“We are the borg.”
Star Trek fans will recognize the reference immediately as part of the standard warning issued to any alien race about to be assimilated by the collective of cybernetically-enhanced beings known as The Borg. And any routine reader of science fiction with recognize The Borg for what they are: a textbook example of one of sci-fi’s most enduring tropes: the mergers of human-and-machine known as cyborgs. And yet — although I devoured sci-fi novel after sci-fi novel throughout junior high and high school — my most memorable encounter with cyborgs (metaphorically speaking, of course) came a few years later while studying sociology at Wesleyan University.
As part of a course on 20th century pop culture, the professor assigned A Cyborg Manifesto by science and technology scholar Donna Haraway. Exactly how a dense, provocative feminist treatise qualified as pop culture, I’m not sure. But hey it was Wesleyan and in fairness we had more than a healthy dose of Madonna and The Terminator over the course of the semester too. Nonetheless, as its name implies, Haraway’s Manifesto explores the notion of the cyborg — but as a metaphor for what humans become when their lives no longer fit so neatly within clearly defined albeit often arbitrary this-or-that boundaries. Neither man nor woman. Neither nature nor nurture. Neither physical nor virtual. Neither carbon nor silicon. I’m sure you get the point…
So anyway, as we discussed the significance of Haraway’s Manifesto, the professor asked the class if there were any cyborgs among us. After a few moments of blank stares, he volunteered that he himself was a cyborg — by virtue of the fact that he had an artificial heart valve. Students chimed in with all sorts of things — contact lenses, screws from an old fracture repair, and so on. Hardly the technological marvels that would light up a hardened Trekkie’s augmented eyes or set his own artificial heart valve aflutter — but technologies augmenting organisms nonetheless. Bear in mind that this was back in the late 1980s.
If we were just barely cyborgs then (OK — we weren’t really but my professors’ point was well taken — that even then it was not uncommon for the average human to be “enhanced,” in one way or another, to be a not-quite-100% carbon-based life form), think about how far we’ve come by now. Some of us have technology implanted inside or attached to our bodies — more than ever before certainly: artificial hips and knees, prosthetic limbs, pacemakers and Alzheimer’s chips to name just a few devices. But a much greater majority of us are augmented by technology in a somewhat different, frankly more obvious, but no less powerful way. Our mobile phones, tablets and laptops serve as our outsourced brains, providing important reminders about where we need to be and what we need to do, opening an always-on line of communication with the people in our lives, and putting an improbably large storehouse of ideas and information (the web) at our fingertips.
If none of this sounds quite as impressive as the cybernetic organisms science fiction has caused us to imagine or the fabled far-futures theory of the Singularly has led us to expect, I’d like to make one simple point: Even if our most common technologies are not quite inside or attached to us, we are certainly attached to them. Physically when we hold them in our hands or even tuck them in our pockets, but more importantly emotionally as we come to rely upon them, can’t live without them, and pledge our loyalty to the Cult of Apple or Sect of Samsung.
And as anyone who keeps up with technology news already knows, we’re just getting started. The market for wearables is heating up as more consumers consider health trackers, smart watches, Google Glass (along with its competitors) and “interactive” clothing. Beyond the rich-and-geeky, decidedly non-technical professions (like flight attendants and police officers) are already integrating these technologies into the normal course of business. And innovators continue to invent new wearable forms, dabbling with neurocams, programmable cosmetics and electronic tattoos.
Still, even before most of us get comfortable with wearable computing form factors, others believe that “insideables” are just around the corner – and just beneath the surface of our skin. Smart contact lenses. Ingestible pills that carry sensors into our systems. Injectable nanorobots that go to work treating conditions and healing our bodies. All coming longbefore we all get subsumed by super-human artificial intelligence and become mere memory chips in a single machine-mind. (Singularity joke there, people…)
Sound like science fiction? I’m certain powerful pocket-sized computers sounded equally improbable in the days when processors filled entire rooms. We are the Borg, indeed. Resistance is futile.