Viktoria Modesta for Rolls-Royce

The Pain and Pleasure of Being a Cyborg

Beyond medical and technological issues, being a cyborg at the beginning of the 21st century means relying on companies and regulamentary institutions.

Disclaimer: This is an extended version of the essay originally published in Portuguese, at TAB UOL.

In 2018, the actress Angel Giuffria shared on her Twitter the following incident: during a talk she attended in one of the biggest innovation and culture festivals, SXSW, she was denied to use the plugs available in the room because other people were already charging their phones. But there’s one detail: Angel needed a plug to charge her bionic arm, which was running out of battery.

Lightheartedly, she shared her experience using the hashtag #CyborgProblems. But what does it mean? In the 1960s, the scientists Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline proposed the term “cyborg” as the synthesis of a cybernetic organism.

Angel Giuffria

In their case, the scientists were thinking about technologies that could enable the adaptation of human beings in inhospitable environments that would be disclosed in spacial exploratory missions. In other words, instead of building proper equipment to protect our species, such as a base or a space suit, the goal would be to change our own biology in order to make us more adaptable. But, in spite of that, the meaning of the word cyborg has changed with time.

In the 1980s, the sociologist and biologist Donna Haraway published the “Cyborg Manifesto” to address changes that were already apparent in society: new cybernetic technologies and well established habits were changing the very notion of what it is the human species. Besides exploring the idea of cyborg in a gendered way, Haraway makes a little bit of a stretch when proposing her own definition of the word. She suggests that people wearing glasses or lifting weights were already cyborgs because they were changing the “original specs” of their body, but, in other contexts and works, to be a cyborg demands much more.

In the case of the collective Cyborg Foundation, created by the artists Neil Harbisson and Moon Ribas, the term cyborg is used in its original sense. With an ecological approach, they argue for the creation of technologies that not simply guarantee a new sense or ability to a person, but rather mitigate the impact of human action on the environment. In an interview, Harbisson and Ribas suggest the following scenario: if humans could see in the dark like other animals, maybe we wouldn’t need so much electricity and, this way, we wouldn’t be harming nature as much.

Harbisson got an implant because he was born with a kind of daltonism in which his vision is in black and white. At first, the artist used an antenna and headphones that converted light’s frequency of a color into a sound, thus allowing Harbisson to acquire a synesthetic ability: to listen to colors. As the experiment turned out successful, he later implanted the antena right into his skull, thus taking a shortcut in the flux of information.

Paul Bach-y-Rita’s experiment

This kind of synesthetic approach was also proposed by the researcher Paul Bach-y-Rita while he searched for means to help people with disabilities to regain their senses in a different way. That is, instead of hearing sounds, people would feel the pulse of their mechanic waves through a specific device; instead of seeing with their eyes, people would see through their tongue.

More recently, Elon Musk announced that the first human tests of the neural implant Neuralink is soon to be started. Despite the fact that the entrepreneur has speculated that his creation could, one day, connect our brains directly to the internet or even allow us to listen to music without earphones, first Neuralink might help people with spine injuries, so they can regain movement. This is also the objective of some of the research performed at the International Institute of Neurosciences, in Macaíba, Brazil.

However, back in the last decade, the American website Second Sight was already selling their retina implants Argus I and II. In spite of being an indeed revolutionary technology, a recent article published by IEEE Spectrum showed that financial crises have left their customers literally in the dark.

Without tech support, several users of the retina implant faced troubles including the inoperability of the device, the impossibility to replace parts or to access technical information. In the article, Ross Doer, one of the first individuals to use the implant (and even in both eyes) says that he wasn’t allowed to do an MRI because the laboratory wasn’t able to contact Second Sight, so that they could confirm if the exam was safe.

This reminds me of the time when I went to do an MRI and decided to mention that I have an implanted chip in my hand. In this case, it’s an NFT chip and it’s very small, the size of a grain of rice, and has so little metal that it doesn’t interfere with airport scanners or x-ray exams. Still, I was almost forbidden to get my MRI until I was able to show Dangerous Thing’s website, which is the company responsible for the chip, that there were no risks — which is something hard to believe when you see the name of the company.

But my NFT implant is basically useless. It’s pretty much only an accessory that I use for sociological reasons rather than technological. In the case of a retina implant or even a prosthetic like Angel Giuffria’s bionic arm, the user is dependent on the device to perform basic activities.

Repo Men (2010)

In spite of these occurrences sounding like science fiction, they are already pretty much real and prone to grow in the next few years. Works like Repo Men (2010), for instance, already portray a future in which people who have failing organs need to buy or pay installments of a synthetic replacement. However, in case someone is not able to pay for it, “goons” are sent to retrieve the product — which inevitably leads the user to death.

By the way, when I choose the word “user” here, I am trying to find a middle ground between the reality of people who are already living in the limbo of being a patient and a client. In countries where healthcare is solely available from private providers, such as the case of the US, it is already known that certain illnesses or emergencies can be so expensive that it might take one’s whole life to pay the debt.

And this is no exception. According to Debt.com, almost 46% of Americans had medical debts in 2020, and 57% of them had debts of at least 1,000 dollars coming from exams, hospitalization and emergencies. But, in the case of Second Sight, the problem goes beyond money, which brings us to another perspective over #CyborgProblems: what if your implant is discontinued or the provider goes bankrupt?

In a context where it’s not so rare for companies to go bankrupt and their personnel disappear, the risk of getting an implant goes beyond the chances of rejection, financial investment, or even inability to adapt to the device. Risks are now going beyond the medical sphere to join a business context in which lives are literally dependant on commercial enterprises — something that is extremely worrisome when we consider that some companies run their business after planned obsolescence.

It was by considering these risks and scenarios that the researcher of electronic civil rights Rich MacKinnon presented the Cyborg Bill of Rights at SXSW in 2016. The document suggests a series of rights that should be granted to all cyborg citizens, thus including information on property, licensing, and control of augmented, alternative and synthetic anatomies, as well as the data produced by these anatomies and the very meaning of what is human.

Here are the five proposed topics:

Freedom from Disassembly
A person shall enjoy the sanctity of bodily integrity and be free from unnecessary search, seizure, suspension or interruption of function, detachment, dismantling, or disassembly without due process.

Freedom of Morphology
A person shall be free (speech clause) to express themselves through temporary or permanent adaptions, alterations, modifications, or augmentations to the shape or form of their bodies. Similarly, a person shall be free from coerced or otherwise involuntary morphological changes.

Right to Organic Naturalization
A person shall be free from exploitive or injurious 3rd party ownerships of vital and supporting bodily systems. A person is entitled to the reasonable accrual of ownership interest in 3rd party properties affixed, attached, embedded, implanted, injected, infused, or otherwise permanently integrated with a person’s body for a long-term purpose.

Right to Bodily Sovereignty
A person is entitled to dominion over intelligences and agents, and their activities, whether they are acting as permanent residents, visitors, registered aliens, trespassers, insurgents, or invaders within the person’s body and its domain.

Equality for Mutants
A legally recognized mutant shall enjoy all the rights, benefits, and responsibilities extended to natural persons

The last topic is mostly concerned with the issues faced by Second Sight’s implants users. Still, how many national governments are already considering this kind of scenario and ways of existing? It is curious to think that, in the case of Saudi Arabia, they conceded citizenship to the robot Sophia of Hanson Robotics in 2017, a time when human females residing in the country didn’t have the right to drive cars.

In the case of robots, that is, machines, there are some regulamentary actions being discussed around the fact of considering them individuals which should have rights and duties granted similarly as to human beings. In the case of cyborgs, that is, human beings with implants and augmentations, it is still very blurry. So much so that Neil Harbisson only became the first cyborg citizen in the world because the renewal of his British passport was denied to him as he was “wearing accessories” that weren’t allowed to be used in the ID photo. To grant his rights, Harbisson needed to go to court.

Amy Purdy performing at the Rio Paralympics in 2016

In academia, however, there are several researches being done. There is also the case of people such as Ross Dawson who are discussing this topic in the media, and the event Humans X Design hosted by Eidos Montreal in 2016, where specialists and cyborgs had the chance to discuss these ideas. In arts and culture, people like Neil Harbisson, Moon Ribas, Stelarc, Viktoria Modesta, Angel Giuffria, Tilly Lockey and Amy Purdy have been addressing the use of implants and prosthetics to the point of being featured in big events such as the 2016 Paralympics.

If on one hand, there is the defense for free market, on the other, there are certain rights and protections that should be granted to individuals and which cannot be totally dependent on the financial success of a commercial enterprise. While sanitary institutions like the FDA are responsible for authorizing the use of these devices, it is also important to consider the longer term, especially when it comes to the provision of support and monitoring of these people even in the case of a company being shut down.

Ideally, it would make sense to wait for more competitors to join the market, so at least the technology itself would be kept in the market no matter the players behind it. However, since we are talking about something very emergent, using this kind of technology has a risk that goes beyond medical concerns to include a question on how reliable companies and regulamentary institutions are.

Did you like the post? What about buying me a coffee? :)

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Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.

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Lidia Zuin

Lidia Zuin

Brazilian journalist, MA in Semiotics and PhD in Visual Arts. Researcher and essayist. Science fiction writer.

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