Cyborgs at the Frontiers

This essay was originally presented as a talk at the Transpecies Society in Barcelona, Spain in January 2019, titled, “Cyborgs at the Frontiers: Cybernetic Speculation and Human Transendence”.

“Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but also spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part in his own biological evolution.” Thus wrote Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, the creators of the word “cyborg”, in a 1960 article in which they discussed the challenges of making humans fit for space. This essay connects the pasts and presents of cyborgs as figures for speculating the future of humanity. From Norbert Wiener’s hearing glove, to Clynes and Kline’s metabolically extended mouse, to cyborgs in science fiction, cyborgs figure centrally in speculating about how humans will transcend their bodies and the planet Earth for new frontiers of place, function, and sensation.

Cyborgs, both in the history of science and in pop culture, is an important part of my writing as a scholar and teaching as a professor. Some of the key dynamics for me in this history include: questioning the role of “Nature” as a driving impetus for the future of humanity; the interplay between imagination and reality, science and science fiction; and the capacity for cybernetic kinship to be inclusive of, even productive of, queer forms of family, disability, and speculative hope. I think it is tempting to regard cyborgs and “cyborgism” as a way to simply transcend the failings of the human organism, a way to overcome our past, to leave it completely behind as we build a better future. But looking closely at cyborgs, cybernetics, and science fiction suggests that cyborgs depend greatly on the here and now, and on the messy politics and histories of humans.

Feminist theorist and cyborg philosopher Donna Haraway has proposed that humans ought to think of themselves as already cyborg. She thinks that by embracing our cyborgness, we can open our minds to new ways of relating to other humans – especially people who have been historically oppressed – as well as to other species on Earth. She encourages us to regard members of our own and of other species that we care for and rely on as our messmates, as our multispecies kin, or as our cyborg “littermates” (analogizing humans to dogs, her other favorite species). She argues that this is necessary to developing a better ethical perspective on how we use each other and how we use the natural resources of planet Earth, resources which have now been stretched quite thin. This is an ethics and a kinship that is mediated by technologies: cyborg technologies, yes, but also medical technologies, technologies of genetic engineering, of food production, and of nuclear science.

So in leading you all through a short history of cyborgs and cybernetics I hope to offer up a genealogy for the cyborgs among us – not an origin story exactly, but some examples of when, how, and why others have become cyborg over the generations. I hope that you find imaginative potential in these brief stories.

We start in space.

Cybernetic Speculation and Human Transcendence

The essay “Cyborgs and Space” was published in 1960 in the magazine Aeronautics, soon after the term “cyborg” was introduced at a military conference on space medicine. It was written by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline, the same two men who coined the term “cyborg”, a new coinage for the “cybernetic organisms” that they were beginning to imagine and invent in their laboratories. The original summary of their article read: “Altering man’s bodily functions to meet the requirements of extraterrestrial environments would be more logical than providing an earthly environment for him in space … Artifact-organism systems which would extend man’s unconscious, self-regulatory controls are one possibility.” In other words, rather than building space stations to make safe environments for human travelers, they argued that we should upgrade the human body using technology so that human bodies can more easily survive in the existing environment of space.

Cybernetics was a rapidly developing field at the time, sustained through professional networks at the Macy Conferences and overlapping with the science of information theory that was being developed for telecommunications. Cybernetics, briefly, is the science of communication and control in organisms, machines, and organizational systems. While its origins are in military research – among other things, in ballistics, the science of aiming big guns – its impact in the 20th century quickly spread from engineering and mathematics. It became integral to information theory, revolutionized anthropology and sociology, inspired artists, architects and designers, and provided conceptual resources for both socialist and neoliberal economics.

In “Cyborgs and Space,” Clynes and Kline describe the cyborg as: “the exogenously extended organizational complex functioning as an integrated homeostatic system unconsciously”. They went on to position cyborgs as the next step in human evolution:

Space travel challenges mankind [sic] not only technologically but also spiritually, in that it invites man to take a part in his own biological evolution. Scientific advances of the future may thus be utilized to permit man’s existence in environments which differ radically from those provided by nature as we know it…

In the past evolution brought about the altering of bodily functions to suit different environments. Starting as of now, it will be possible to achieve this to some degree without alteration of heredity by suitable biochemical, physiological, and electronic modifications of man’s [sic] existing modus vivendi.

(Clynes and Kline 1960, 26)

In the July 11 1960 issue of the US magazine Life, an anonymous writer echoed Clynes and Kline’s optimism about cyborg existence as a resource for living in space. The writer explains the recently introduced idea of the cyborg to general audiences in this way:

Striding buoyantly across the low-gravity surface of the moon, there may someday be strange new men — part human, part machine — like the ones above. They will have a strange name: CYBORGS. Cyborgs, according to a daring new idea, will be men whose body organs and systems are automatically adjusted for life in unearthly environments by artificial organs and senses. Some of these devices will be attached, others actually implanted by surgery. With their aid, cyborgs can dispense with clumsy, easy-to-puncture space suits in which earth conditions are re-created. Instead, they can move about safely wearing not much more than they would at home.

As historian Ronald Kline explains, a key cyborg artifact that Clynes and Kline developed in these early moments was the Cybernetic Rat. It is a rat implanted with an osmotic pump that, according to Clynes and Kline, “permit[s] continuous injection of chemicals at a slow, controlled rate into an organism without any attention on the part of the organism”. An engineering and design experiment, this rat is included in “Cyborgs and Space” as a demonstration of the kinds of technologies that could be developed for humans in the future.

The central theme of Clynes and Kline’s cyborg is this: Through technology, humans can transcend nature and history to accomplish the goals of culture, namely of space flight and life beyond planet Earth.

There are many potentially good things about their vision of the cyborg. First and foremost, it forcefully demonstrates that biology is no longer destiny for humankind. The ideology that biology is destiny is a blunt force weapon, developed over centuries, that causes a great deal of misery. It has been used as a tool to oppress women, for whom female biology enabling gestation is said to translates into a natural social role in the home. Biological essentialism concerning race has been used as an excuse to oppress and exploit people of color, from the systematic enslavement of African, Indian, Chinese, and other populations historically in colonial contexts to the systematically unequal exertion of the force of law today. Biology has been used to withhold resources and promote the extermination of people with disabilities over and over again. Biological reasons have even been forwarded as a reason for class distinctions. To me, given these histories, uncoupling biology from human capacities through technology thus seems to hold optimistic possibilities to me.

For Clynes and Kline, becoming cyborg means that the human form is even adjustable at the level of the individual, no longer reliant on lineage at all. Yet the extended implications of this particular aspect of their thinking are potentially more ambiguous. While potentially liberatory for some, decoupling individuals from their histories appears unnecessary to others, and even suggestive that one’s history has no value at all for building better futures.

By contrast, for Nigerian-American Afrofuturist science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor, culture and heritage are seen as a resource for building the future. Inherited technologies, inherited arts, inherited ways of reckoning family and kinship, and, especially in North American indigenous futurisms, limits on the kind and amount of natural resource extraction passed down between generations are all seen as resources for building futures. In other words, while some (often white and male) futurists predict that we can leave our pasts behind when we go into space, others (indigenous, black, women creators and writers) see past technologies and societies as the basis for building better futures – including futures in space.

A Litter of Oddkin

Back on Earth, Norbert Wiener was a mathematician at MIT, and the person who popularized the term “cybernetics” through two books, the more technical Cybernetics in 1948, and The Human Use of Human Beings, for general audiences, in 1950Wiener’s work spanned research for US defense agencies to the mathematical development of concepts that would serve the basis for information theory to speculative engineering and philosophical projects that form the core of early cybernetic engineering. He defined “cybernetics” as “the scientific study of control and communication in the animal and the machine”.

Among his cybernetic experiments, as media studies scholar Mara Mills has recounted, one of the most memorable and closely studied is the hearing glove. Described in detail in 1950 in The Human Use of Human Beings, Wiener, collaborator Jerome Wiesner, and graduate student Leon Levine developed the glove and tested it both on themselves and with a number of deaf individuals near Boston. The hearing glove sought to translate sound vibrations in the air into tactile vibrations that could be sensed through human skin. The researchers thought it would be useful for deaf people, allowing them to “hear” sound with the use of this prosthetic device and to refine existing speech skills by being able to hear themselves and make corrections – creating a feedback loop between their body and their mind. The New York Times favorably reviewed the idea and letters came in from across the US and Europe. While the glove they developed remained a prototype, the idea has had staying power. Even today, new companies are seeking to develop similar products.

Most famous of their experimental subjects was Helen Keller. Her life story, including how she became deaf and how she learned language through touch, had been popularized after publication of her book, The Story of my Life in 1903. She often volunteered as an experimental subject for sensory research, and even when she didn’t, her experience learning language was referenced by scientists and engineers in technical publications as evidence of the flexibility and possibility of human learning. Wiener had followed her life and work for decades before she tried his lab’s device.

The glove, Mara Mills notes, continued a tradition among deaf people and deaf educators in the United States to communicate through the skin, and specifically through the hands. Hearing gloves already had a history rooted in the lives of disabled people. One example that predates Wiener’s research is the William Terry Touch Alphabet, developed by deaf-blind man William Terry and published in a book-length guide in 1917.

Wiener’s hearing glove, like Clynes and Kline’s mouse, uses cybernetic principles and (at the time) novel engineering to extend experience for users beyond their usual bodily capacities. Yet while the technologies were novel, his hearing glove was just one instance in a lineage of techniques for translating language into touch.

Wiener developed other experimental cybernetic devices, too, including the “Bedbug” and the “Moth”. These prototypes could, perhaps, be considered very early sensory cyborgs: prototypes developed to mimic the behavior of non-human organisms, of animals, using cybernetic principles, fabricated parts, and electronic circuitry.

Keller’s involvement with Wiener isn’t the only point of contact between disability history, disabled people, and cyborgs. Some have recently argued that disabled people have always been cyborgs, and in fact, that they are the original cyborgs.

Professor and disability activist Jillian Weise, for example, takes a militant stance in considering disabled people as the true, real-life cyborgs alive today. In her 2016 New York Times editorial titled “Dawn of the Tryborg,” she argues that people who augment their bodies with technology only for self-improvement purposes – people whose augmentations do not address a disability – are not cyborgs at all. Instead, they belong to a new category that she calls “tryborgs”. She extends this critique in the article “Common Cyborg” in Granta in September 2018. She writes, “disabled people who use tech to live are cyborgs. Our lives are not metaphors.” She sees herself as a cyborg – but one whose existence is inconvenient and too often used merely as a reference point, but not an experience to fully include in scholarly and mainstream definitions of cyborgs.

Space and Disability

With that detour into earthly cyborgs under our belts, I want to return to space. In particular, I want to start by talking a little bit about the role that disabled – specifically deaf – people played in another strand of research that helped to understand human capacities for living in space.

The Gallaudet 11 were a group of men, aged 25-50, who were students at the most well-known US college for the deaf, Gallaudet College (now called Gallaudet University). These 11 men were recruited because they had a specific kind of deafness in which the nerves that transmit signals from the inner ear to the brain was damaged. With this form of deafness, often caused by contracting meningitis as a child, the person loses hearing AND loses their balance sense transmitted from the inner ear.

It turns out that this made them immune to motion sickness!

Motion sickness was a huge problem for US space travel and the military. These men were recruited to participate in studies to understand how the inner ear was involved in motion sickness under a variety of conditions.

You can learn more about their experiences in their own words through two recent videos in which the men are interviewed, here and here.

Their experience illustrates a claim made by philosopher Ashley Shew about disability and space. Shew has pointed out that “we are all disabled in space”.

Our human bodies aren’t adapted to the conditions of space, just as society makes it seem like the bodies and minds of disabled people are not adapted to the conditions of everyday life. This has severe physical consequences, on planet earth and beyond. Astronauts have been observed to experience extensive bone density loss, leading to diseases we associate with old age, like osteopenia and osteoporosis. With today’s technology, living beyond Earth’s atmosphere also exposes organisms to higher levels of radiation, raising the chances that space travelers will develop cancer, and the many forms of disability that can go along with it, in the future. The sense of hearing becomes a liability because of how it exposes us to higher risks of motion sickness. And even NASA astronauts have reflected that overreliance on vision in astronaut training could trick us into ignoring our tactile knowledge during emergencies.

The flip side is that the skills and capacities of disabled people might also become more valuable. Remember, nerve damage that caused deafness made the Gallaudet 11 immune to motion sickness, making these men already adapted to one of the major challenges of space travel for humans. Additionally, Ashely Shew speculates that her own experience with multiple modes of mobility – crawling, scooting, walking, using a wheeled scooter, and using crutches – has made her well-prepared for a zero-gravity environment where walking simply won’t work most of the time. In other words, her earthly cyborg status makes her suited to live as a cyborg in space.

However, despite these potential gains of disabled bodies and experiences in space travel, astronaut training has historically emphasized exceptional physical fitness and a lack of disability. And since disabled people haven’t been allowed to work as astronauts, we don’t fully know how different sorts of disabilities might act as assets for space travel.

Dystopias and Utopias

Science fiction is filled with cyborgs in space as well. Many of these cyborgs are easily identifiable as either dystopian – cautionary tales – or utopian – stories about how we hope we can live in the future. I want to name just a few that I’ve been thinking with lately.

First off, I often return to the 1982 Ridley Scott film Blade Runner. Scott adapted the move from the 1969 Philip K. Dick novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In the process, he simplified many of the characters and the ethical questions raised in the original. But I find the cyborgs in Blade Runner fascinating in their own rights.

This film, set in Los Angeles in 2019, follows android-hunter Rick Deckerd as he searches for a group of cyborgs in human form, called Replicants. Replicants are commodity objects produced by the Tyrell Corporation, designed to be obedient, unthinking beyond the work they are assigned to do (mostly extraterrestrial resource extraction), suited for a variety of human tasks but not designed for freedom. These replicants have escaped from off-world colonies where they are enslaved, doing the dirty work of extracting resources and running a society while their human masters presumably live in comparative leisure and comfort.

Roy Baty is one of the escaped replicants, a super-man with augmented strength and enhanced reflexes who poses a threat to Deckerd’s life, the life of his creator, Dr. Tyrell, and the other denizens of Los Angeles. Rachael is Roy’s mirror image in the film. She is a hyper-feminine woman, apparently (though somewhat ambiguously) obedient, perfectly groomed, and never displaying her physical strength. While Roy seeks to destroy Deckerd and, Rachael aids him, suggesting how helpful these replicants could be if only they were willing to stay in their place.

In short, this is a dystopian story about a gloomy capitalist future in which gendered machines are doing the dirty work of colonization in the frontier territory of space. At best, these cyborg replicants make good slaves. At worst, they seek to exact revenge on their human overlords. They are designed as utilitarian objects, and in seeking to transcend their beginnings, they face violent reprisals from humans.

I have also been captivated over the past few years by the cyborgs of the Star Trek universe. Next Generation’s Data and Voyager’s Doctor and the former Borg unit Seven of Nine are three that I’ve spent much time with recently.

All three initially figure as instruments — again, utilitarian objects — for colonization. Data and the Doctor are designed by Federation engineers as artificial intelligences to do the work of navigation and medicine, respectively. Their job is to facilitate the exploration of the final frontier by freeing up humans from routine technical work. Seven is initially a unit of the Borg civilization/intelligence, one of the main colonial forces countervailing the Federation in the galaxy by the time of Voyager. As a unit of the Borg, she has no individual agency or freedom.

Yet in the Star Trek universe, in the territories of the Federation, every conscious being has the potential to be free. It’s a utopian, liberal vision that celebrates individual agency over all else. In the case of all three of these cyborgs, the desire to improve oneself proves that the individual is close enough to human to be imbued with basic human rights, like possession of the self and self-determination of one’s future. For Seven, her proof of humanity is learning to love; for Data, it’s learning how to tell a joke; for the Doctor, it’s understanding his “parentage”. In the ideal future of the Star Trek writers, cyborgs are self-determining, self-defining, and self-improving, just like humans.

Cyborg Futures

I want to end by proposing that we might think of the cyborgs of the past and present as part of a queer, multispecies, temporally extensive family, a kind of family Donna Haraway has called “oddkin”.

Cyborgs have a future, certainly, in part due to the work going on at places like the Transpecies Society. But they also have a past that is rooted in disability, space flight, colonial erasure of culture and heritage, frontier ideologies, and cybernetic science. How we engage these pasts, whether we reproduce the wrongs they created or repair them or find ways to leave them behind is within our control and the control of future generations.

And they have a politics. The very concept of cyborgs has been, from the very beginning, embedded politics of bodily and cognitive difference. In the past and presents of cyborgs dwells both a hopeful politics that cyborgs can be an instrument for exploration and liberation and dystopian politics of control, enslavement, and environmental exploitation.

So we have a choice. Do we actively pursue liberation and freedom through cyborg technology? Or do we let the financially successful but morally and culturally impoverished business models of the United States’ Silicon Valley provide the template for how we scale up becoming cyborg in the coming years? Do we yield to the pressure for utility, or celebrate the imaginative and liberatory potential of cyborg life?




I want to acknowledge the following people for their research and personal communications regarding the history of disability in space travel research, particularly the history of the Gallaudet 11:

  • Ashley Shew, Virginia Tech
  • Damien Williams, Virginia Tech — watch out for his original research on disability and space very soon!
  • Al-Zubair Al-Zaabi, NYU Tandon School of Engineering

I also want to thank my Fall 2018 NYU Tandon Cyborgs and Cybernetics class for providing me with the space to read and reflect on cyborgs and cybernetics with them for an entire semester.

Additional gratitude goes to the following scholars for their research, advocacy, and inspiration on cyborgs in theory and culture, cyborgs and disability, and cyborg in the history of science and engineering:

  • Mara Mills, NYU
  • Ronald Kline, Cornell University
  • Jillian Weise, Clemson University
  • Donna Haraway, UCSC

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