CYBERSHOCK: I, Robot

When a windstorm barreled up the West Coast recently and deprived me of electricity for two days, I became painfully aware of my symbiotic relationship with technology. I had a ton of work to do, but that work was scattered across six computers -- two at home, one at each of two nearby worksites, and two that I can reach only by the Internet. Without juice at my home or the two local worksites, I had no access to my files or to the Internet. I was helpless.I am a writer and editor. My profession existed long before computers, word processors, typewriters, ballpoint pens, or printing presses. And yet because the computer and all these other machines are available to me, I have incorporated them into my work patterns to the point that they now help determine what I do and how I do it. I am a fundamentally different person as a result of my interactions with machines. I am, in a sense, a cyborg -- a cybernetic organism -- a blend of human and machine. I am using the term cyborg here a little more loosely than Manfred E. Clynes did when he coined the term in "Cyborgs in Space," a 1960 Astronautics article coauthored by Nathan S. Kline. I am, however, a cyborg in the true sense. I have an artificial knee -- a contraption of titanium, molybdenum, and high-molecular-weight polyurethane -- incorporated into my body. It performs an important function, knee flexion, without conscious thought on my part. I am the $60,000 man. We have the technology.Even without my prosthesis, however, I would think of myself as a cyborg. Cyborg is a useful and important term, one that describes a concept we are obsessed with, whether we recognize our obsession or not, whether we use the term or not. Just look at popular culture. One of the top-grossing movies of all time was Terminator, in which the murderous villain was a machine covered with human skin. In the sequel, the "good" Terminator sought to become more human by perfecting human speech. One of the most popular TV programs ever was Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which Geordi LaForge saw with a prosthetic visor, the androids Data and Lore battled to possess human emotions, and the most serious threat to the Federation came from the Borg.It's pretty clear that we are increasingly fascinated by and anxious about the growing intimacy between humans and machines. This fascination and this anxiety have mostly been expressed and explored in fiction, particularly science fiction. But as cyborgs become more widespread in real life -- whether in the form of a person with an artificial heart or a fighter pilot targeting weapons with his eyes -- people who analyze real life are increasingly beginning to study cyborgs.One newly released book, The Cyborg Handbook (Routledge, 1995), edited by Chris Hables Gray with assistance from Heidi J. Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor, argues that "cyborgology" is a growing field of study that cuts across traditional academic disciplines. The book anthologizes fiction and academic papers, historical documents and cutting-edge research to explore this emerging line of inquiry.The editors argue for an expanded definition of cyborg, one that encompasses nearly all of us. Mentor recently spoke about the way the automobile has changed the way we live -- changed our architecture, redefined our cities, dispersed nuclear families. "The minute I enter that car I am a cyborg," he told me. "If I come to a stop at a stop sign, the time sense I have at that intersection is very different than the time sense I would have if I stopped at the same intersection as a pedestrian. If I'm not moving again in a few seconds, I get very impatient."The Cyborg Handbook isn't casual reading. A lot of its entries are highly academic; you have to really love writing that tosses around phrases like postmodern, postcultural, and posthuman to wade through much of it, but the editors and the contributors are doing something very dear to my fully organic heart: they are elevating the debate about machines and technology away from absolutes. Too much discussion about computers and technology these days takes the form of technophobes and technophiles ranting at one another.As Mentor explained, traditional explorations of the human- machine interface, whether in fiction or elsewhere, have tended to adopt one of two polarized points of view. Either they argue that machines dehumanize us and we must struggle to remain human or they argue that machines only augment human capabilities and that people choose how to use them. The latter is a little like the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument. But Mentor maintains that "human interests and human desires went into the construction of the object. The gun has a life of its own that we've given it."Both ideas are true; both are overly simplistic. My hope is that as cyborgology grows we can fully explore the complexities of our relationships with technology and begin to abandon the extremes. Because as Mentor pointed out, "the old stories don't work anymore."

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