OnQ Blog

Cyborgs are people, too

Jan 29, 2016

Qualcomm products mentioned within this post are offered by Qualcomm Technologies, Inc. and/or its subsidiaries.

Claire L. Evans is a writer and artist working in Los Angeles. Her day job is singer and coauthor of the conceptual pop group YACHT. A science journalist and science-fiction critic, she is currently Futures Editor of Motherboard and editor of its sister science-fiction magazine, Terraform. The views expressed are the author’s own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Qualcomm.

In 2012, Dr. Steve Mann, a university professor and computer scientist, went to order food and use a restroom in a popular fast-food chain in Paris. Since Dr. Mann has, among other cyborg enhancements, a camera drilled into his skull, he tends to seek out single-occupancy bathrooms for privacy’s sake. They are, he has explained, “cyborg-friendly” toilets.

Unfortunately, the restaurant management objected to Dr. Mann’s head-mounted camera, a system of his own invention called EyeTap. Dr. Mann offered a doctor’s note explaining the device and the impossibility of removing it without special surgical tools, but the burger joint’s employees weren’t having it. They roughhoused Dr. Mann, tried to pull the camera off his head, tore up his note, and kicked him onto the street.

This incident has been defined by some as the first cybernetic hate crime. But sensationalizing the event in this way trivializes the critical role that risk-takers like Dr. Mann play in shaping the policy, social attitudes, and stakes of our future cyborg lives.

Dr. Mann has been walking around with a computer on his head for over 30 years, so this was not the first time he’d run into trouble. In 2002, he was held at the St. John’s International Airport in Newfoundland for three days, strip-searched, and injured by security personnel; the incident caused $50,000 worth of damage to his equipment. But something about the fast-food episode struck a nerve; after Dr. Mann released images of his aggressors—taken, ironically, by the very head-mounted camera to which they objected—the story went viral, making the oddball innovator a sort of cyborg folk hero.

It’s easy to assume that the altercation became a big story because of how strange it was (after all, a cyborg named “Mann” was assaulted in a hamburger restaurant), but Dr. Mann believes that the story resonated for precisely the opposite reason: because of how close it hit to home. “More and more people are using cameras as seeing aids,” he wrote in 2012, “whether to photograph a menu and magnify the text, or to use a smartphone with optical character recognition to translate foreign text into their own language, or to read 2D barcodes on products.” Although Dr. Mann represents an extreme, his assault may be legally—and perhaps ethically—no different than one on someone simply using a smartphone in a restaurant.

We know that there are cameras everywhere: in ATMs, government buildings, public spaces, shops, airports, and restaurants. We are regularly under surveillance, so why should we be forbidden to use our own cameras? Dr. Mann even coined a word, “McVeillance,” to define the strange conundrum presented by his situation, and by extension, ours. The company in question watches everyone in its restaurants, while forbidding them to watch back. If we are to be seen, he proposes, then why aren’t we allowed to see?

After all, a human eye is a camera, and our brains are recording devices. The primary differences between a “cyborg” like Steve Mann, who logs images 24/7 on a custom apparatus, and someone recalling a scene from memory are technical—storage capacity, bandwidth, playback, and accuracy. But what is the difference between corporate surveillance cameras and the camera on Dr. Mann’s head, or the smartphone cameras we all carry in our pockets? Authority.

Most of us aren’t cyborgs to the extent that Dr. Mann is—which is to say, visibly—but that is changing. For instance, retinal implants that give sight to blind and visually impaired people are already approved for use by the Food and Drug Administration. Though virtually invisible, the devices are, at their core, cameras.

At the same time, very few people in the developed world live entirely unmediated by technology. Many of us track our footsteps and heartbeats with wearable fitness monitors, we might have hearing aids or pacemakers, and our smartphones (not to mention wearable cameras like Google Glass) can do everything Dr. Mann’s rig can do: photograph, record, and distribute private images into the public sphere.

Phones can even subvert power by recording instances of its abuse, as we have seen in so many police-brutality cases where violence was caught on a phone and Tweeted to the world. So rather than an oddity, or even a cyborg hero, we should instead think of Dr. Mann as a canary in a coal mine. Any aggression that he encounters, any violation of rights he undergoes, could eventually affect pretty much anyone in a symbiotic relationship with technology: which is to say, pretty much all of us.

It’s worth noting that there’s currently no legal consensus on the fair use of technological body enhancements. That’s because the definitions—and boundaries—remain ambiguous. As technologies become ever-more embedded in our lives (and bodies), are they to be treated as a natural extension of mobile devices like laptops, for instance? Or are they something else entirely?

Dr. Mann is not the only person testing the boundaries and forcing the issue. There are many self-initiated cyborg guinea pigs, all of whom have been met with varying degrees of shock, revulsion, and fascination from the public: British scientist Kevin Warwick, for one, successfully linked his nervous system to the internet through the surgical implantation of an array of electrodes. There is, too, a growing community of biohackers, or “grinders,” who take transhumanism into their own hands by implanting rare earth magnets into their fingertips—an illegal surgery, performed without anesthetic—just so they can “feel” the electromagnetic spectrum.

The artist Neil Harbisson, born completely colorblind, has an antenna implanted into his skull that allows him to perceive colors as sound waves. It also has an internal Internet connection, which means that Harbisson can not only “hear” color, but that he can also receive images, sounds, and videos directly into his mind from correspondents all around the world. The antenna, sprouting from his skull like a flower, is so much a part of Harbisson’s sensoria that he considers it to be a body part, not a device.

In 2011, Spanish police damaged Harbisson’s antenna, believing he had been using it to film a protest in Barcelona—he filed the altercation as a physical aggression. Like Dr. Mann, Harbisson has been forced to become an advocate; with his partner, Moon Ribas, he founded the Cyborg Foundation, which defends cyborg rights and promotes cyborgism as an art movement.

What Harbisson and Dr. Mann clearly understand is that innovation comes with responsibility. Being the first to do something truly new often means being the first to experience the repercussions, judgment, and ignorance that can fade once that “new thing” has been normalized. The first woman to wear trousers in Puerto Rico, for instance, was jailed for the crime. Such a thing is unimaginable to us now, much as a fast-food chain’s no-cyborg policy might become unimaginable to us once we’re all wearing computers.

Innovators in bionics and cybernetic enhancement take personal risks to articulate our rights in a technological world. How the world treats those who wear the future on their bodies should be of great interest to us all. It will be us all, sooner than we might imagine.

Claire L. Evans

Futures Editor, Motherboard

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