Saturday, December 15, 2001
Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer
Steve Mann and Hal Niedzviecki
227 pages, $34.95
Steve Mann is a computer engineer, an inventor, a performance artist, a social activist, a cognitive philosopher, a self-proclaimed geek and a futurist. He is also a cyborg. For the past 15 years or so, he has lived much of his life with a computer strapped to his body that mediates his experience of the world.
This computational prosthesis (that he calls WearComp) consists of a portable array of sensory pads, tiny eye-cameras, computer circuits and antennae. Since receiving his PhD several years ago from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he was a student in the prestigious Media Lab under the direction of Nicholas Negroponte, he has been building a community of cyborgs at the University of Toronto. With articles written about him in Wired magazine, Newsweek, Time and even the National Enquirer, Mann has become no stranger to fame and controversy. Cyborg; Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer is his first book.
Cyborg chronicles Mann's life, his theories, his experiences and his social activism. In person, even without his WearComp apparatus, Mann has a slightly distracted demeanour that comes from living perpetually in a multi-tasking, digital, live-to-Web existence. We are all used to watching the momentary distraction of news anchors as they host live television events, their earphones connected to their producers. But when Mann is wired, most of his visual field, not to mention his consciousness, is also split. With his WearComp apparatus strapped on, he can block out unwanted visual images, sense people behind him with a chest-mounted proximity alert vibrating pad, broadcast his real-time view directly to the Web, read E-mail while strolling down the street, and recalibrate his eye-cams to "see" normally invisible portions of reality. In short, Steve Mann inhabits a different world than you or I, a "cyborgspace" that he claims is inevitable for all of us.
Despite war, the unequal distribution of global resources and the endless human capacity for stupidity, I am convinced we will continue to transform ourselves with technology. There maybe setbacks of the Sept. 11 variety, but eventually our destiny will transcend natural selection and we will begin our self-guided evolution.
This epoch that we are only just now entering -- a transitional period between the human and the post-human era -- is being referred to among some futurists as the "transhuman" era. It is a strange but not necessarily frightening time. The goal of transhumanism is to surpass the biological limitations of our bodies, be they our lifespans or the capabilities of our brains. Part of this transformation, if Steve Mann is correct, will involve the union of humans and machines.
The term "cyborg," derived by combining the words cybernetic and organism, was first used by Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline 31 years ago in an article they jointly authored called Cyborgs and Space, in which they theorized that long-distance space travel would require astronauts to be physically adapted -- wedding flesh and machine -- to their new environment. It didn't take long for this cool, technologically luscious concept to be discovered by the science-fiction community, and cyborgs began their long, gruesome pilgrimage to Star Trek: The Next Generation, where they became known as "The Borg," a race of Frankensteinian soul-vampires who have lost their identity to machines.
Today the term cyborg has a frightening and horrific aura. Accordingly, when Steve Mann uses the term to describe himself, when he peels back the layers of his digital clothing for airport security guards or reveals his bifurcated visual system to onlookers, there is a visceral, often hostile response. That Mann has adopted this moniker, with its frontal, campy and somewhat macabre associations, imbues his mission with an undercurrent of aggression. As a result, there is an confrontational gestalt, à la Marilyn Manson, implicit in his appearance and behaviour when in full cyborg drag. This effect is not entirely without reason.
Amid his busy schedule of lectures and research, Mann takes the time to conduct one-man, guerrilla street-theatre performances which probe the burgeoning authoritarian reality of our surveillance society. He dons an early prototype of his WearComp system, (a helmet with cameras attached to it) or some other outlandish cyborg costume, and then enters a retail area that has surveillance cameras. Using himself as bait, he stands in front of a security camera and waits for the "invisible" agents of enforcement to appear, which they invariably do. His situationist confrontations with store managers, gas-station attendants and security officers at airports are not only humorous, they are lucid examples of how our complicity with the surveillance society can be reversed by simply turning the tables, by watching the watchers. He has been slugged by an airport security attendant and he has been unlawfully detained at a gas station. He is a geek with balls.
We learn in Cyborg that Steve Mann has always been an outsider and that his political agenda has deep psychological roots. In an autobiographical section, he reveals the paranoid origins of his use of observation technology. Apparently he and his brother used to spy on his parents, bugging the parents' room in order eavesdrop on what they were saying about the boys. This act of espionage initiated the beginning of a life-long obsession with authority and a concomitant, slightly paranoid relation to the unconscious complicity of society at large and its perceived (and actual) hostility toward him.
This psychological motivation has been a useful catalyst for Mann, and he has turned it into a political asset. He is an impassioned activist, campaigning against the digital erosion of individual rights and freedoms. He rails against technological bullying and the unholy marriage of secrecy and authority that characterize so much of today's world. In the aftermath of Sept. 11, we cannot be blamed for remitting some of our privacy if it translates into a safer society, but Mann's book sounds an important, if untimely, counterpoint.
Cyborg is part manifesto, part tirade, part biography, part journal, part technical explanation and part philosophical speculation on the nature of our new reality. It is packed with extraordinary insights into the relation between power, culture and technology, and the complex perceptual and cognitive reality that is quickly emerging on the threshold of the transhuman epoch. Despite Hal Niedzviecki's excellent grooming as co-writer, Cyborg can be demanding and sometimes self-indulgent; nevertheless, it is essential reading for anyone truly interested in the ongoing debate about our society's values and principles -- indeed, on what our future may hold.
Christopher Dewdney is the author of Last Flesh: Life in the Transhuman Era.