Image by Ansellia Kulikku. Photograph source: Guillaume-Benjamin-Amand Duchenne de Boulogne and Adrien Tournachon, "Figure 78: Scene of coquetry," 1854-56, albumen print, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

My Skype call with the cyborgs drops for the second time. They’re traveling, they explain, and the Internet is bad. The app gurgles, failing to connect us. I end up addressing my questions to their account’s profile picture, an image of the Earth. In a corner of the screen, a small rectangle reflecting my upper body floats like a minor planet.

The account belongs to Neil Harbisson, who is one half of the cyborg duo. His username is “Neil Harbisson’s Head,” which is fitting, as he’s connected to Skype through the thin black antenna that he had surgically attached to his skull about thirteen years ago. Our technical difficulties persist and we never do get to see each other, a circumstance I’m left trying to reconcile with the knowledge that for many, what he and his artistic partner Moon Ribas are doing represents the cutting edge of human ingenuity. Millions have watched the TED talks in which Harbisson and Ribas explain how their cyborg bodies came to be and the art their extended senses allow them to create. Harbisson, thirty-four, was born with achromatopsia, a type of colorblindness that limits his vision to black and white. Curious about what seeing color would be like, he developed an antenna that gives him a kind of synesthesia, allowing him to hear color waves translated as sonic signals; the first colors he heard belonged to a Windows logo on a nearby device. “It was really magical,” he recalls. Ribas, thirty-one, hoping to deepen her connection to nature, had a chip implanted in her elbow that sends tremors down her arm whenever earthquakes occur.

They haven’t seen Westworld, the western android TV thriller based on the Michael Crichton film of the same name that debuted in the fall of 2016. They’ve heard of Donna Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto,” considered a founding text in cyborg theory, but say they haven’t read it. They’ve never cared for science fiction. While growing up together in Catalonia, they were interested in animals and the natural world. Technology, by contrast, was cold and distant. They spent most of their time in the woods. “My aim was not to become a cyborg,” Harbisson says. “It was to sense color.” Being able to hear colors, including ultraviolet and infrared, which are invisible to the human eye, strengthened his conviction that “human” failed to describe his new self. Eventually, he felt no difference between where the technology ended and his human body began. “The only word that really described this is ‘cyborg,’” he says.

Their surgeries took place in secret—their doctors feared losing their licenses over the probable media backlash—and were not without risk. “We were never really scared,” Ribas says of the process. “It was exciting, it was always an experiment. When you are so curious about something, everything else doesn’t really matter.” At first, their brains rebelled. Tremors from larger earthquakes woke Ribas up at night before she grew accustomed to the sensations. “Now I feel like I have two heartbeats: my own, and the earth, beating at its own rhythm,” she says. During his initial months with the antenna, Harbisson suffered from headaches and was often exhausted. “It was an overload,” he remembers. “I was hearing color everywhere. It wasn’t a good start. But after five months, my brain got used to it.” Though his mother disapproved, she eventually came around.

The press has salivated over their apparent novelty, Harbisson’s in particular. The BBC described him as “the first legally recognized cyborg,” as in 2004 he was permitted to pose for his United Kingdom passport photo with his antenna intact. Sometimes this title is shorthanded: a Google search for “the first cyborg” yields Harbisson’s name in the first few results.

Assertions of cyborg primacy are precarious. Over the years, news outlets have named various cyborgs “first.” In the running, too, is Steve Mann, a Canadian inventor who is considered the “father of wearable computing.” Decades before Harbisson, Mann negotiated for and won the right to fly with his implant, a self-designed computer vision device which he calls the EyeTap. According to Motherboard, however, the first cyborg was Kevin Warwick, a British engineer and professor who in 1998 had an RFID transmitter implanted in his arm that allowed him to control lamps and other nearby devices via the Internet. If you ask Discovery, the first cyborg was a man named Johnny Ray, a Vietnam veteran who, after a stroke stripped him of the ability to speak, lived for a time with an electrode implant in his brain that let him relay messages with his thoughts. Or perhaps the first cyborg was a rat.

Part of this confusion over firstness might stem from a broader confusion about how we’re defining “cyborg.” In her TED Talk “We Are All Cyborgs Now,” Amber Case, who helped pioneer the field of cyborg anthropology, explains that anyone alive today can lay claim to the term. Our cell phones and other devices are external prosthetics offering constant connection and accessibility. Our memories thunder down from the Cloud. We might hide, but our texts, those endless summons to the court of our relationships, will find us. We admit that we have patted the pockets where forgotten phones ought to be and moaned as though amputated. These technologies, Case argues, have permanently changed the way we live, and our relationship with them merits its own field of study.

Harbisson and Ribas also see a universality to cyborg life, but with a critical distinction: for them, the emphasis is less on cyborg as a way of being that we happen to have wandered into and more on ’borghood as a choice. The duo views it as they do gender: as a matter of how one identifies. “Anyone who identifies as a cyborg is a cyborg,” Ribas says. “We all have the right to be the species we want or feel that we are, in the same way we all have the right to be the gender we feel that we are.” Harbisson maintains that his project wasn’t born of a desire to undo his achromatopsia: “It wasn’t about fixing anything, it was about designing your own perception.”

When we fuse our bodies with technology, we are often regarded as obscene, having violated some definition of what it means to be fully human. This perception isn’t limited to Terminator: people who wear prosthetics or have disabilities they cannot hide, trans people, and others on the margins whose lives are dependent on or shaped by technology are common targets of hatred and discrimination. Harbisson and Ribas, both of whom identify as trans-species, mean to convince us that technological modification has the potential to make us not less, but more: that the process of becoming a self is additive and fully within our control. The team founded their Cyborg Foundation in part to provide resources for those hoping to follow their example. The Cyborg Foundation’s slogan, plastered across the website’s front page, is “Design Yourself.”

* * *

To a cyborg-themed party in Bushwick that demanded attendees come in costume, I wore an old black skirt with a white grid pattern, a nod to both the Internet’s subtle geometries and my own insuperable thrift. Fellow partygoers had donned cloaks in screeching silver and gold and wound strings of Christmas lights around their limbs. Had we actually done the theme any justice? I wondered while on line for the bathroom, watching the woman beside me struggling to adjust the plastic eye she had duct-taped to her forehead.

The term “cyborg” was coined in 1960 by Manfred Clyne and Nathan Kline. It’s a portmanteau of “cybernetic,” meaning a system controlled in some way by technology, and “organism.” Clyne and Kline’s article, published nine years shy of the moon landing, explored how humans, through union with technological devices, might come to survive in space. (Their propositions included maintaining homeostasis via osmotic pressure pumps and expunging the body of CO2 via inverse fuel cells.) Over half a century later, we still accord cyborgs the novelty of time travel or robo-cops. They’re a figment of a comic-book future in which, smug in our dotage, we’ve ceased to place our faith. Our prevailing notion of what a cyborg looks like is still someone less flesh than steel and with laser beams for eyes, someone who has renounced allegiance to our species and is bent on our destruction.

Ribas and Harbisson stuff this terrifying vision into a clown suit. They cite Stelarc, a performance artist who had a cell-cultivated ear attached to his left arm, among their influences. But Stelarc’s work—he is known for shows in which he suspends his body from flesh-impaling hooks—bears little resemblance to the lurid cheer of Ribas and Harbisson’s presentations. In his TED talk “I Listen to Color,” Harbisson wore a Pepto-pink blazer, cobalt shirt, yellow pants, and black and white oxfords. He was dressed, he explained, in the key of C major. “Quite a happy chord,” he said, to laughter. Going to the supermarket is “like going to a nightclub. It’s full of different melodies. Yeah, especially the aisle with cleaning products. It’s just fabulous.” In his “Sound Portraits,” he plays the notes he hears upon looking at the faces of various celebrities. (Nicole Kidman’s yields an F major triad.) At his “Colour Concert” for TEDMED Live 2015, he held several colored socks before his antenna, broadcasting each of their blips and beeps for the audience at Royal Albert Hall.

During Ribas’s performances, she translates the tremors she feels into drumming and dancing. She emphasizes that she and her partner’s devices “are not [tools]. We see them as part of ourselves. My artwork is the creation of this new sense that happens inside me.” For TEDxMexicoCity 2016 (in many respects they are paradigmatic TED darlings), Ribas, sitting tall before her drum, performed the last fifty years of Mexico’s earthquakes as her body perceives them. The nondescript quake of 1966 was a low, ominous roll; the quake of 1985, which resulted in the deaths of about 10,000 people and three to four billion dollars in damages, was a wild pounding. In her dance piece “Waiting for Earthquakes,” she glides about the stage, gracefully possessed by her tremors. “The first feeling was how active the earth is in a very soft way,” Ribas tells me about learning to live with the chip in her arm. Her sense has taught her that “earthquakes are not a bad thing. They’re part of our nature. The bad thing is that humans haven’t been able to adapt.”

Reactions to Ribas and Harbisson’s work have ranged from ecstasy (seen in the YouTube comments: “I’m seeing stars!!!,” “this is so impressive, incredible experience”) to revulsion. “In Canada, we did a performance, and someone stood up and shouted, ‘You guys suck,’” Ribas remembers. “In Finland, someone stood up and shouted, ‘This is not music.’” During a light- and sound-heavy performance in Barcelona, an audience member suffered a seizure, and after fifteen minutes the duo had to stop. “Some people really love it, and some people think that what we are doing is not art, and it’s not music, and they get really offended,” she says. They claim no responsibility for the sounds that their senses produce, because, as Harbisson explains, they didn’t create them. “The composer was earth and space.”

* * *

In the cyborgs’ hometown of Catalonia, located in northeastern Spain, activists have pushed for the region’s independence for nearly a century. “We grew up in this atmosphere of fighting for your rights,” Ribas says. Their parents, who are teachers and artists, often took to the streets, marching past walls covered with political graffiti. When Ribas and Harbisson were fifteen, they squatted in platanus trees that their city had planned to cut down. Today, she adds, the trees still stand.

This September, the regional government plans to hold a referendum on independence in the face of Spanish opposition. Both Harbisson and Ribas support the movement and attend protests when they are home. “There is a connection between the right to have the freedom to decide who you want to be and the freedom of who you want to be as a society,” Harbisson explains. “The main issue is, people just want to be free.”

To that end, in 2010, Harbisson and Ribas created the Cyborg Foundation to encourage others to become cyborgs. “If someone feels they want to sense more, they should have the right to extend their senses” so that they may perceive the world’s beauty more fully, Harbisson says. They’ve also styled themselves “cyborg activists,” and in the Foundation’s mission statement is a pledge “to defend the rights of cyborgs,” namely the right to have one’s implants accepted as body parts and not external devices. Its rhetoric piggybacks on that surrounding disability, trans, and queer advocacy, and positions cyborgs as a marginalized group in need of mobilization: “It’s time for trans-species to come out of the closet. There are lot of people that are in the cyborg closet. They feel like technology but their body isn’t yet. Some people have a psychological relation and don’t feel the need to go though [sic] further transformation. What kind of ability do you want to enhance? Or what kind of new sense do you want to develop? Is the tech you need already available? Do you need an implant?”

But body augmentation was Harbisson and Ribas’ choice—“Design Yourself”—and they have the ability to make selections that are palatable, popular, YouTube-friendly. Cyborgs—they’re just like us! Ribas’s implant is invisible to the naked eye, and Harbisson’s antenna, which he’s dubbed the “Eyeborg,” is not so unusual that we can’t find it endearing, like a unicorn horn gone limp. This is not the case for many people with non-normative bodies. Trans people, for example, “have had augmented bodies for many years, and they’re not looked up to, they’re looked down on,” says micha cárdenas, a professor at the University of Washington Bothell, artist, and theorist known for the performance “Becoming Dragon” (2004), in which she lived for 365 hours as a dragon avatar in the online 3D world of Second Life while undergoing hormone replacement therapy. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with experimentation that’s more esoteric, but we need to look more carefully at the claims they’re making and who is being ignored in the media hype.”

Bound up in cyborg speak are also issues of accessibility. Lucy Suchman, a professor of anthropology of science and technology at Lancaster University, warns of rhetoric like the Foundation’s that seems to suggest that cyborgism is humanity’s inevitable destiny. “That machines are effectively the next evolutionary step—that narrative of progress is really politically problematic,” she says. “It’s very universalizing. They’re using ‘we,’ which is of course a very specific we. I think it represents people who are privileged enough that we can fantasize about and also consume the latest technological gadgets.”

The North Sense, a device developed by Ribas, Harbisson, and others at the company Cyborg Nest that vibrates when you face north, will set the prospective cyborg back by $425. One reviewer, Scott Cohen, writes glowingly that “My relationship to space has changed overnight. When I walk into a room full of people I suddenly realise that I am aware of the room in ways that they are not. I am not the same as them anymore. They don’t see what I see. My sensory palette has a new colour and it is called North.” “Improvement” is the tenor of the cyborg transformation; the first question on a list would-be cyborgs should consider is “what to improve.” Ribas and Harbisson seem to support the inclusivity of all bodies, but at the same time, their language implies that our un-augmented bodies are inadequate as they are and can be improved upon—when the body in question has a full wallet.

“It is expensive,” Harbisson acknowledges of the sense, though he likens the price to that of quotidian buys like smartphones and tooth implants. “You’re adding a new dimension of perception to your life. But the aim is that it will be cheaper and cheaper, in the same way that people pay to have a tattoo permanently on their skin. It will be accessible.”

* * *

Between traveling to give talks and presentations, Ribas and Harbisson are figuring out which senses they’d like to have next. These days, Ribas is working on a sense that will detect seismic activity on the moon. “We can be sensetronauts,” she says. “We will no longer need to be physically going to space to explore it, because we can send our senses there. We’re physically on Earth, but feeling the moon.” Harbisson, meanwhile, is creating a sensory organ that will sense time: a crown emitting heat that will travel around his head in correspondence with what time it is. In theory, he will be able to quicken or slow the heat’s progress, thus changing his perceptions of time. He says it will be finished by January.

During a college ornithology class, I learned that most birds can see ultraviolet. The class was located a cruel, acclivitous mile from central campus, and on the expedition back I wondered wistfully what experiencing such colors might be like. Unbeknownst to me then, somewhere in the world, Harbisson was already hearing them. For all the questions and problems their platform raises, and its lack of nuance, I find the cyborgs’ optimism about the technological future of our bodies encouraging—especially given fears that our innocent curiosity about augmentation veils a frothing desire to destroy each other, and that we can’t always trust technology to do our bidding. That we might be able to develop peaceful ways to perceive the world in all its complexity—and that this perception will translate to a more accepting, equal society—is a utopian vision in which Harbisson and Ribas seem to utterly believe. Armed with their senses, they’re not even afraid of aging. “I look at getting old as a positive thing,” Harbisson says. His muscles will weaken, but, he says, his cybernetic senses will grow stronger with time.

For now, people don’t seem to be tripping over each other to follow Harbisson and Ribas to the cyborg frontier. But the duo seems to have inspired a fascination with what our bodies can do, with help. Our art is, hopefully, revelatory,” Ribas tells me. “We want to reveal an experience and a reality that exists, that now we can sense.” The future of “Design Yourself,” the slogan implies, is up to us. In their hands, that future is tuneful, toon-like, Technicolor. It can be ours, if we want it.

 

 

Jennifer Gersten

Jennifer Gersten, an assistant managing editor at Guernica, is a freelance writer pursuing a master's in violin performance. Her writing has been published in Guernica, WQXR, NPR Music, and The Toledo Blade. For more of her work, here is her website, and here is her Twitter.

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