F E A T U R E S    Issue 2.12 - December 1996

The Unlikely Cyborg

By Hari Kunzru

Technology is getting under our skin. Donna Haraway has some disconcerting news for anyone who still thinks our bodies are natural.

The monster opens the curtains of victor Frankenstein's bed. Arnold Schwarzenegger tears back the skin of his forearm to display a gleaming skeleton of chrome and steel. Tetsuo's skin bubbles as wire and cable burst to the surface. These science-fiction fever dreams stem from our deepest concerns about science, technology and society. With advances in medicine, robotics and AI, they're moving inexorably closer to reality. When technology works on the body, our horror always mingles with intense fascination. But exactly how does technology do this work? And how far has it penetrated the membrane of our skin?

The answers may lie in Sonoma County, northern California's wine country. It's not the most futuristic place in the world - quite the opposite. The clusters of wooden houses dotted up and down the Russian River seem to belong to some timeless America of station wagons and soda pop and pecan pie. Outside the town of Healdsburg (pop. 9,978), acres of vineyards stretch away from the road, their signs proudly proclaiming the dates of their foundation. The vines themselves, transplants from Europe, carry a genetic heritage far older. Yet this sleepy, traditional part of the world is where I have come to get a handle on our visions of a technological future. Tucked away off the main highway is a beautiful redwood valley. In that valley is a little wooden house. And in that house lives someone who says she knows what's really happening with bodies and machines. She ought to - she's a cyborg.

Meeting Donna Haraway I have a sense of disconnection. She certainly doesn't look like a cyborg. Softly-spoken, fiftyish, with an infectious laugh and a house full of cats and dogs, she's more like your favourite auntie than a billion-dollar product of the military-industrial complex. On the outside she seems like any number of Northern Californian women; casually dressed, greying - a middle-aged feminist you might find talking politics in a Berkeley coffee house. Beneath the surface she has, she assures me, the same internal organs as everyone else, though admittedly that's not the sort of thing I can ask her to prove in an interview. Yet Donna Haraway has proclaimed herself a cyborg, a quintessentially technological body (see "Cyborgorama", below). Around the world, thousands of other people have taken her lead and come to the same conclusion about themselves. The 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.

Haraway, as professor of the History of Consciousness at the University of California at Santa Cruz, is one of the world's leading thinkers about people's love-hate relationship with machines. Her ideas have sparked an explosion in areas as diverse as primatology, philosophy and developmental biology. To boho twentysomethings in Europe and Australia, her name has the kind of cachet usually reserved for techno acts or new phenethylamines. Her new book, the baroquely-titled Modest_Witness@Second_Millenium.FemaleMan© meets OncoMouse[trademark] is her first for five years, and has been as eagerly-awaited as any academic text of recent times. And she's become a heroine to a generation of women who are starting to call themselves cyberfeminists.

Cyberfeminism, says Sadie Plant, director of Warwick University's Centre for Research into Cybernetic Culture, is "an alliance between women, machinery and new technology. There's a long standing relationship between information technology and women's liberation." It's a view that resonates with feminists around the world. Academics have taken Haraway's ideas into literary theory, while transgendered performer and theorist Roseanne Allecquere Stone has shocked traditionalists with her accounts of the technological transformation of her own body. Haraway's most famous essay, "The Cyborg Manifesto", has become a set text in universities worldwide.

Haraway herself is a veteran of the '60s counterculture, not a scene known for its faith in technological transformation. She has that aura of slightly cynical wisdom you seem to get if you spend a lifetime fighting for left-wing causes in the land of the free. So it's startling how opposed her ideas are to the back-to-nature platitudes that dominate the old West Coast outlook.

This is a woman who has no interest at all in being an earth mother, or harking back to some mythical pre-technological past. She once famously declared, "I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess," flying in the face of received feminist wisdom that science and technology are patriarchal blights on the face of nature. As a cyborg, Haraway is a product of science and technology, and she doesn't see much point in the so-called "goddess feminism" which preaches that women can find freedom by sloughing off the modern world and rediscovering some supposed spiritual connection to mother earth.

When Donna Haraway says she's a cyborg, she's not claiming to be different or special. It's simply that relationships between people and technology have become so intimate that it's no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin. She's not the only cyborg in Healdsburg - it boasts 9,978 of them, and today has one more, counting me. This is an odd realisation for a Californian summer afternoon. Sitting on the porch, listening to Haraway explain her ideas over a background of bird song and buzzing insects, it's hard not to feel she's talking about some parallel world, some chrome and neon settlement in a cyberpunk novel. "We're talking about whole new forms of subjectivity here. We're talking seriously mutated worlds which never existed on this planet before. And it's not just ideas. It's new flesh." But she is not talking about some putative future, or a technologically advanced corner of the present. The cyborg age is here and now, everywhere there's a car or a phone or a VCR.

Being a cyborg isn't about how many bits of silicon you have under your skin, or how many prosthetics your body contains. It's about Donna Haraway going to her gym, looking at a shelf of carb-loading bodybuilders' foods, checking out the Nautilus machines and realising she's in a place that wouldn't exist without the idea of the body as high-performance machine. It's about trainers. "Think about the technology of sports footwear," she says. "Before the Civil War, right and left feet weren't even differentiated in shoe manufacture. Now we have a shoe for every activity."

Winning the Olympics in the cyborg era isn't just about running fast. It's about "the interaction of medicine, diet, clothing and equipment manufacture, training practices, visualisation and timekeeping." The furore over the cyborgisation of athletes through performance-enhancing drugs reached fever pitch this summer, but Haraway couldn't see what the fuss was about. Every Olympian is, after all, a node in an international technocultural network just as "artificial" as Ben Johnson at his steroid peak.

If this sounds complicated, that's because it is. Haraway's world is one of tangled networks: part human, part machine; complex hybrids of meat and metal which relegate old-fashioned concepts like "natural" and "artificial" to the archives. These hybrid networks are the cyborgs, and they don't just surround us - they incorporate us. An automated production line in a factory; an office computer network; dancers, lights and sound systems in a club - all are cyborg constructions of people and machines.

Networks are also inside us. Our bodies, fed on the products of agribusiness, kept healthy - or damaged - by pharmaceuticals, their capabilities altered by medical procedures, aren't as natural as The Body Shop would like us to believe.

Truth is, we're constructing ourselves, just like we construct chip sets or political systems. And that brings with it responsibilities. Haraway is in no doubt that, in order to survive, we need to get up to speed on the complex realities of technoculture.

To any of the usual good-bad, nature-nurture, right-wrong, biology-society arguments, she smiles, breaks into her infectious, ironic laugh and reminds you that the world is "messier than that." It might yet become the quintessential 21st-century catch-phrase.

The Ironic Political Myth

"The Cyborg Manifesto", now ten years old, is a strange mixture of passionate polemic, abstruse theory and technological musing. Haraway calls it "an ironic political myth". It pulls off the not-inconsiderable trick of turning the cyborg from an icon of cold war power into a symbol of feminist liberation; not bad for the first thing she wrote on her newly-acquired computer. In it, she argues that the cyborg, a fusion of animal and machine, trashes the big oppositions between "nature" and "culture", and "self" and "world", that run through so much of our thought.

Why is this important? When people describe something as "natural", they're saying that it's just how the world is; we can't change it. Women are told that they are "naturally" weak, submissive, over-emotional and incapable of abstract thought. It's "in their nature" to be mothers, not corporate raiders, to prefer poetry to particle physics. If all these things are natural, they're unchangeable. End of story. Return to the kitchen. Do not pass Go.

If, on the other hand, women like cyborgs are not natural but constructed, then, given the right tools, we can all be reconstructed. Everything is up for grabs, from who does the washing up to who frames the constitution. Basic assumptions suddenly come into question: is it "natural" to a have a society based on violence and domination? Maybe humans are biologically destined to fight wars and trash our environment - and maybe we're not.

Feminists around the world have seized on this possibility. Cyberfeminism - not a term Haraway herself uses - is based on the idea that, in conjunction with technology, it's possible to construct your sexuality, your identity, even your gender, just as you please. In contrast to the prohibition-based feminism of the so-called "political correctness" movement, which concentrates on trying to police sexuality and legislate against "inappropriate" behaviour, the cyberfeminists revel in polymorphous perversity. They form a broad church (after all, everything is permitted), its expressions ranging from sober historical analyses of women as technologists to the assertions of Australian art group VNS Matrix that the clitoris is a tool for jacking into a higher-order cyberspace. Haraway herself is no happy-clappy technology groupie - she's harshly critical of techno-utopians, including some of those to be found on occasion between the covers of this magazine. But she's also no fan of the "knee-jerk technophobia" of most feminist politics. As the cyberfeminists of webzine Geekgirl put it, "Girls need modems."

In a way, modems are at the very centre of cyborg politics. Being a cyborg isn't just about the freedom to construct yourself. It's about networks. Ever since Descartes announced, "I think, therefore I am," Western people have had an unhealthy obsession with selfhood. From the individual consumer to the misunderstood loner, modern citizens are taught to think of themselves as beings who exist in-side their heads and only secondarily come into contact with everything else. Draw a circle. Inside: me; outside: the world. Philosophers agonise about whether the reality outside that circle even exists. In a world of doubt, getting across that boundary - let alone getting to other people - becomes a real problem.

Unless, that is, you're a collection of networks, constantly feeding information back and forth across the line to the networks that make up your "world". A cyborg perspective seems rather sensible, compared to the weirdness of the Cartesian world of doubt. As Haraway puts it, "Human beings are always already immersed in the world, in producing what it means to be human in relationship with each other, and with objects." Humans in the '90s seem surprisingly willing to understand themselves as networked creatures. "If you start talking to people about how they cook their dinner, or what kind of language they use to describe trouble in a marriage, you're very likely to get notions of tape-loops, communication breakdown, noise and signal - amazing stuff." Even while we mistake ourselves for humans, the way we talk shows that we know we're really cyborgs.

But isn't this all so much rhetoric? I feel like me, not the Terminator. Haraway says no. "Feminist concerns," she argues vehemently, "are inside of technology, not a rhetorical overlay. We're talking about cohabitation: between different sciences and forms of culture, between organisms and machines.

"I think the issues which really matter - who lives, who dies and at what price - these political questions are embodied in technoculture. They can't be got at in any other way." For Haraway, and for many other people, there is no longer any such thing as the abstract.

As an illustration, Haraway tells a story about rice. "Imagine you're a rice plant. What do you want? To grow up and make babies before the insects who are your predators grow up and make babies to eat your tender shoots. So you grow as quick as you can, and produce toxins in your leaves to repel pests. Now let's say you're a researcher trying to wean the Californian farmer off pesticides. You're breeding rice plants which produce more alkaloid toxins in their leaves.

"If the pesticides are applied externally they count as 'chemicals' - and large amounts of them find their way into the bodies of illegal immigrants from Mexico who are hired to pick the crop. If they're inside the plant they count as 'natural', but they may find their way into the bodies of the consumers who eat the rice."

International border controls, the question of natural versus artificial, the ethics of agribusiness and even the politics of labour regulation are networked with the biology of rice plants and insects. Who lives? Who dies? That's what Haraway means by politics being inside technoculture. We can't escape it. It's just that sometimes it's hard to see.

Cyborg Politics

Maybe it was inevitable that Haraway would wind up blending science and politics and thus breaking one of the big taboos. Studying for a biology doctorate at Yale in the late '60s, she realised that "what I was really interested in was not so much biology as a research science, but the way it was a part of politics, religion and culture in general." Part of a commune active in gay liberation, women's rights and civil rights; part of a graduate biology programme "up to its ears in anti-Vietnam war work centring around chemical herbicides"; and part of a university which was integral to the military-industrial complex prosecuting the war, she could hardly help being political.

Her doctorate in cell biology ("nothing bigger than a microbe") dragged on, and she found herself in Hawaii, teaching general science to kids destined to be hotel staff and tour guides. She had gone there with her husband Jaye Miller, an actively gay fellow commune member. "We figured out ultimately that we wanted to do a little brother-sister incest, but at the time we didn't have any other model than getting married." A few years later they "stopped being married", but continued to live together, along with their respective partners, until Jaye's death from an AIDS-related illness in 1991.

The immune system has since figured frequently in Haraway's work - as an information system; as something which wasn't even clearly understood as a single entity until the 1960s; as a "potent and polymorphous object of belief, knowledge and practice"; as a perfect example of the networked consciousness of the cyborg age. It's also a good example of what Haraway means when she denies there's any such thing as the ab-stract. Her work and her life, her lover's death and theoretical biology are all tangled up: a messy web of personal pain, politics and science.

By the late '70s, Haraway was at Johns Hopkins, thinking about apes and the people who study them. "At that time," she remembers, "primate behaviour was a matrix for all kinds of debates about aggression, sexual violence, dominance and hierarchy." As she wrote in Primate Visions, the book which resulted from her research, "The commercial and scientific traffic in monkeys and apes is a traffic in meanings, as well as animal lives." Primatologists, she argues, work in the "borderlands", where the differences between animals and humans are defined. If apes are not fundamentally different from people, then our feeling of righteous superiority over animals may be based on thin air.

And since apes are our close evolutionary cousins, their behaviour may contain clues to the development of our own. Often, primatologists' pictures of ape society contain covert justifications of a particular human social or political model. Male primatologists often showed ape societies run by powerful males with female harems; a later generation of female primatologists found very different forces at work. As always, politics is threaded through the most "objective" science. "Primates," Haraway remarks, "are a way into thinking about the world as a whole."

Haraway finally wound up teaching at Santa Cruz. After the East-Coast conservatism of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, a touch of California came as a relief. "It was like coming home," she laughs, recounting a story about a radical birthing group and a placenta-eating ceremony. "I understood I was in my community. These were folks who would understand the craziness of it all." It's an oddly moving thing to say. Haraway is faced with a world of warring factions, colliding ideologies, clashing oppositions. The state and the people, gay and straight, human and animal, people and machines. It is all, of course, completely crazy.

Haraway has a habit of describing people as "folks", so you get "the folks at the Pentagon" and "the folks fighting the Vietnam War". In the end, the cyborg idea may be her way of showing us how to let folks be folks, rather than carving them up into cruel, arbitrary divisions. Suddenly Healdsburg seems the perfect vantage point from which to view the madness of the modern world.

So Donna Haraway sits on the porch, sips a beer and fusses her elderly cat, which recently had a run-in with a raccoon. She's as complex in her allegiances and interests as we could wish for in a witness to the cyborg age. If we're going to build a humane technoculture, instead of a Kafkaesque nightmare, we would do well to listen to what she has to say. "Technology is not neutral. We're inside of what we make and it's inside us. We're living in a world of connections - and it matters which ones get made and unmade."

Hari Kunzru is associate editor of Wired.


Amazingly, cyborgs have been among us for almost 50 years. The first was a white lab rat, part of an experimental programme at New York's Rockland State Hospital in the late 1950s. The rat had implanted in its body a tiny osmotic pump that injected precisely controlled doses of chemicals, altering its physiological parameters. It was part animal, part machine, its organic body connected in a feedback loop to this rather basic piece of technology.

The Rockland rat is one of the stars of a paper called "Cyborgs and Space" that Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline wrote in 1960. This engineer/psychiatrist double-act invented the term "cyborg" (short for "cybernetic organism") to describe their dream of an "augmented man", better adapted than ordinary humans to the rigours of space travel. Clynes and Kline imagined a future astronaut whose heart would be controlled by injections of amphetamines and whose lungs would be replaced by a nuclear-powered "inverse fuel cell".

From the start, the cyborg was more than just another technical project; it was a kind of scientific and military daydream. The possibility of escaping their annoying bodily limitations led a generation of boys who grew up with Superman and Captain America to throw the full weight of their grown-up R&D budgets into achieving real life superpowers. By the mid 1960s, cyborgs were big business, with millions of dollars of US Air Force money finding its way into projects to build exoskeletons, master-slave robot arms, biofeedback devices and expert systems. For all the big bucks and high seriousness, the impression left by old cyborg technical papers is of a rather expensive kind of science fiction. Time and again, reasoning melts into metaphysical speculations about evolution, human boundaries and even the possibility of what Clynes and Kline call "a new and larger dimension for man's spirit." The cyborg was always as much a creature of scientific imagination as scientific fact.

It wasn't just the brass hats who were captivated by the cyborg's possibilities. The dream of improving human capabilities through selective breeding had long been a staple of the darker side of Western medical literature. Now there was the possibility of making better humans by "augmenting" them with artificial devices. A heart-lung machine was used to control the blood circulation of an 18-year-old girl during an operation in 1953; in 1958, a 43-year-old man received the first heart pacemaker implant. Insulin drips had been used to regulate the metabolisms of diabetics as early as the 1920s.

By the 1970s, the idea of an augmented human had filtered into the mainstream. Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man ("We can rebuild him. We have the technology"), and his cohort Jamie Summers, the Bionic Woman ("outfitted with bionic legs, a bionic arm and a super-sensitive bionic ear"), were popular TV heroes, their custom superpowers bought off-the-shelf like a new safari suit, or a digital watch. The cyborg had grown from a lecture-room fantasy into the stuff of prime-time ratings.

Of course robots and artificial men have been part of the Western imagination since at least as far back as the Enlightenment. The legendary automaton builder Van Kempelen constructed a chess-playing tin Turk and became the toast of Napoleonic Europe. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein built a Miltonic monster out of body parts and activated it by electricity. Even the Indian national epic, the Mahabharata, parts of which are almost 4,000 years old, features a lion automaton.

One thing makes the cyborg fundamentally different from its mechanical ancestors: information. Cyborgs, Donna Haraway explains, "are information machines. They're embedded with circular causal systems, autonomous control mechanisms, information processing - automatons with built-in autonomy." All of which winds the story back to one man's personal science and the cold war's beginnings.

Norbert Wiener wrote Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine in 1948. The book was nothing if not ambitious. Wiener, a mathematician at MIT, saw amazing similarities between a vast group of different phenomena. Catching a ball, guiding a missile, running a company, pumping blood round a body - all seemed to him to depend on the transmission of "information", a new concept floated by Claude Shannon of the Bell Telephone laboratories. More specifically, these processes seemed to depend on what the engineers had begun to call "feedback".

Wiener took the name "cybernetics" from the Greek kubernetes, meaning "steersman", and the image of a classical helmsman, hand on the rudder of a sailing ship, perfectly captures the essence of his idea. Palinurus, approaching the rocks, gets visual information about the ship's position and adjusts course accordingly. This isn't a single event, but a constant flow of information - left a bit, right a bit, right a bit more... Palinurus is part of a feedback loop, his brain getting inputs from its environment about wind speed, weather and current, and sending signals to his arms to nudge the ship out of danger. Wiener saw that the same model could be applied to any problem that involved trying to manage a complex system, and proposed that scientists should use one general framework for everything.

Wiener's followers saw cybernetics as a science that would explain the world as a set of feedback systems, allowing rational control of bodies, machines, factories, communities and just about anything else. Cybernetics promised to reduce "messy" problems like economics, politics and perhaps even morality to the status of simple engineering tasks: stuff you could solve with pencil and paper, or, at worst, one of MIT's new ultra-high-speed computing machines.

The cyborg-makers were in the business of making Wiener's ideas flesh. For them, the body was just a meat computer running a collection of information systems that adjusted themselves in response to one another and their environment - itself just another collection of systems. If you wanted to make a better body, all you had to do was improve the feedback mechanisms, or plug in another system - an artificial heart, an extra leg, an all-seeing bionic eye. It's no accident that this strangely abstract picture of the body as a collection of networks sounds rather like that other network of networks, the Internet: both came out of the same hothouse of cold-war military research.

Wiener's dream of a universal science of communication and control has faded with the years. Cybernetics has given rise to new areas like cognitive science, and stimulated valuable research in numerous other fields.

But almost no one today would call himself a "cyberneticist". Some believe that Wiener's project fell victim to scientific fashion, its funding sucked away by flashy but ultimately pointless AI research. Others think cybernetics was killed by the basic problem that the nuts-and-bolts mechanisms of control and communication in machines are significantly different to those in animals, and neither are very like control and communication in society. So cybernetics, which was based on an inspired generalisation, fell victim to its inability to deal with details.

Whichever perspective is true (and as with most such stories, the truth is likely to be a mixture of both), cybernetics has left two important cultural residues behind it. The first is its picture of the world as a collection of networks.

The second is its intuition that there's not as much clear blue water between people and machines as some would like to believe. These still-controversial concepts are at the bionic heart of the cyborg, which is alive and well - and constructing itself in a laboratory near you.

The '90s cyborg is both a much more sophisticated creature than its '50s ancestor, and a more domestic one. Artificial hip joints, cochlear implants for the deaf, retinal and cortical implants for the blind and all kinds of cosmetic surgery procedures are part of the medical repertoire. Online information retrieval systems are used as prosthetics for limited human memories. In the closed world of advanced warfare, cyborg assemblages of humans and machines are used to pilot fighter aircraft - the response times and sensory apparatus of unaided humans are inadequate for the demands of supersonic air combat. These eerie military cyborgs may be harbingers of a new world stranger than any we have yet experienced.

Hari Kunzru