One hundred years of cyborg solitude

Curatorial note: this piece, which isn’t really an essay or a piece of fiction, but something somewhere in between, was first published on 21st September 2010 at Futurismic [original URL]. It was commissioned by Tim Maly for 50 posts about cyborgs.


21st September 2060; New Southsea, Disunited Kingdom

September is the old man’s favourite time of year. This morning New Southsea basks in the upper twenties as the summer sear fades out, and the high tides leave less silt in the streets. “Shorts weather, young lady,” he mumbles around his post-breakfast smoke, smiling in the sunlight as the post-grad girl clears away the crocks, boots up the base-unit for his ancient spex and helps him over to his scarred thriftwood desk. “Great day for an etymological celebration, I reckon.”

She can’t help but agree; he’s a grumpy old bastard a lot of the time, but his enthusiasm’s infectious when it takes him. Someone somewhere in New Southsea celebrates some marginal anniversary or festival every day of the year, but as obscure temporal landmarks go, today might take some sort of award. She’s surprised by how much she’s been looking forward to it… though again, she figures she’s just tuning into the old man’s vibes somehow. The reason seems inexplicably unimportant.

Her patient-cum-subject is Paul Graham Raven, a fringe author from the second wave of text-based lifelogging in the Collapse Era, now one of New Southsea’s oldest residents. He was rehoused here a decade ago after throwing himself on the mercies of the then-ascendant Cultural Restorationist faction, who were enamoured of the fact that he’d written a fictional version of post-Little Katrina Portsmouth some thirty years before the event actually occurred, even though little of it was ever published beyond his own personal channels. They put him up in the very same building he’d lived in for most of the Noughties, campaigned successfully to get him a perpetual whuffie pension, and he’s been a quirky and addled fixture of the town’s intellectual life ever since.

The girl lives in the flat above, billeted there by the New Southsea Re-reformed and Rhizomatic College of Post-historical Anthropology (more commonly referred to as “the R and R”) after they saw a strong whuffie gambit in buying out the old man’s pension in exchange for in-depth analytical access to a historical (if marginal) pundit and his works. Many of the old man’s creative contemporaries still reside in nation-states unwilling to allow free-zone academies access to thinkers whose works were co-opted commercially or created under the aegis of an incorporated educational establishment; the others just couldn’t be bothered talking with a bunch of ‘narchs from a broken fragment of what was once known as the UK. The old man likes to joke about this. “The last chorizo in the shop, that’s me!”

Some might agree with him, too. The girl remembers her own scepticism; the last thing she’d hoped for when she signed with the R and R was to spend three months nursemaiding a stoned old man on the pretext of interviewing him about his memories of the Collapse. But he kinda grows on you if you give him the chance, she thinks to herself. He’s essentially become her thesis topic, to put it in the terminology of his own era, and today she gets a whole bunch of meta into the bargain: 21st September 2060 sees the old man celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the coining of the word ‘cyborg’. Her audio pickups are already recording.

“Well, Maly started it,” says the old man. “Great eye for the Zeitgeist, Maly. This was the end of the Noughties, right? Transhumanism was a rising meme, post-post-cyber esseff was staging something of a renaissance (or not, depending on who you asked). Looming energy crises and economic instability had everyone thinking about adaptation, whether of the environment or anything else. And then Maly unearths the first citation for cyborg, some old dead-tree mag from 1960. Got a copy somewhere in here…”

He starts gesturing through his antiquated personal archive system. The girl’s experience dictates that these digressional moments are best nipped in the bud if she wants to be done before lunch, and so she calls him back to focus.

“Why did anyone care about the history of cyborg as a term, then?” asks the girl. “I mean, who were you talking to?”

“Ourselves, mostly.” He grins, lopsided. “Well, no; other people read our stuff, sure, but we didn’t have any expectations of making the world take notice; bit of a preaching-to-the-choir gig, I suppose. That’s the contradictory thing about the wired world, you see; the flatter the planet became, the harder it was to really touch anything more than a limited sub-section of it. With what we were talking about, anyway. But you know that already.

“We were just, as Maly put it, ‘doing a thing’: our little slice of the blogosphere, the more chinstrokey end of the esseff and/or futurist club, rerunning the blog carnival format about two years after it died off at the hands of a search algorithm tweak. It’s like being in a band, I guess; by the time you’ve realised your audience is too small to pay your way, you’ve fallen too hard for the music itself to ever stop playing.”

This is another riff she knows by heart; the old man digresses as instinctively as he breathes, but he can be steered. “So why are you celebrating the celebration? Why not just celebrate 100 years of the word cyborg?”

“Because it’s a zombie word,” he says. “Like ‘computer’; everyone knows what it means, it’s been in the wiktionaries since long before I was born, but it applies so variously to so many different objects and actions that it’s effectively meaningless. No one cares about cyborg, because they’re too busy being one.”

“Was that the case back in 2010, as well?”

“Yes and no; cyborg was a pop-culture term at that point, predominantly associated with fictional or quasi-fictional representations of technophobia. Killer robot movies, self-made superheroes with questionable motives, that sort of thing. Some people identified pretty strongly with that image and identity, though, and cyberpunk lit had left a remarkably persistant residual afterglow of the romance of the man-machine interface, in all its crypto-masculinist glory… but Maly’s point was that the term as used had fallen rather out of line with its coining; I suppose we were trying to redress that, but I suspect there was a strong element of discovery involved. Was for me, anyhow.”

“So what did you discover?”

“Nothing that you kids couldn’t blink up in seconds if you chose to! But you want first-person narrative for your thesis, though, right? OK – so the root word is cybernetics, which by then was widely assumed to be the science of man-meets-machine, but it originally referred to any system that used feedback to maintain a certain desired state. Thermostats, you know. Every household had a cybernetic system in the kitchen, maybe one governing the climate of the whole house. Obscurity through ubiquity; as Doug Adams didn’t quite put it, the reason Noughties people couldn’t see cybernetics was the same reason a tourist on Albert Road can’t see New Southsea.”

The girl looks puzzled. “Because they’re completely immersed in it,” says the old man, leaning toward her. This appears to be a point he feels is particularly important.

“Now, this article Maly had found was classic starry-eyed yet serious Boomer Era blue-skying about what then seemed to be the inevitable and imminent human colonisation of space. They were pretty convinced they could get people up there, but how would they survive, stay healthy? No strong steady gravity, diurnal cycle non-existent, diet constrained, radiation levels… it’s no picnic up there, you know. The WellClimbers, Posties and Diasporists are proof enough of that, right?”

The girl nods her assent.

“So anyway, this article talks about augmenting and adapting the human to the environment of space; cybernetics is about adapting the environment to suit the organism, but the cybernetic organism adapts itself to the environment. Simple enough, right? But these first proposed cyborgs weren’t man-machine mash-ups; the interventions in question where predominantly pharmacological, maybe some surgical thrown in on the side. The whole man-machine thing falls under the same conceptual umbrella, but to most folks – me included, to some extent – that was the only gang in the nightclub, so to speak. Science fiction media did a lot to reinforce that view, though with no malice aforethought. In fact, I’m sure there’s a Clute retrospective of Sterling where he starts on about how–”

His brow furrows, and his left arm reaches for his interface space; the old man loves a good rant about esseff (and he has the link-bank to prove it) but the girl leaves those to the good graces of the School Of Pre-immersive Media, whose students appear to have the time, enthusiasm and (presumably) the THC tolerance to indulge his wandering memory at greater length. They bring him imported lager and salvaged books for the mouldy dead-tree library that lines the room; he complains perpetually about them keeping him up late, but he never turfs them out before they’re ready. The girl has an arrangement with the Pre-immersive school whereby the coffee she brings him comes off their LETS account.

“So how long was it after the coining of cyborg that the first cyborgs actually appeared?” she prompts.

“Ah, you’re leading me, aren’t you?” That grin again, almost a smirk, with a hoist of the right eyebrow. “Well, OK then: it depends on who you ask. If we take cyborg to be loosely defined as ‘self-augmenting organism that adapts itself to its environment by non-evolutionary methods’, or even just ‘tool-using critter’, then humans were cyborgs right from the start: baby slings, stone axes, animal skin cloaks, they’re all adaptations of the self by the self. More conservatively, you might introduce the term at societal levels when certain simple corrective surgeries and prostheses first come into use. At individual levels, and when talking to the sort of person who doesn’t obsess over definitions like I’m doing right now, you’d maybe say that anyone who wore glasses or contacts – not spex, you understand, just pure corrective lenses – was a cyborg.

“But I think there’s an argument to be made that says that a cyborg proper is a person adapted permanently and irrevocably at a corporeal and/or psychological level, someone to whom the idea of going back to the human state that directly preceded their augmentation is unthinkable, intolerable, terrifying or all three…”

He tails off to watch his cat arch itself out of the particoloured furry mound that has been decorating the windowsill since breakfast. The girl lets the silence hang; it’s like waiting on a duet partner to hit the right note at the right moment after a pause, to take it to the bridge.

“… which is partly a function of culture and psychology. Isn’t that right, Doctor Anthropologist?” he codas, as if on cue, spoken toward the cat but addressed to the girl.

“I can see how it might be, but right now I’d rather hear your version.”

The old man laughs. “Like a bloodhound, aren’t you? I wish I’d had that discipline and focus when I was your age.”

He begins a diatribe about how he’s tried a fair few contemporary neurochemical augments, but that none of them seem to do much for him; meanwhile the cat gives the girl a lazy-lidded look before leaping onto the desk and pouring itself into the old man’s lap. It has draped itself over his left arm, and its next glance at the girl has a conspiratorial air. Perhaps it too tires of the old man’s digressions. Or perhaps it just wants the girl gone sooner rather than later.

“I expect,” says the girl, when a pause in monologue presents itself, “that your failures with neurochem were something to do with neural plasticity.”

He laughs again. “Oh, you’re good. Yes, almost certainly, neuroplasticity. Which is the barrier to all states of cyborg being beyond your own current state. But that works at the level of groups and cultures as well as in the individual. There are stages. Have you ever travelled?”

The girl stutters at the unexpected question. “Well, not much, not by the standards of your day. I’ve been inland on the Mainland, once as far as London. Did an exchange with the syndicalists of La Rochelle for a week.” A grim experience, though the weather had been lovely. “Why do you ask?”

His eyes shine as she springs the trap, and she instantly realises her mistake; she just gave him license to digress.

He lights a cigarette, smiles through smoke. “I went on a short holiday fifty years ago, just before Maly’s thing. Menorca, one of the quieter bits of the Balearics. Late Mediterranean summer, lovely weather, a lot like it is here right now. Anyway, long story short, there was a diving school in the village where I stayed. Scuba diving, you know, like the Harbour Rats use. I was thinking about what I was going to say about cyborgs for Maly’s thing, having blithely promised the poor guy a piece when I got back, and nothing was coming.

“So I started talking to this older lady – I say older, she was younger than I am now by a long chalk – and she asked me if I was there to dive myself. ‘Never tried it’, I told her, and I didn’t have the money to do so. Turns out she’d given it a go a few years back, somewhere like Thailand if I remember correctly. She started talking about how psychologically strange it was, how tricky it was to consciously override the deep-seated urges to do stuff you mustn’t do, like breathe through your nose. She had this whole internal dialogue going on, her subconscious saying to her ‘you’re being silly, this will never work, we’ll drown!’

He’s looking out of the window, maybe watching the gulls wheeling as the tide turns; the cat has gone offline in response to neck-scratching.

“Then she said something that just clicked for me. ‘It was like I was being forced to do something, even though it was something I wanted to do’. Just like that, she captured the psychology of early-adopter cyborgs. A scuba rebreather is a great example of an early-phase bolt-on technological augmentation: it’s crude, bulky, and you need to install a bunch of explicit and conscious mental overrides to allow yourself to integrate with the hardware. After that, the stages just wrote themselves.”

“The stages?”

“Yeah, stages; a series of personal progressions that also map quite nicely onto groups and societies. Here we go… ” He hauls his left arm out from under the cat, gestures wildly, and projects a short list onto the mildewed wall.

  1. Fear of environmental threat
  2. Fear of augmentation, and of augmentation failure
  3. Conscious override of augmentation fear
  4. Emancipation from environmental threat
  5. Acceptance of augmentation
  6. Fear of dependence on augmentation
  7. Conscious sublimation of dependency fear
  8. Integration; transcendence to new cyborg state
  9. Evangelism (optional)

“These are… a little vague,” says the girl.

“Well, think about the scuba gear. You want to swim with the fishes, but you’ll drown; there’s your environmental threat. Granted, it’s one that you don’t need to conquer for basic survival, but the example still holds for now. Now, to conquer that threat, you need to augment… but we’re strangely resistant to changing ourselves at fundamental levels, even the neophiles among us. And what if this augmentation doesn’t work? You’re left at the mercies of the environment! Like the old lady said, your brain’s screaming dude, this is crazy, we could totally die down here, get out and get this stupid machine off your back. You’ve got to fight that voice, control yourself, force your body to meld with the machine. And then you find yourself in an exciting and dangerous new environment where you couldn’t operate effectively before… I’ve often wondered if that’s not part of the drive for exploration of all kinds, you know. Why does man climb mountains? Because it’s somehow emancipatory at a deeply personal level, it’s a transcending of environmental restraints… but anyway, yeah, that thrill of conquest drives the acceptance of the augment, accelerates the integration.”

“But why would scuba divers fear dependency on scuba gear?”

“Well, by this point we’re kinda leaving that example behind, because, as I said, scuba gear isn’t a solution to a survival question… ” He’s defensive, suddenly; the girl wonders whether perhaps the list has survived while its context has vanished, or whether the context ever existed for longer than a brief revelatory moment, some fifty years ago.

“The point is, there’s no hard line between pre-cyborg and cyborg. Take spex themselves,” he says, tapping his ancient pince-nez. “You’ve always worn them, I’m guessing, or from early enough that it makes no difference. Now, I got a set of spex just about as soon as they were affordable and useful; maybe 2015 or thereabouts. I was thirty five, raised on flatscreen interfaces, and adapting to spex was hard work. Not just the eye-strain, but the mental rewiring.”

He waves his left arm again. “When you’ve spent twelve hours a day for twenty years with a lump of plastic in your hand that you slide around on the table, it’s a real leap to start gesturing in a 3D space, to get the hang of the fingerjive commands, all that stuff. Neuroplasticity, like you said earlier; learning and adapting to change gets harder as you get older. I fought through it because I’d been hungering for something like spex since before I first used a mouse-based GUI, but a lot of the less geeky members of my generation just couldn’t be bothered to climb the learning curve. The kids took to it instantly, though, and suddenly you’ve got that generational gap; we’re watching these gnomic kids doing what looks like half of the classic big-fish-little-fish-cardboard-box dance and staring into the middle distance, and it’s freaky. Disturbing. There was this underlying sense that they were inhabiting an entirely different space to you. Which, in a way, is exactly what they were doing.”

His voice lowers, becomes less flippant. “Because for them, it was necessary. No, not even necessary; it just was. Their world worked on gestures in interface space, on what we used to call augmented reality: data and interfaces overlaid on the real world. We, on the other hand, my generation, we’d grown up thinking – knowing, in fact – that information space and physical space were separate universes, and that you accessed the former through a rectangular window in the latter. Total paradigm shift. Terrible knock-on effects in an already greying population, too; the older you got, the more dependent you became on the interface skills of the young, and the less employable you became. Determination allowed some of us oldies to keep up, but even then it was a fight. Dinosaurs, you know. And no matter how much you told yourself consciously that these alien kids aren’t a threat, it feels at first like your environment has been invaded, and then that it just isn’t your environment any more. They’ve bootstrapped themselves up a level, and – without meaning to – pulled the ladder up behind them. Which is maybe the story of technology in a nutshell, right?”

As an anthropologist, the girl is naturally sceptical of the idea that there’s one indivisible and unifying ‘story of technology’, but the one the old man’s telling here certainly stands the test of time… which is exactly why he’s part of her thesis. He’s proud to the point of tedium about surviving the augmented reality bullet, but his ancient spex rig merely underlines the point: his interfaces are still primarily spatial, because he grew up thinking in terms of information having a geometric physical location, like the shelves and stacks of his library. He can’t cope with the symbolic interfaces of modern contacts suites.

The girl is aware – as is the old man – that there is a precedent for modern symbolic interfaces that predates digital tech by a considerable temporal distance; the memory palaces of Medieval thinkers use a similar conceptual architecture to the more popular operating system interfaces available today. The old man knows this, and has studied memory palaces at some length… but as he puts it himself, knowing how something works doesn’t necessarily mean you know how to use it. And vice versa.

“I’m a little vague on this pulling-the-ladder-up thing,” says the girl. “How does taking augmentation prevent others from following along in your footsteps?”

“Well, it doesn’t, not really… but it seems like it does if you’re one of those left behind. That generation gap problem is part of it; sure, you could get all those new augments that the kids are rocking, but then you’re gonna feel like a n00b, like a forty-something hitting the student club scene after years of staying at home of a Friday night. There’s new language, new social codes… hell, even just the new fashions. Nothing looks more forced than an old guy dressing young… and the young can spot it quickest of all. Even in an inclusive kind of subculture, the latecomers and oldies will always feel like also-rans. Human nature, deep-coded tribalism, instinctive Othering… nothing to be done about it, sadly, beyond acknowledging that it’s there and trying not to be too much of an arsehole about it.

“But there’s also the problem where the environment that your cyborg has augmented themselves for becomes less hospitable to non-cyborgs as a result of that colonisation. If the environment is marginal to start with, then it’ll only be able to support a limited number of inhabitants, and that’s a first-come-first-served gig, especially if the late-comers aren’t so well adapted or behind the learning curve. But the big problem – the one that cyborgs are perhaps an instinctive solution to – is the unintendedcybernetic environment: for pretty much as long as we’ve been augmenting ourselves, we’ve been augmenting the world as well. It took us a while to notice and grok that, of course… which is why New Southsea today feels like Menorca felt fifty years ago. Back then we were so tied up in the politics and finger-pointing that the house was burning down around us while we argued over who should fetch a bucket of water. Peak Fossil ended up as a rather fortunate systemic limitation, in the end…”

He’s wandering again; the girl nudges him back onto the rails. “Do you think we’re more limited in our ability to augment ourselves, or the ability to augment our environment?”

“We’re not very limited in either, really; it’s just that a single human or small group thereof is a more manageable system. Less variables, less unknowns, easier to spot emergent problems in, you know. A whole planet, that’s tricky. Even if we had the tech budgets of the old nation-states to hand, I’m not certain we’d be any closer to truly understanding how the ecosystem works. It’s fractal, I reckon; the more answers you find, the more questions you reveal. Dead turtles all the way down! But a better question is: how good are we at building new environments from scratch?

“It’s a return to the root of cybernetics, if you think about it. Maybe you could say the WellClimbers are close to cracking the basics of building human-suitable environments in orbit… but from my perspective, they’ve already modded themselves way off the human baseline as I understand it, and their kids are already chafing under the rules and traditions of habitat life. Can’t be fun, growing up in one of those little cans, and they don’t want to wait for stable solutions. Their parents seem too cautious to them, now; they say ‘why don’t we mod ourselves a little more, build bigger flimsier habs; we’re never going back to earth now, so why worry about the gravity therapies?’ And they’ll do it, too; bootstrap themselves right out of their parents’ notions of what it is to be human. That’s what humans do: leave our forbears in the dust of freshly-ground history. It’s what we’ve always done. Always astonishes me how little you kids seem to care about the orbital colonies; strikes me they’d be close allies with the free-zones, if you’d let ’em.”

The girl makes a non-committal noise and hopes for another digression. The old man grew up in an era when there were no more than a dozen humans up top of the gravity well at any one time, when adaptive augments were more fiction than reality. As such, he thinks young people are ignoring this amazing story unfolding far above their heads… but in truth, it’s a studied ignorance born of the same fear he’s been talking about all morning. The inevitability of the WellClimbers, of what they’re becoming, is horrifying and thrilling at once. What will they think of us, wonders the girl, those kids who will never come back to groundside – who don’t want to come back? Pity? Disgust? Rage? Ennui? Gratitude? It’s not just an academic question, either. It’d be very easy to harm groundsiders from up there. Got a dead or outmoded module, a hunk of ‘roid that’s not worth smelting? One gentle push at just the right angle, and everyone gets a day-trip to Tunguska.

The ‘Climbers still recycle everything… but at the rate the ‘roid mines are getting established and the comet-water sources are coming on-stream, they won’t need Earth any more, at least not in pragmatic terms. They’re quite fond of New Southsea, of course, as an inspiration to their anarchoextropianist ideals… but the Uplink Deal was done many years ago, and political time moves fast at the top of the well. Now we’re just small, fragile, no longer unique, ponders the girl. An old song that still gets played at closing time, but which no one sings along to any more, as the old man might put it. They share a rare moment of mutual silence.

“Of course,” the old man says suddenly, reusing the grin/smirk, “it’s all a matter of perspective, isn’t it? Anthropology? Can we ever detach ourselves from our reality enough to understand it objectively, in toto?”

“The old ones are the good ones,” replies the girl, smiling.

“You flatter me, my dear! But seriously – a mind makes the best sense it can of what it finds around it, but that’s always a compromise with the actual reality, which is probably unknowable.”

He leans forward, conspiratorial; the cat fixes her with a timeless stare.

“So many improbabilities, we have to ignore some of them. Or we’d go mad, break our programming, become Philip K Dick characters. I mean, consider the unlikeliness of a world where the former naval hub of a nation that once ruled a third of the planet becomes an anarchist canton after a natural disaster; a world where, despite massive economic and political collapse, people are still bootstrapping themselves up into orbit; a world where some crazy old man who wrote it all down in largely unpublished and unpublishable short stories forty or fifty years ago is not only still alive, but living in pensioned poverty in said anarchist canton, being interviewed and indulged by groups of wild young people who’re totally fascinated by his life and ideas, and who bring him hard-to-find luxuries for the privilege of his time. A bit implausible, isn’t it? Almost like it was designed that way for some reason?”

He seems to want a certain sort of answer, but the girl can’t grasp what it is.

“For your own benefit, you mean?” she replies, choosing to ignore the imploring undertones of this final flight of fancy. “Oh, it’s implausible, all right, but the world always has been. I like your synthesis there, though; Anthropogenic Principle meets Simulation Argument with a cybernetic side salad.”

“Maybe you’ll come back next week, we can kick the idea around a bit?” The old man smiles. “Purely as an intellectual exercise, of course, for the benefit of your thesis.”

“I might have a gap in my schedule, Mister Raven,” she replies, shouldering her bag. “And it would be interesting to explore the notion that I might be a simulated mind in a simulated world, adapted expressly to indulge the intellectual vanity of an ageing crank of such distinction as yourself! Which of us is the more cyborg in that scenario? Which of us is more dependent on our built-in adaptations? Which of us is more real, more human?”

“Ah, now you’re teasing me,” he says, but the jollity is gone. “Go on, get out of here. I’m sure you’ve got stuff you need to be doing.”

“Oh, there’s always more stuff to do,” she says. “So we’ll meet again next week, then? Hypothetically speaking, of course.” The old man seems lost in thought, and doesn’t reply; she lets herself out quietly.

The old man’s cat vanishes from his lap as he reaches up, switches off his spex and lays them down on the desk. The shelves of mouldering paperbacks are gone, revealing the magnolia plastics beyond; the window and its vista of gulls wheeling in blue sky is replaced by a cheap wallscreen strobing dully through the day’s data.

“Hypothetically,” the old man mutters.


This is one of 50 posts about cyborgs a project to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the coining of the term.

Science fiction, science fact, and all that's in between …