro Mori in 1970. Simply put, when we are confronted with a robot that resembles a human but doesn’t get human behavior quite right — their eyes might not blink like ours or their movements might appear too jerky or calculated — it creeps us out.

And so it is with Google Glass. When we eventually start seeing people on the streets wearing Google Glass, it will surely give some observers unease and skepticism.

They might ask: What are they doing with that thing? Am I being recorded or filmed? When I speak to them, are they tuning me out by listening to music, watching a movie or checking the weather forecast? Are they mentally correcting my factual errors using Wikipedia without my knowledge? Are they using face-recognition technology to scan and analyze me? Do they know all about me — my name, my Social Security number, my past, my secrets?

What part of their humanity and uniqueness did they have to give up to enjoy the benefits of Google Glass?

As admirable as Stop the Cyborgs and 5 Point Cafe’s efforts may be, there’s little hope that the cyborg-ification of humans will stop. No child wants to grow up to be a cyborg, yet humanity is increasingly becoming cybernetic. Many people cannot reasonably function without the use of hearing aids, artificial hips, mind-controlled prosthetic limbs or computerized speech generators. These devices are necessities, and no one faults their users for taking advantage of them. Google Glass is admittedly a different beast altogether, as it is an elective tool and could be used to violate non-wearers’ privacy.

But right or wrong, it’s only the beginning. From retinal implants that perform the same tasks as Google Glass and more, to telekinetic tattoos and nanobots, we’ll be so hard-wired with tech that, as futurists such as Kurzweil predict, the line separating man and machine will blur.

By then, will we even care about abstract liberties such as privacy and individuality?

It’s almost impossible to fathom now, but perhaps in the future we’ll look back and wonder why we cherished our individuality so much and resisted collectivism. After all, privacy as we now know it is a relatively modern phenomenon that we take for granted. Most of us wouldn’t be able to tolerate the constant physical togetherness and lack of solitude that defined a medieval European lifestyle. But since then we’ve readjusted our attitudes toward privacy and individuality, and chances are they will need to be readjusted again. Perhaps once most of us are wired to communicate telepathically and always be aware of each other’s locations and identities, we’ll find popular twentieth- and twenty-first-century depictions of cyborgs to be quaint, naïve and, yes, even a little offensive.

About Joseph Guyer

Joseph lives in San Antonio. Joseph on Google+

Posted on March 28, 2013, in Cybernetics, People, Technology and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 39 Comments.

  1. I have to admit I don’t know much about Google Glass but just the look of it annoys me. I would immediately think ‘Tool’ to anyone I passed who had a pair on. However, as with every new gadget that comes out, I’m sure everyone will come around. They always do…

  2. alexanderschimpf

    Unless there is a particularly strong solar flare–or some other EMP inducing event. That might stop our “cyborg-fixation.” But then we’d be back to those medieval levels of privacy a different way, so part of your analysis would still hold true.

  3. Agree with your post – nice job! And I wrote up a similar post about becoming a cyborg because of Google Glass. http://amplifytoday.com/tech/google-glass-smart-watch-cyborg/

  4. Hi Joseph,
    Just think this all started with Steven Mann who also has been described as “the world’s first cyborg” in Canadian popular press such as NOW, The Globe and Mail, National Post, and Toronto Life!

  5. You have a frightening point here, though I don’t think I’ll ever be able to feel comfortable in a ‘cyborg’ lifestyle. . I just can’t bring myself to budge on the firm and uncompromising line I’ve drawn between my identity/humanity and the hand of technology.

    We lose touch with the importance of real human connection and contact when we’re tied into technology. The effects include serious side effects like depression and an inability to focus on one task for an extended period of time.

    I need to be able to get away from technology and breathe. Remember who and what I am. Too much time in front of a computer and phone is draining to me.

  6. vandammetienne

    I’m gonna feel comfortable in a cyborg world…I can’t wait for it ! however, I think I’de rather prefer an Iwatch, google watch or any smart watch there will be, until inconvenient glasses are replaced by contact lenses.
    I talk a little about the future of smart watches here:http://design4youandme.wordpress.com/2013/01/10/fitness-watch-or-smart-watch/
    and here is a post of mine concerning a watch you can pay with, wich is certainly a cool feature that could be added to future smartwatches, maybe associated with a fingerprint sensors to check the authenticity of the payment.

  7. Interesting post! It reminds me of this news story I saw a while ago, about people who implant magnets into their fingers so they can feel electromagnetic fields. Cyborgs, by a loose definition, are becoming an actual possibility thanks to science. I’m a little hesitant myself about what that would mean for our day-to-day functioning.

    http://blogs.smithsonianmag.com/smartnews/2012/08/these-people-are-turning-themselves-into-cyborgs-in-their-basement/

  8. Google Glasses to me seem to be the most advanced piece of technology out. I’d love to have a pair of them for myself. I have heard great things about them and they can even help rid the bad habits someone has.

  9. I am a gadget freak and a luddite at the same time. (Need therapy? Well, maybe) So I am curious about Google Glasses, but the thought of being constantly watched, filmed, photographed, whatever… definitely annoys me. I do not want everyone to know where I am, what I do, who I am with all the time. I am not on foursquare and I disabled all unnecessary localization in apps (most of the time I also forget to answer my phone, but I guess that’s different).
    What I would be happy of is some kind of device that finally makes my eyes see as they should! :)

  10. I’m imagining what it would be like to have an extended conversation with someone wearing Google Glass. I’m not sure I’d be able to take them seriously.

  11. nice article……good example :)

  12. nice article……good example :)

  13. Um … I didn’t read about house cats … how do they fit in? Will they finally be free?

    “”Allah is He Who raised the heavens without pillars that you can see.” Quran 13:2

  14. “It’s almost impossible to fathom now, but perhaps in the future we’ll look back and wonder why we cherished our individuality so much and resisted collectivism. After all, privacy as we now know it is a relatively modern phenomenon that we take for granted”

    is this insidious blog part of the googleglass marketing strategy?
    Privacy is not a new thing at all – humans have valued privacy since we first existed.
    A shameful and disgusting blog.

    • Kind of why I said “it’s almost impossible to fathom now,” and if you look at a couple of my other blog posts, you’ll see that I’m no fan of Google Glass.

      Privacy and individuality as we know them now are pretty modern social liberties that democratic states have granted their citizens. If you lived any time before the revolutions of the eighteenth century, you had absolutely no privacy or individuality to speak of, unless you were royalty or nobility and could afford living quarters with separate bedrooms and chambers. Otherwise, you lived in a one-room structure. There was no solitude. Entire families, including their servants, often slept in the SAME BED. You shit among others, had sex in the presence of your children, shared community food and drinks at the inn. Separate chairs, even, were very uncommon. Everyone shared a bench. There was no Bill of Rights protecting you from soldiers sleeping in your house and with your wife at will. Etc., etc.

      This is only a Euro-centric way of life I’m describing here. How much privacy and individuality do you think you would have in, say, a primitive hunter-gatherer culture?

      This type of collectivist lifestyle discouraged having dissenting ideas. You were part of one unit.

      We’ve shifted our attitudes about this in modern times. We value privacy and individuality because these ideas are ingrained in our social contracts — the Bill of Rights, for instance.

      But the more we become wired from head to toe with tech, it’s inevitable that our attitudes will begin to shift again. Younger generations have grown up being connected to others at all times. Notions of shame, humiliation and embarrassment are beginning to be reevaluated. Ideas we would have kept to ourselves had we lived a lifestyle I described earlier are now shared freely and openly, with absolute impunity. For better or worse, things are changing because of our 24/7 connectedness.

      • “Privacy and individuality as we know them now are pretty modern social liberties that democratic states have granted their citizens”

        What are you talking about? What nonsense language business-speak is this? Of course privacy isn’t a modern phenomenon – nor individuality – and it is not something that has been “granted” more something that has always been there and attempts have been made to control it or deny it. Even a child will attempt to assert its individuality.
        Privacy is even apparent in the animal kingdom – such as Elephants going off to die alone, whether this is instinct or learned behaviour it is still there.
        Privacy may have not been widely available in the past and over the ages but it was still sought out and claimed by people therefore it was something that existed at all levels of society.
        As for modern (superfluous) technology theres millions (billions) of people who couldn’t care less about it – these people are in the majority despite what you might think.
        You need to drink a beer or re-engage with the everyday man and stop spending so much time with media before you start to believe everything you read.
        thanks

  15. Sci-fi author David Brin predicted the invention of something like Google Glass in his 1991 novel Earth.

    Also, I like your take on the Mos Eisley bar scene. I always thought it meant that the ‘droids were considered second-class citizens throughout the galaxy and thus were discriminated against. But this adds a new layer to the relationship. Thanks for pointing it out.

  16. I feel that cyborgs will not lose emotion but rather gain knowledge as you said in what people may be afraid of is that a person with Google glasses can go online while in conversation and get facts from Wikipedia but what if this ins’t such a bad thing what if from this we learn more about the world we know today? Having all the information in the world an eyelashes length away could be a good thing.

    Also what is wrong with man merging with machine, machine was made by man for man to prosper if prosperity is merging what is wrong with that? Also this problem of privacy what is wrong with someone knowing where you are? Think about it today we use things like Facebook location services all the time and we don’t complain. Beyond this its not as if someone will always be watching your every move always waiting to steal your information. In fact this would only happen if you strive to keep your information to yourself.

    I summary I think it’s only… Not natural(because machines are not natural.)but logical that man and his creation merge.

  17. Reblogged this on Ezra's Blog and commented:
    I am re blogging this!

  18. as much as i love technology, i am realising the hazard it is causing to privacy..hope we can break this vicious circle someday..
    a great post..very insightful!!

  19. I like technology. I like modern social interaction. I like google glass.
    It’s all good right up until SkyNet turns on humanity and destroys the world. That’s when I’ll stop liking technology…

  20. I have never heard of google glasses or half the things in the comments. I’m still writing poetry about birds and people and what I see around me. The ideas of all the gadgets frightens me. I think of “Running Man” everytIme I see some new ridiculous reality tv show. Truth Is that technology is ever improving and I cannot stop it nor would I try. If it weren’t for technology improving, I wouldn’t be able to stay in bed and comment on a blog on a little Phone. Like the old saying goes, “What will they think of next?”

    • We need people like you to continue writing about “birds and people” so future generations will remember what they looked like.

      • Thanks so much. I feel validated:)
        I love writing and reading other peoples words.
        We are all so different but in the same circle with the same intention. It’s a wonderful testament to what humanity is and should be.
        Have a gread day.

  21. Ha! Phenomenal article. You had me at the title already. I certainly feel like Blade Runner will always ring true, which it’s still one of my favourite movies. If man becomes machine, then machine can become man. “More human then human”, if you will. Scary stuff.

  22. Reblogged this on pci compliance and commented:
    cool post..

  23. This topic has been much on my mind lately. Publicly, we seem to be receiving more and more input to technological advances . Or maybe I am just starting to pay more attention, Which ever the case The evolution of humans is inevitable Technology will be a large part of it.

    I think the important thing for me is to live in my space .and time, staying true to myself, and doing the I can. To look back over my life, it is to see my evolution , the process of change, evident up to today. From birth, through life, till death I evolve, change, aline myself with every new now.

    If I consider mobility. As a baby I laid there and I could have stated there. Instead I learned to crawl.. Not satisfied with that I learned to walk. When that longer met all my needs I invented other means, the trike , the bike , the car. May be a weak illustration, but does make it’s point.

    I know I can be stubborn to change. Eventually I will come around to what is best for me.

    • I think the reason you’re hearing of more technological advances lately is because we are seeing the results of what Art Bell called in 1997 “the quickening.” Advances in technology are indeed quickening at a much faster pace than we’ve ever seen in our species’ history. Moore’s Law, for instance, says that the number of transistors on integrated circuits doubles every two years. It’s hard to ignore the implications these technologies will have on society and our species.

      • I guess you can say I’m a mixed bag of emotions here. One side stubbornly fight any thing new, while the other eagerly wait s to see what will be next.

        I am glad to have lived in this space and time. All the tings I have had the opportunity to experience.And more each day. Will what I know be relevant in 20 to 30 years from now? Probably not.Hell I don’t think I will be relevant by then. 80 to 90 years one the planet, it’s been fun, but it will be time to shed these old bones and move on to the next spot on my journey.

        Not trying to be morbid just realistic. I do love the life. And all it’s surprises.

  24. Reblogged this on football tickets and commented:
    cool post!

  25. With some reason we think in the Big Brothe, and this is a danger

  26. Maybe we need a better word for this than ‘cyborg’ since it has such negative connotations, and many of those negative connotations come from the portrayal of cyborgs in popular culture – as humans controlled by machinery. We aren’t being controlled by our google glass and iphones, but by using this word, we make it sound that way.

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