For Donna Haraway, we are already assimilated.
The monster opens the curtains of Victor Frankenstein's bed. 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 fevered 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, California. It's not the most futuristic place in the world; quite the opposite. The little clusters of wooden houses dotted up and down the Russian River seem to belong to some timeless America of station wagons and soda pop. Outside the town of Healdsburg (population 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 place is where visions of a technological future are being defined. Tucked away off the main highway is a beautiful redwood valley. Here, in a small wooden house, lives someone who says she knows what's really happening with bodies and machines. She ought to - she's a cyborg.
Meet Donna Haraway and you get a sense of disconnection. She certainly doesn't look like a cyborg. Soft-spoken, fiftyish, with an infectious laugh and a house full of cats and dogs, she's more like a favorite aunt than a billion-dollar product of the US military-industrial complex. Beneath the surface she says she has the same internal organs as everyone else - though it's not exactly the sort of thing you can ask her to prove in an interview. Yet Donna Haraway has proclaimed herself a cyborg, a quintessential technological body. (See "The Cyborg Ancestry.")
Sociologists and academics from around the world have taken her lead and come to the same conclusion about themselves. In terms of the general shift from thinking of individuals as isolated from the "world" to thinking of them as nodes on networks, the 1990s may well be remembered as the beginning of the cyborg era.
As professor of the history of consciousness at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Haraway is a leading thinker about people's love/hate relationship with machines. Her ideas have sparked an explosion of debate in areas as diverse as primatology, philosophy, and developmental biology. To boho twentysomethings, her name has the kind of cachet usually reserved for techno acts or new phenethylamines. Her latest book, the baroquely titled ModestWitness@SecondMillennium.Fe...©MeetsOncoMouse® (1997, Routledge), is her first in five years and has been as eagerly awaited as any academic text of recent times. In the book, Haraway concentrates on biological networks and takes a critical look at the way biotechnology is constructing our bodies. She tackles masculine bias in scientific culture and sees herself as the troubled "modest witness" of the ethical maelstrom of genetic engineering. Haraway scrupulously observes and records - unable to be silent about what she sees. She's also become a heroine to a generation of women who are starting to call themselves cyberfeminists.
Cyberfeminism, says Sadie Plant, director of the Centre for Research into Cybernetic Culture at Warwick University in England, 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 is resonating with feminist thinkers. Academics like Katherine Hayles have taken Haraway's ideas into literary theory, while male-to-female transgendered theorist and performer Allucquère Rosanne Stone has shocked traditional academia with her eccentric accounts of the technological transformation of her own body. Haraway's most famous essay, "The Cyborg Manifesto," first published in 1985, has become part of the undergraduate curriculum at countless universities.
The Left Coast leaning
Haraway herself is a veteran of '60s counterculture, not a scene known for its faith in technological transformation. She has that aura of slightly cynical wisdom you get if you spend long enough fighting for left-wing causes. So it's startling how opposed her ideas are to the back-to-nature platitudes that dominate the old West Coast stereotype. This is a woman who has no interest in being an earth mother or harking back to some mythical pretechnological 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 discovering their supposed spiritual connection to Mother Earth. When Donna Haraway says she's a cyborg, she's not claiming to be different or special. For Haraway, the realities of modern life happen to include a relationship between people and technology so intimate that it's no longer possible to tell where we end and machines begin. In fact, she's not the only cyborg in Healdsburg. There are 9,978 of them.
Sitting on the porch, listening to Haraway explain her ideas over a background of singing birds 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 that 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 the gym, looking at a shelf of carbo-loaded bodybuilding foods, checking out the Nautilus machines, and realizing that she's in a place that wouldn't exist without the idea of the body as high-performance machine. It's about athletic shoes.
"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, training practices, clothing and equipment manufacture, visualization and timekeeping." When the furor about the cyborgization of athletes through performance-enhancing drugs reached fever pitch last summer, Haraway could hardly see what the fuss was about. Drugs or no drugs, the training and technology make every Olympian a node in an international technocultural network just as "artificial" as sprinter 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 that 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, a club's dancers, lights, and sound systems - 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, and 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 a few responsibilities. Haraway has no doubt that 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 us that the world is "messier than that." It might well become the quintessential 21st-century catchphrase.
The ironic political myth
"The Cyborg Manifesto" is a strange document, a 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 the manifesto, Haraway argues that the cyborg - a fusion of animal and machine - trashes the big oppositions between nature and culture, self and world that run through so much of our thought. Why is this important? In conversation, when people describe something as natural, they're saying that it's just how the world is; we can't change it.
Women for generations were told that they were "naturally" weak, submissive, overemotional, and incapable of abstract thought. That it was "in their nature" to be mothers rather than corporate raiders, to prefer parlor games to particle physics. If all these things are natural, they're unchangeable. End of story. Return to the kitchen. Do not pass Go.
On the other hand, if women (and men) aren't natural but are constructed, like a cyborg, then, given the right tools, we can all be reconstructed. Everything is up for grabs, from who does the dishes to who frames the constitution. Basic assumptions suddenly come into question, such as whether it's natural to have a society based on violence and the domination of one group by another. Maybe humans are biologically destined to fight wars and trash the environment. Maybe we're not.
Feminists around the world have seized on this possibility. Cyberfeminism - not a term Haraway uses - is based on the idea that, in conjunction with technology, it's possible to construct your identity, your sexuality, 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" behavior, 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 is no happy-clappy technology groupie - she's harshly critical of techno-utopians, including some of those found between the covers of this magazine. But she's also no fan of what she calls the "knee-jerk technophobia" of most feminist politics. As the cyberfeminists of the webzine geekgirl put it, girls need modems.
In a way, modems are at the center 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," the Western world has 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 inside their heads and only secondarily come into contact with everything else. Draw a circle. Inside: me. Outside: the world. Philosophers agonize about whether the reality outside that circle even exists. They have a technical term for their neuroses - skepticism - and perform intellectual acrobatics to make it go away. In a world of doubt, getting across that boundary, let alone 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 millions of networks that make up your "world." A cyborg perspective seems rather sensible, compared with the weirdness of the doubting Cartesian world. As Haraway puts it, "Human beings are always already immersed in the world, in producing what it means to be human in relationships with each other and with objects." Human beings in the '90s show a surprising willingness to understand themselves as creatures networked together. "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 just rhetoric? It's all very well talking about cyborgs, but is there any need to seriously believe in the idea? Yes, says Haraway. "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 that 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 many others, there's no longer any such thing as the abstract.
To illustrate the point, Haraway begins to talk about rice.
"Imagine you're a rice plant. What do you want? 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 divide your energy between growing as quickly as you can and producing 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 that 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 labor regulation are networked together with the biology of rice plants and pests. Who lives? Who dies? That's what Haraway means when she talks about politics being inside technoculture. We can't escape it. It's just that sometimes it's hard to see.
The religion of biology
Maybe it was inevitable that Haraway would wind up blending science and politics and thus breaking one of the big taboos. While studying for a biology doctorate at Yale in the late '60s, Haraway realized "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 program "up to its ears in anti-Vietnam War work centering around chemical herbicides"; and part of a university integral to the military-industrial complex prosecuting the war, she could hardly help being political.
Her doctoral work 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 staffers and tour guides. She had gone there with her husband, Jaye Miller, who was actively gay and a 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 as part of the same household, along with their respective partners, until Miller'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 that wasn't even clearly understood as a single entity until the 1960s; as she says in her book Simians, Cyborgs, and Women, a "potent and polymorphous object of belief, knowledge, and practice." The immune system is 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 abstract. In the end, her work and her life, her friend's death, and theoretical biology are all tangled together: a messy web of personal pain, politics, and science.
By the late '70s, Haraway was at Johns Hopkins teaching the history of science and thinking about apes and the people who study them. "At that time," she remembers, "primate behavior was a matrix for all kinds of debates about aggression, sexual violence, dominance, and hierarchy." As she wrote in Primate Visions (1989, Routledge), the book that came out of her academic work at the university, "The commercial and scientific traffic in monkeys and apes is a traffic in meanings, as well as animal lives."
Primatologists, she argues, are working in the "borderlands," where the differences between animals and humans are defined - differences that are messier than people think. If apes are not fundamentally different from people, then our feeling of righteous superiority over animals may be based on thin air. And since primates are our close evolutionary cousins, their behavior may contain significant clues to the development of our own - or serve to mirror our view of it.
Often, primatologists' pictures of ape society contain covert justifications of a particular human, social, or political model. Male primatologists often showed these 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."
The state of people
Haraway finally wound up teaching at UC Santa Cruz. After the conservatism of Baltimore and Johns Hopkins, California came as a relief. "It was like coming home," she laughs, recounting a bizarre 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, capitalism and communism, human and animal, people and machines. It is all, of course, completely crazy. She has a habit of describing the unlikeliest people as "folks," so you get "the folks at the Pentagon" and "the folks fighting the Vietnam War." The cyborg idea may in the end be Donna Haraway's way of showing us how to let folks be folks, rather than carving them up into cruel, arbitrary divisions. And with that, Healdsburg suddenly seems the perfect vantage point from which to observe the madness of
the modern world.
So Donna Haraway sits on the porch, sips a beer, and pets her elderly cat, which recently had a run-in with a raccoon. She's as complicated, as messy 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 of us. We're living in a world of connections - and it matters which ones get made and unmade."
The Cyborg Ancestry
Cyborg. The word has a whiff of the implausible about it that leads many people to discount it as mere fantasy. Yet cyborgs, real ones, have been among us for almost 50 years. The world's first cyborg was a white lab rat, part of an experimental program 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 various of its physiological parameters. It was part animal, part machine.
The Rockland rat is one of the stars of a paper called "Cyborgs and Space," written by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline in 1960. This engineer/psychiatrist double act invented the term cyborg (short for "cybernetic organism") to describe the vision of an "augmented man," better adapted than ordinary humans to the rigors 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 its annoying bodily limitations led a generation that grew up on Superman and Captain America to throw the full weight of its grown-up R&D budget into achieving a real-life superpower. By the mid-1960s, cyborgs were big business, with millions of US Air Force dollars finding their way into projects to build exoskeletons, master-slave robot arms, biofeedback devices, and expert systems. For all the big bucks and high seriousness, the prevailing impression left by old cyborg technical papers is of a rather expensive kind of science fiction. Time and again, scientific reasoning melts into metaphysical speculation 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 of scientific fact.
It wasn't only the military that was captivated by the possibilities of the cyborg. 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. Insulin drips had been used to regulate the metabolisms of diabetics since the 1920s. A heart-lung machine was used to control the blood circulation of an 18-year-old girl during an operation in 1953. A 43-year-old man received the first heart pacemaker implant in 1958.
By the 1970s, the idea of an augmented human had entered the mainstream. Steve Austin, The Six Million Dollar Man, and his cohort Jaime Sommers, The Bionic Woman (with bionic limbs and a super-sensitive bionic ear), were popular heroes, their custom superpowers bought off the shelf like a digital watch. The cyborg had grown from a lecture-room fantasy into the stuff of prime-time TV.
Of course robots, automata, and artificial people have been part of the Western imagination since at least as far back as the Enlightenment. Legendary automaton builder Wolfgang von Kempelen built a chess-playing tin Turk and became the toast of Napoleonic Europe. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein built a monster out of body parts and activated it with electricity. Even the Indian national epic, the Mahabharata, composed about 300 BC, features a lion automaton.
One thing makes today's cyborg fundamentally different from its mechanical ancestors - information. Cyborgs, 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 beginnings of the Cold War.
Norbert Wiener wrote Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in the Animal and Machine in 1948. The book was nothing if not ambitious. Wiener, an MIT mathematician, saw amazing similarities between a vast group of different phenomena. Catching a ball, guiding a missile, running a company, pumping blood around a body - all seemed to him to depend on the transmission of "information," a concept floated by Bell Laboratories' Claude Shannon in his founding work on information theory. 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.
Palinurus is part of a feedback loop, his brain getting input from the environment about wind speed, weather, and current, then 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 use the same 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 such as 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 supercomputers.
The cyborgmakers 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 each other and their environment. 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 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 calls themselves 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 from those in animals, and neither are very like control and communication in society. So cybernetics, which was based on an inspired generalization, 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. 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 more sophisticated creature than its '50s ancestor - and a more domestic one. Artificial hip joints, cochlear implants for the deaf, retinal implants for the blind, and all kinds of cosmetic surgery 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.
This piece appeared in Wired February 1997