I had the rare opportunity recently to talk to Luke Robert Mason, Director of Virtual Futures. Following a discussion on Twitter in which the issue of cyborg rights was raised, I was eager to find out more. My call with Mason took this to depths I had never explored before.
I’ve been writing about the transhumanist movement for a while, a topic that I have become increasingly intrigued and inspired by as time’s gone on. I thought I had a good handle on it, but it turns out that I hadn’t even scratched the surface.
This piece is about what I learned about transhumanism, cyborg rights, and the evolution of the human body from Mason, and from my own subsequent research. So at this point, I would like to thank Luke Robert Mason for taking the time to talk to me about this topic, and furthermore, to encourage you – if this piece piques your interest – to find out more about Virtual Futures and Mason’s work, in particular.
Let’s start by looking at one of the first people to be fitted with a bionic limb, Nigel Ackland.
The Law On Prosthetics
In 2006, Ackland was involved in a blood-curdling industrial accident in which his right forearm was completely crushed. After a few frustrating experiences with prostheses, he was fitted with bebionic3, the world’s most advanced prosthetic hand. It has, according to Ackland himself, transformed his life, giving him pretty much all the abilities he lost following his amputation. However, there is a poignant issue underlying Ackland’s bionic transformation. Is his new limb a part of his body, or is it property?
In the eyes of the law, should somebody deliberately damage a prosthetic limb, the crime is not grievous bodily harm (as it would be if the limb was biological) but is considered property damage.
Today’s sophisticated prostheses, like Ackland’s, are increasingly being integrated into the subject’s body, activated by electric signals from muscles. We are seeing direct skeletal prosthetics, where the prosthetic is permanently fused to the subject’s bone marrow (known as “osseointegration”. How can that be considered to be a simple piece of property?
This is a growing grey area that is currently under intense scrutiny. As bodies begin to merge with machines, it’s becoming increasingly clear that it is time to amend the law accordingly.
One of the legal debates surrounding the issue of prosthetics is how profoundly the limb affects the subject’s quality of life. Ackland, for example, has been using his bebionic3 for fifteen years. It allows him dignity, acceptance, and to have the same experience as an able-bodied human. Should he be parted from his prosthesis, what else would he lose?
There’s also some argument about potential differences between those who lost their limb as a result of trauma and those for whom the absence of a biological limb is congenital. Some with congenital limb absence choose to shun prosthetics, reasoning that they have never known any different – this is their body as nature intended. There are parents, for example, who refuse to fit their deaf children with hearing aids, reasoning that they should be fully integrated into the deaf community.
Rather than being considered an anomaly from the able-bodied ‘norm’, deaf identity, and other types of bodies, should be part of their own legitimate community rather than being automatically assimilated into the ‘able-bodied’ hegemony. Even to name this hegemony ‘able-bodied’ could even be considered an oppressive term: what do we consider ‘able’?
Should somebody born without a limb, it follows, be as entitled to having a prosthesis recognised as a body part when it is not replacing something that was there to start with?
For those, like Ackland, who lost their limb as a result of traumatic injury, the argument is to the contrary. Where it can be proved that the lack of a previously existing limb adversely affects the user’s quality of life, where the limb is integral to their sense of bodily integrity, their born identity, it is essentially a replacement body part. Thus, it should be treated the same as the biological limb that it replaces.
False teeth are afforded this status under the law. To knock out or damage somebody’s false teeth is grievous bodily harm. Where do we draw the line?
This takes us on to the unlikely area of elective prostheses.
There is a kind of body dysphoria in which a person becomes fixated on the idea of having a limb removed. Whether this should be considered a mental illness or an issue of personal choice over one’s body is pretty contentious. In years past, transgender individuals were usually mislabelled as mentally ill, a problem that still exists to this day from people who reject gender dysphoria.
The basis of the rejection of transgender identity tends to hinge on the argument of the existence of a gender binary: there is female and male and never the twain shall meet. This has been widely disproven by the existence of intersex individuals (who, in other cultures throughout history, have often been lauded as exceptional – ancient Greece, for example). Could we argue similarly for a person’s right to alter their body via the removal of a body part?
For those who might have a body part removed electively, only to have it replaced by a prosthesis, should we consider their rights the same as those who lost a limb against their will?
Wading deeper into the waters of prostheses, let’s next move on to addressing those that, rather than using prostheses to replace a body part, add prosthetics to their body for enhancement.
Neil Harbisson and The Cyborg Foundation
Neil Harbisson was born with a rare form of colour blindness called achromatopsia, which affects one in 33,000 people and means he sees the world in shades of grey. In the mid-2000s, he was fitted with the first iteration of a device which subsequently became the antenna that is now implanted into his skull and interacts with his brain.
The antenna (or “eyeborg”, as he calls it) is connected to a chip that translates colour into sound – and vise versa. His eyes still see in shades of grey, but he hears colour. He perceives colours beyond the human visual spectrum: ultraviolet and infrared are as normal to him as mauve and scarlet.
“I like listening to Warhol and Rothko because their paintings produce clear notes,” Harbisson told The Guardian in a 2015 interview. “I can’t listen to Da Vinci or Velázquez because they use closely related tones – they sound like the soundtrack for a horror film.”
For him, becoming a self-identified cyborg is not a medical matter. It’s art.
“I’ve been a cyborg for 10 years now. I don’t feel like I’m using technology, or wearing technology. I feel like I am technology. I don’t think of my antenna as a device – it’s a body part.”
He has fought for his right to be recognised as a cyborg and continues to campaign for cyborg rights – and to encourage the spread of transhumanism.
Harbisson would like to see us enhanced with sensors to help us detect if someone is behind us – a kind of human parking sensor. He finds it odd that we have made them for cars but not for humans.
The last time he went to have his UK passport renewed, the photo was rejected because it had his antenna in it. After much toing and froing, the passport photo was eventually accepted. In Barcelona, police – thinking he was filming them – yanked the antenna from his head, leaving him with wires trailing from the back of his skull.
Harbisson created The Cyborg Foundation in 2010, along with Moon Ribas. Ribas is another cyborg artist who has an implant that vibrates when an earthquake occurs, which lets her feel “closer to the Earth”. The Foundation exists for the purpose of helping humans to become cyborgs, defend the rights of cyborgs, and to promote cyborg art. It has done a lot of work with charities and organisations across the world, including Tibet-based Braille Without Borders and The Blind Society of Pichicha in Ecuador, offering the same kind of sonochromatic antennae that Harbisson himself wears.
Going one step further, in 2017 Harbisson and Ribas, along with colleague Manel Muños, launched The Transpecies Society, an association that, according to their website, “gives voice to non-human identities; raises awareness of the challenges transpecies face; advocates for the freedom of self-design and offers the development of new senses and organs”.
Many people reading this will probably consider these movements wacky at best, or a step too far at worst. But when you consider it, maybe you are already a cyborg yourself.
How attached are you to your smartphone? Clearly, it’s not a part of your body; a phone is, inarguably, an item of property. But how would your life be affected should you no longer have it?
There is already a meaningful interface between us and our tech – whether that be your smartphone, your FitBit, or just your laptop.
Andy Clark, author of the mind-blowing book, Natural Born Cyborgs, also authored a paper called Re-Inventing Ourselves: The Plasticity of Embodiment, Sensing, and Mind, in which he states:
“We humans … are biologically disposed towards literal (and repeated) episodes of sensory re-calibration, of bodily re-configuration and of mental extension.”
In other words, it’s perfectly normal for humans to evolve to incorporate and/or adapt to new environments. The tech era is, arguably, the latest new environment into which we must settle ourselves.
As the roboticist, Giuseppe Napo Montano, put it in a recent interview he gave me:
“The human body is so nineties”.
Cyborgs like Harbisson consider the human body as a platform or laboratory for exploration of new artforms or modalities of existence. Clark argues that we have set ideas about embodiment as key to conscious existence, but these ideas could be replaced by new concepts of what it means to be human.
So, too, could a post-human era give us new concepts of gender. Enter the xenofeminists.
On my undergraduate degree, I was lucky to briefly be tutored by Helen Hester, who went on to become one of the founding mothers of xenofeminism.
Xenofeminism runs alongside the cultural theory of accelerationism, the theory which – to vastly simplify – advocates a post-capitalist future, a post-work future. For more on accelerationism, I recommend researching the work of Benjamin Noys (incidentally, another of my undergrad professors).
A dialogue between the two theories is apparent, particularly in terms of its technomaterialist criticism of modern technologies. But xenofeminism, as the name suggests, is concerned with the issue of gender, how existing technologies can, in Hester’s words, “be re-purposed to be more useful to society and – over all – not be used as a tool of gender discrimination”.
Biology, xenofeminism argues, is not destiny. By placing too much emphasis on nature, we keep open the doors of discrimination.
“Anyone who’s been deemed ‘unnatural’ in the face of reigning biological norms, anyone who’s experienced injustices wrought in the name of natural order, will realise that the glorification of ‘nature’ has nothing to offer us.” – Helen Hester
Can technology, human enhancement and body modification help us to overcome the limitations of gender? Could new technologies allow us to put to bed any notion of ‘gender binary’ and allow us to explore a myriad of new gender identities?
If nature need no longer be our destiny, as a result of new technological advances and a more lateral attitude to them, we open up near-infinite possibilities for the reimagination of what it means to be human. One of the mantras of the transhumanist movement is that we must evolve beyond biology if we are to survive the challenges ahead of us as a species. Whether these challenges take the form of environmental disasters or ones created by humanity itself, we cannot say.
We don’t know for sure what will threaten our existence on this planet, but there is a palpable sense that something is coming that will rock the foundations we’ve built our species upon. It could be disease, war or famine. It could be global warming or some other ecological catastrophe (asteroid, flood, tsunami, earthquake – or all of the above). It could be artificial intelligence. Many transhumanists simply want us to be prepared to survive.
But more than that, the enduring question is how we can improve ourselves. It’s a question we’ve been asking and attempting to answer through technological innovation since the first caveperson struck its prey with a stick. Now, the level of invention is at the level where we can play God with biology. Along with the idea of improving humanity, we’re also asking how we can alter humanity for our own ends, to meet our desires and our dreams.
The question of whether we should or not has become moot. We are already mid-way through doing so. From the phone on which you are probably reading this, to the antenna on the head of a colour blind artist, the cyborg is already here, and it looks like she is here to stay.