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The sight of Oscar Pistorius running unsettles me. All the visual tropes of the running athlete – bulging calves, stretched tendons, flexing ankles – are conspicuous by their absence. This is because Pistorius’ legs end at the knees. He runs on two curved pieces of carbon fibre that are sold under the name Cheetah Flexfeet. The cutting edge in prosthetic design, modeled on a cheetah’s feet, they will allow the disabled Pistorius to compete against abled runners in the 2012 Olympics. Cheetah Flexfeet are prosthetic limbs that actually work better than human limbs.
I am ashamed to admit it, but all I can think when I see Pistorius is “Cyborg.”
The word Cyborg has its origins in the 1960s, in the space research work of Manfred Klynes and Nathan Kline, who proposed a “cybernetic organism,” a self-regulating human machine combination that could withstand the rigors of outer space. It is a beautiful concept: a unity of contrasts; organic and mechanical complementing each other.
As always, science fiction and comics were early adaptors. Cyborg 009, a Japanese Manga from 1964, was the first one to actually use the word. Cyborgs have gone under many names over the next twenty years, the greatest among them being that supervillain with the heavy breathing and raspy voice – Darth Vader. Ridley Scott’s 1982 film Bladerunner was the crowning glory of a new sub-genre of science fiction, Cyberpunk. Defined rather wryly as “High Tech Low Life,” Cyberpunk was a dark seamy view of the future, where the Cyborgs were the dregs of society, mongrel trouble makers that nobody cared for. (Perhaps this explains my uncharitable reaction to Oscar Pistorius.)
People react with wonder and amazement at the unity of man and machine, but there is also a strong undercurrent of unease. This can probably be best traced back to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, who was a creation of the mad scientist’s laboratory, composed of both human and mechanical parts. There have always been good Cyborgs, like the Marvel Comics’ superhero Cyborg, or Edward Scissorhands. The bad Cyborgs included the Cybermen, who were Doctor Who’s arch enemies, and the villains with prostheses: Long John Silver, Captain Hook, Doctor No and Doc Ock. There was even cyborg feminism, at least in the imagination of Donna Haraway and her seminal “Cyborg Manifesto” of 1991.
The same underground culture of the 1970s that produced Cyberpunk also provided ripe grounds for the new age of electronic music. Synthesisers had been around since the 1960s, and were even used the Beatles’ Abbey Road album. But the electronica of German bands such as Kraftwerk was of a completely different nature: using electronic sounds on par with the human voice. The covers of Kraftwerk’s albums make this idea clear: they all feature mechanistic humans or Cyborgs. Today, the use of digitally created sounds is ubiquitous in popular music.
Our digital age is far more comfortable with human-machine continuums. We are all virtually inseparable from our personal laptops and cell phones. The idea of prosthetic enhancements, such as cochlear implants used to improve hearing, is no longer so appalling. The future of computing interfaces is the human body. Gamers are slowly advancing to the stage where the movements of the human body will replace joysticks and Wiis. When Pranav Mistry unveiled his “Sixth Sense” concept at the TEDIndia conference in 2009, people applauded the idea of attaching sensors and display devices to the human body so that we may have a computer wherever we go. Nobody cringed at the final, true realization of the Cyborg.
There was a time when mankind’s imagination was captured by the Sphinx, Ganesha and Werewolves. Our 21st century werewolf, Wolverine, is actually a Cyborg, with his veins of adamantine and his metal claws. In the long history of part-human fantastical creatures, the Cyborg will be the only one to actually come alive. We will soon be Cyborgs, you and I.
This is a written summary of a presentation made for Andrea Codrington's Criticism Lab