You are cyborg - aren't you?
You are cyborg - aren't you?
It's the year 2020.
Artificial intelligence, artificial life, genetic engineering, robotics and prosthetics may still be considered future technologies for cyborgs. They are however the real present, and within this they are precisely at their most powerful wherever they largely elude our perception.
The chimeras of biotechnology are neither lion- nor snake-headed; they are born in laboratories, at the service of research and transplant medicine. Robots are not only building machines but are also learning, for example, how to care for the elderly and the sick. Smart prostheses operate with biosensors and connect directly to the nervous system. While machine creatures on the big screen such as Samantha ("Her"), Sonny ("I, Robot") and Ava ("Ex Machina") still captivate us as human imagination, the algorithms that dominate us in everyday life do not require any human shape. This is precisely why it is even easier for us to put our trust in them: we confuse them with objects over which we still have control, and which we can use as we wish. Yet we should be paying closer attention to the meaning of the words we ourselves have chosen: for the machines to serve us, we must service them. In doing so, we only too willingly give up our responsibility, handing over our powers of decision-making, and our ability to act, to devices and systems that are supposed to be 'smart' and 'intelligent' on our behalf, supposed to act in a 'smart' and 'intelligent' way for us.
Digital networked technologies have long since formed part of our everyday lives. Even far beyond what we call 'screen time'. This leads not only to disturbed sleep for those who have been looking at their displays of their digital devices at bedtime, and who cannot then switch themselves off even after they've switched off their screens. The low humming of the server stacks that are lined up in the data centres are inaudible for most of us, while the never-ending data streams remain invisible. And yet, for a long time now, it is this pulse that has shaped our lives. We have gladly given up control over systems whose influence extends deep into our bodies and our consciousness, into our vital functions, and into our social relationships.
Indeed, it is above all the digital everyday technologies and the control systems in which they are embedded that make us into cyborgs. It is still a matter of the three Cs, as described by Donna Haraway in her 'Manifesto for Cyborgs' as early as 1985. Command – Control – Communication, put to work, implemented and at the same time exacerbated by two further Cs: Code and Computation. The predictability of the world appears all-encompassing. The basis for this is the translation and collection of everything and everyone in the form of data: nothing and no one can escape.
'Resistance is futile', as the Borgs in Star Trek would put it. And there is, anyway, no resistance to speak of. On the contrary: we keep on seeking to interconnect more closely with systems that promise to make our work more efficient, our businesses more profitable, our communication better, our lives more comfortable. We rarely ask whether more control actually leads to more security, guarantees more precise timing or higher efficiency, can only be obtained from quantifiable touchstones for quality. We ourselves are asked less and less often as to whether we do in fact agree to the next update or the next upgrade of our lives. It doesn't make much sense, either, to try to interfere in the high-frequency trading with a tentative "One moment, please." Especially not if you are the stock yourself. Or does it?
This is the question that is currently being posed in cities, that is, in precisely those agglomerations that have always come closest to the notion of what a habitat for cyborgs should be: that is to say, above all a system of systems – of interlocking infrastructures that couple together, interlace and network organisms and technologies in a way that substantially forms and therefore programs them, so to speak. Unlike the village, the city is not so much a living community as a community of interests that invites its members to merge into an anonymous mass, reflected back on themselves – a self that must constantly re-form under the conditions specified by the system. The latter is, in misjudging the influence of the system, first perceived simply as freedom – which such a process can however only offer if, and only in so far as, such a self is empowered to have, and to make, a choice. This, in turn, requires a knowledge of the system of systems, their structures and dynamics as well as the control mechanisms that are available to influence them.
Under the current conditions, for urban cyborgs who have access to infrastructures, to information and communication systems, to education systems, to systems of democratic self-administration, and so on, there exists considerable potential to achieve the kind of agency that allows one to constitute, form and change such collective parts of the system. The crucial question is whether, and how, urban cyborgs understand the use of this potential. Are they just content to have comfortable infrastructures, good transport links, appealing workspaces, diverse cultural and leisure programmes, as well as an optimum range of consumer items that meet every imaginable need? Are they satisfied by having the latest gadgets and a stable and fast internet connection, shifting smoothly between office and home office and being able to work well while on the way between them, being able to click together the contents of their fridge and wardrobe as well as their energy supply, their medical insurance, their evening film programme and their next holiday trip – and perhaps pop into a café on the way in order to upload a current photo of the vegan muesli bowl to a photo platform, or into the gym in order to optimise their body, and then to the club in order to show it off? But what, then, would specifically make them different from those who work through scheduled programmes in various systems at other times, and in other places? Is it only a specific level of technological development that allows us to talk of "systems" of "programming" and of "cyborgs"? Or is it, rather, that the reflection of the control systems and the related knowledge of their problems and potential represent the defining factor? Of course, substantial differences exist between the chains of a slave galley and those of a dungeon, and above all between these and an electronic ankle tag and a fitness bracelet or a 'smart' watch. But who would claim that these can only, or even primarily, be linked to their respective 'hardware' and the technologies relevant to their production – and not to the purposes for which they are produced, or to the use that defines the social status of those wearing them?
The urban cyborg should therefore indeed ask why they would put on a fitness bracelet that feeds their data into a system over which they have no control, while promising them self-control at the same time. They should ask themselves about the consequences of their various connections to technological – and not just technical – systems. And should make decisions on this basis. Because if they are privileged somehow over those who at other times and in other places were, or are, just as closely connected with other systems, then it is in the fact that they, in principle, have the opportunity to reflect on their configurations, and if necessary play a part in shaping them. And, of course, this does not just apply to self-optimisation and control technologies that come in the form of a simple fitness bracelet.
In all of the current systems in which we cyborgs move, there is the question of the interplay of hardware, software and wetware, of machines, programs and bodies. Hence, there is also always the question here as to who or what controls whom or what. Therefore, if something emerges from such a technological and also social privilege – which, incidentally, is in no way enjoyed to the same degree by all urban cyborgs – then it is a high level of responsibility. The responsibility to continuously check and question the system status, the potential also to reflect on problems that go hand in hand with use and participation. It is this responsibility that cyborgs must fulfil today. It's the year 2020. The future is always now: it is shaped by our decisions and our actions in the real present.