On being a cyborg

When I think of cyborgs I picture a Terminator, or perhaps one of the Cybermen from Doctor Who. Not me. And yet, because I have a pacemaker, I am a cyborg*:

a person whose physiological functioning is aided by
or dependent upon a mechanical or electronic device.


There are plenty of us out there who fall into this category; people with pacemakers, mechanical valves, artificial legs, eyes, hands, whatever. Some people would argue that even people who wear glasses are cyborgs.  A discussion about someone wearing glasses being a cyborg was actually what started me off thinking about this whole subject of cybernetic humans. Here is a bit of it:

I don’t know whether people who wear glasses really count as cyborgs, though. Mainly because the glasses are not a part of them in the same way that the pacemaker is part of me – it’s in me and literally intertwined with me. I can never be without it. It’s part of the mechanics of my body in a way that is very different to the interaction between someone and their spectacles. However, I see the flaws in my argument – what about people with removable prosthetic limbs? for one.

The idea of people-technology hybrids as being “more than human” is an intriguing one. Cyborgs are more than human in that we’re humans with ‘add-ons’, as it were, but not usually in the sense that we’re enhanced beyond normal human capabilities. However, we are also not less than human (which was Simon’s point). We usually think of cyborgs in the context of science fiction, where they’re quite often portrayed as the bad guys; and we think of them as being somehow less than human – robots, rather than people enhanced with machinery – so the term ‘cyborg’ can carry quite negative connotations. [I’m not sure whether the Cylons in Battlestar Galactica really count as cyborgs, but there is an excellent and fascinating case in point if they do.] As well as this, some people can get a bit freaked out when thinking about machine-human hybrids. Being part-machine is  not natural, it’s not ‘normal’, and humans tend not to like things or people that don’t fit their ideas about what is natural or normal. Bizarrely, when I went to see the surgeon before my heart surgery in 2008 the thing he said that upset me most was that I might have to have a pacemaker. I still can’t coherently explain why, but I think it was just the idea of having something in me that wasn’t me. It just seemed wrong. But now I know it’s perfectly alright, and being a cyborg has improved my life tremendously!

It seems that the definition of who or what is a cyborg has moved far beyond my personal opinion and what the original definition of the word referred to. If I remember rightly, the conversation on Twitter went on to discuss cyborgs and librarianship. If you’re interested in such things you might want to have a look at Simon’s post on the subject. Further afield, at least one person is arguing that “we’re all cyborgs now”:

What do you think?


*Although I may be paranoid, this is not to be confused with an android.

** Interestingly, not every dictionary defines “cyborg” in the same way. Some define cyborgs as being fictional or hypothetical, and as someone who is technologically enhanced beyond normal human capabilities. However, if one goes back to the original of cyborg (cybernetic organism) as someone who is part-machine and part-human then cyborgs certainly do exist, although most ‘real’ cyborgs are only enhanced ‘up’ to, rather than beyond, normal human capabilities (if that). Even with my pacemaker I’m not going to win any races! However, I’m pretty sure I exist…

6 thoughts on “On being a cyborg”

  1. I really doubt whether there is a sustainable distinction between natural and non-natural/artificial things. There are genetically engineered viruses that kill cancer cells and leave healthy ones alone – which are they? What’s a computer programme that can mutate/reproduce/compete with other programmes? A battery made out of bacteria that convert sugar to electricity?

    I wonder if there’s a non-trivial normal/abnormal distinction as well, i.e. something more significant than “most people don’t have pacemakers/red hair/only one leg, so people that do are abnormal.

  2. A problem with the normal/abnormal distinction is that it is often quite subjective, even though people think they know what normal/abnormal is in general terms. That probably doesn’t really answer your point, though.

    The Cylons from the re-imagined series of Battlestar Galactica (BSG) are quite a good illustration of there (arguably) not being a sustainable distinction between natural and artificial things. I know they’re not real, but anyway (and they could be, one day)….The humanoid Cylons “look and feel human…some are programmed to think they are human” – they are virtually indistinguishable from humans, even though they are actually artificially created beings. However, if they found to be Cylons, they are seen as less than human [by most of the human characters most of the time] and treated accordingly (i.e. badly to appallingly). So, what is so special about being human? What makes us [think we are] better than other life-forms? What makes us think we are better than artificially-created beings who resemble us in every way? When is an artificially-created being alive? When is it a person? Is a human being and a person necessarily the same thing? Questions (among others) that BSG tries to answer throughout the series, and to which I don’t have answers.

  3. I am a cyborg too because I wear glasses and am totally dependent on them. I can’t even see the top letter on the optician’s chart without them 🙂

    There are some very interesting ideas in your post (and Simon’s and the video clip).

    It must be a very exciting time to be a librarian – at the beginning of the digital age. We have no idea what it is going to lead to or what the consquences are but we are already seeing big changes in all our lives.

    It is an interesting concept that we have two selves now, one in the physical world and one in the digital.

    I wonder if the digital world will take over and become our reality.

  4. I’m not a cyborg, although if I end up with a joint replacement I would be. I am afraid of that, like you with the pacemaker, partly because it is an alien implant inside you, but also for practical reasons if it went wrong as joints are very sensitive to infection. As a disabled person I do count as outside ‘normal’ though. I am very worried at the moment this government seems to be trying to portray this ‘abnormal’ in very negative ways to justify the destructive changes they are making to the benefit system so many vulnerable people rely on. I feel they are making us out to be less than normal.

    As for being more than normal, I am reminded of the arguments over not letting Oscar Pistorius run in the able-bodied Olypics as his prosthetics legs could give him an unfair advantage, and then the rows about that other athlete he raced against in the Paralympics having longer ones. I just think nobody sane would have their healthy legs cut off just to get blades so they could run faster. But then, maybe they would, people have taken dangerous drugs for the same reason. I guess there is a fine line between the technologies of better running shoes, blades and racing cars. And training, nutrition, running tracks, all things meaning modern athletes set new records every year.

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