05 07 2001
An interview with Chris Hables Gray
Chris Hables Gray is an Associate Professor of the Cultural Studies of Science and Technology and of Computer Science at the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, Montana. He studies cyborology (cybernetic organisms) and spoke with Wolfgang Sützl about cyborgs and their implications.
Q: What are the main subjects of the book you are working on right now?
A: The title of the book is going to be "Information, Power, and Peace". It is going to analyze how information technology is changing political activism. In particular, I am very interested in these arguments that these new technologies create an opening, or an advantage for changing society. I am ambivalent about that. I think there is some truth to it, but I don't think it is as simple as those who defend that whole cyber democracy idea believe. I want to write a lot about what real peace would be like, as a long time peace activist I believe that many people have too simple an idea of what peace is. It is not just the absence of war. I am going to examine closely that whole question of technological determinism, and social construction, to what extent technology has locked us into a political situation and determines the future, to what extent we are free from that, and to what extent we could socially construct technology if we want and to what extent we cannot. Because that would determine very much, I think, to what extent we can have a livable future as opposed to a horrible future.
Q: Before turning to these issues, you became internationally known as the editor of the Cyborg Handbook. On your website you call yourself a "cyborgologist", and your most recent book, " Cyborg Citizen" is also about cyborgs. What exactly is a cyborg? Where does it start? To what extent does the human body have to be integrated into a technological system in order to qualify as a cyborg?
A: The actual definition is by Manfred Clyne, an Austrian who went to Australia and the migrated to the United States. Technically, to be a cyborg system you have to have some mechanical component integrated into an organic system (or vice-versa) so that it is operated homeostatically, without any conscious interference. I have noticed that when people first encounter the idea of the cyborg, they want to know exactly what a cyborg is, but along with my friends such as Donna Haraway, who I worked with and who is my mentor, think that it is more important to take a bigger view. The evolution of humans can be analyzed by looking at how humans used tools. And that tool use really distinguishes us from other creatures. Marx called humans homo faber, "man, the tool user". We use more complex sort of systems, we have language, culture, the use of fire. About 3000 years ago humans started living together in bigger and bigger agglomerations, you could even call them machines, although they are called cities, Mumford points out how cities and armies are very much like machines. So I would argue the first humans used tools and started integrating them in their systems. We need tools to survive. Way far back people have dreamed of integrating tools into our body. The earliest prosthesis are talked about by the ancient Greeks, 2500 years ago. There are many myths too, of gods who have artificial legs and so on. The Golem of the Jewish tales is very much a cyborg, it is a system that is both organic and inorganic. So now I argue, along with some of my friends, that we have reached a new level in our relationships to tools and machines. We are becoming integrated into them and they are integrated into us.
Anyone who has been vaccinated is technically a cyborg, because their immune system has been reprogrammed to deal with certain stimulae, as if they were computers. Take my children, for example. The way my sons live their lives, and their integration into machine environments shows that they are living in a cyborg society. The important point is that we live in a cyborg society. My definition of a cyborg is that it is any sort of coherent system that has both components that are artificial and natural, living and dead, evolved and invented. A cyborg does not have to be conscious. For example, people who are legally dead but kept alive through machines are cyborgs, a biocomputer that stores information in some sort of biological construction is a cyborg, a genetically engineered cell, a mouse that has an automatic pump attached to it is a cyborg, the Golem is a cyborg.
A number of people have observed how the division between the machinic and the natural is dissolving, for example David Channell in his book The Vital Machine. He argues that there have been two great discourses. One is the great chain of being, where everything is alive, and this is actually the way many Native Americans still see the world, and the other perspective is the clockwork universe, in which all reality works like a big clock which is very much the western scientific view ...
Q: ... the Newtonian Universe ...
A: ... and according to Channell, these two points of view are being integrated into what he calls the vital machine. The machines are alive, we are living machines, machines have a certain vitality of their own.
Q: This has important political and legal implications, which you address in your "cyborg bill of rights". You said previously that a cyborg does not have to be conscious. But how can a being that is not conscious be a bearer of rights? What kind of institutions and language are required by a cyborg society?
A: The cyborg bill of right is only for conscious cyborgs. It is only for cyborgs that can meet the criteria for citizenship. Historically, one of the main ideas of citizenship has been the ability to participate in political discussions in the polis. In ancient Greece, you had to be a soldier and fight for your city state in order to be a citizen, which is not an idea I want to totally discard. I argue in my book that in order to be a good cyborg citizen you need to commit yourself to your political community, which is now the earth as a whole.
And there needs to be a serious commitment that is more than voting a little; you have to be willing to sacrifice yourself. Killing is not a very effective political approach, so I am not saying we need to be killers or soldiers, but you need to be willing to risk your life for your community. Otherwise we won't have a strong enough political community to deal with the incredible forces that technology is producing. Advances in technology are just so intense. The power that will go to centralized authority ... from the ability to read minds to biologically controlling people with psycho pharmaceuticals, the surveillance society ... So if we don't have a much more proactive type of citizenship we're doomed.
Q: Some people would say that this is an overly optimistic point of view and would argue that the whole idea of cyborg and the integration of body and technology is actually rooted in military thought, in the idea of adapting the human body to the standard of perfection and control of a machine that cannot fail. Your perspective seems to be more of an emancipatory and positive one.
A: There is no doubt that one of the major sources of the cyborg is the military, because of the whole paradox of contemporary war. War is now too complex for machine intelligence, and too fast and deadly for human bodies, so man - machine systems have been created. Another source of cyborgisation is the capitalist impetus that leads to a more effective integration of workers in their environment. And that can be very dangerous. But I am not optimistic - if you ask me what are the chances that we will have a wonderful future as opposed to a horrible future or no future at all, I would say the latter is more likely. But I do think there is a chance that we can have a livable future, and that won't be by stopping technology. I am not a technological determinist in general, but we are not going to stop technology, and we are not going to stop cyborgisation. It's overdetermined, there's too many forces pushing for it - not just the military and work, there are the fantasies of young people, and everyone's fear of illness and death, another source of cyborgisation.
There is this giant ethical debate that tries to determine which technologies should be developed and which not. That is very good and healthy. But the problem is that a lot of these experiments that people think are wrong are happening in secret anyway, by the military, by capitalist corporations hiding out in Mexico or somewhere, which will do human cloning, and will do other things that people find horrible. So we need a much more effective way of dealing with these issues, non-governmental or cooperative bodies that try to prevent the development of technologies that are horrific.
But first of all, we need to stop putting massive amounts of public resources into creating technologies that are designed to enslave or destroy us, such as all of these military technologies - star wars, better human-machine interfaces for weapons, better training, better use of drugs. All of this is meant to destroy other humans or even ourselves and is a tremendous waste of resources. But it all gets back to the political process, and the only way that we are going to survive is that people become much more active. A cyborg citizen is not necessarily a cyborg, as I said, but a cyborg citizen really has to be a citizen who is very proactive and very much involved in shaping political realities. The pace of technological changes is too powerful, and the forces that want to take technoscience into horrible directions are too numerous and too powerful and they will make tremendous profits and accumulate enormous power if they are successful. So we need a much more active citizen, and that will be a cyborg citizen.
Q: Do you think there are any new forms of dependence involved in the cyborgisation. Many would argue that the more technical you become, the more technology is integrated into yourself, that you become dependent on forces you cannot control. For example, I cannot fully control whether the vaccination I get is actually going to have the desired effect..
A: I think what would be wise for people to do is reflect on the whole human races long-standing relationship to technology. How well would Paleolithic people have done without fire or without spears? And if you take Neolithic humans, who were the early agriculturalists, look on how dependent they were on the weather. Even now in Montana, where I live, a lot of my friends are ranchers and are totally dependent on the weather. So we are already dependent on nature, and we are dependent on our tools. There is a danger when we become dependent on these technologies, but for example my partner, the mother of my children, she had an overactive thyroid, if she had not gotten medical treatment for that, she would have been dead at ten. Now she is totally dependent on artificial thyroid, but otherwise she would be dead. Many older people would be dead without technology ... but what do you say: better be dead then dependent on these technologies? What you really have to do is be very conscious, and this is part of what being a cyborg citizen is, being conscious of what is being done with you. The Internet makes it easier for us to challenge the experts. I see a lot of advantages to these kinds of technologies. But you have to be a conscious consumer of new technologies.
Q: So we are also talking about an educational projects, so that people can actually become conscious consumers.
A: Education is crucial. The two main things are education - how people learn - and access to information. The Internet must be kept open, so that it is possible for everyone to post information, so that it cannot turn totally into a market place ....
Q: If the cyborg citizen is a proactive and educated citizen, could cyborgisation be understood as a strengthening of subjectivity? You don't seem to advocate a protection of the subject against the onslaught of technization, as many of the early 20th century thinkers did. Is the cyborg still a subject, or is he / she cyborg and " overman" in the sense of Nietzsche?
A: In her excellent book How We Became Posthuman, N. Katherine Hayles argues that the post-human, which is of course the cyborg, represents a chance to actually fulfill the Enlightenment idea. To her, the subject idea is a failure, because we are supposed to be subjects politically, but we are not, we are consumers, not citizens. According to Hayles, posthumanism allows us to develop real subjectivity, but that subjectivity is not unitary - going along with the whole postmodern critique of totalizing narratives - and I agree with that. But I would still say that fundamentally even a cyborg or a posthuman is a subject in the sense that we have one body. There are many people - Stelarc is a good example, they really want to go beyond the body. People like the Extropians, they are really committed to becoming posthuman in a way that is no longer human, and a lot of people would say there is no subjectivity, and I argue with some of my friends about this. There is a book out that includes an article of my friend Heidi J. Figuroa-Sarriera, who co-edited the Cyborg handbook with me, Cyberpsychologies by Angel J. Gordo Lopez, where the authors raise the question what is subjectivity in the age of cyborgs from a psychological point of view. In the Cyborg Handbook some people write about the political subjectivity of cyborgs. I don't believe we are going to get to having no subject at all. But if things turn out in a really bad way we will just become objects. We will just become machines, workers, consumers, soldiers, and any real autonomy that we have can be taken away technologically.
Q: Does cyborgism require a new sense of religiousness? Is it necessary to declare a safe zone of humanness that cannot be penetrated by technology.
A: That would be a mistake, because every zone will be penetrated by technology.
Q: In the Cyborg Bill of Rights, you make use of the word "sacred" ... my body is "sacred" .... theological terminology seems to be experiencing a revival within the cyborg discourse.
A: What I mean is your body, individually, and this gets back to that I still believe we are subjects. In order to be a good cyborg you have to be a subject and not just an object of your life, you have to take action. So if you don't want your body modified, then I would say you can keep part of your body, whatever part you want, safe from technology. My suspicion is that very few people will do that, especially since invasive medical technologies will be so handy, nano-robots killing cancer cells, for example. Few people will want to die at 70 when they can live healthy until 150. It's your body, and you should be able to prevent interventions. If the government wants to put a chip into everybody's body, for example.
Q: Sacredness then stands for autonomy over your body rather than an overriding value.
A: Yes. But if some people belonging to the Catholic Church, for example, all agree that our bodies are sacred as a fundamental value, that's fine with me. And perhaps in 500 years from now these Catholics will still be normal humans while most other people will be very transformed. I suspect that it is very likely that some people will choose not to be modified, but I suspect they will be a minority. And it is really possible that their ability to operate in the society of the future will be very compromised, if they refuse all kinds of interfaces with technology, which most people use as a matter of course. Imagine people who rejected all technologies - not only would their lives be brutish and short, they would spend their time working all day, doing menial work, get sick, die. There is a lot of freedom in technology. It is because of technology that we all live relatively well - here in Austria, for example, everyone lives like they were a Habsburg emperor ...
Books by Chris Hables Gray
The Cyborg Handbook (ed. with Heidi Figueroa-Sarriera and Steven Mentor, 1995)
Postmodern War (1997)
The Cyborg Citizen (2001)
Web-site of Chris Hables Gray
David F. Channell, The Vital Machine. A Study of Technology and Organic Life, 1991 (Oxford University Press)
Donna Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 1991 (Free Association Book)
N. Katherine Hayles, How We Became Posthuman, 1999 (University of Chicago Press)
Angel J. Gordo Lopez & Ian Parker (eds.), Cyberpsychologies, 1999 (Routledge)