Studies at Laurier
We are all cyborgs. Though we have yet to reach the level of stereotypical representation of the Borg of Star Trek fame, with our cell phones, PDAs, laptops and even pacemakers, no one is immune to the influx of technology that is rapidly becoming an integral part of our lives, explains Hal Niedzviecki, author and cultural critic.
No one embodies this idea of the cyborg more clearly than Steve Mann, a University of Toronto professor who has invented and uses the world's first wearable computer. The subject of a recent lecture in Laurier's Paul Martin Centre, Mann has spent the last 20 years in existence mediated by his computer and the laser that projects images directly into his eye, creating what filmmaker Peter Lynch refers to as "a cross between Inspector Gadget and Michael Moore" and "an idiosyncratic inventor."
Part of the Laurier Communications Studies Speakers Series, the lecture was begun with a reading from Niedzviecki's latest cyber-pop novel, Ditch, which served as a fictional introduction to the issue of being human in a technological world, focused on the life and work of Mann. Following a discussion of Mann and the growing use of technology in the world was an evening presentation of Cyberman, a new documentary from Canadian filmmaker Lynch, who also participated in the lecture.
"Steve's lifelong experiment with wearable computers gives us a sort of a living metaphor for our everyday coexistence with technology," explains Laurier's David Black, an event organizer. "In the extreme nature of his cyborg self we have a glimpse or understanding of our everyday codependency with technology. He's living five minutes in the future."
The general mandate of the event was Cultural Studies. We wanted to apply high theory to low culture," says Black. "Hal and Peter are part of a new generation of media and cultural critics. They define what is Canadian in a post-national Canada. Both are interested in that problem." He adds that, "I think that it is important to bring public intellectuals into the academic world. They are making intelligence matter to the general public."
Niedzviecki, who has also collaborated with Mann on the book Cyborg: Digital Destiny and Human Possibility in the Age of the Wearable Computer, feels that Mann is "a tremendously confusing proposition" since, aside from being a cyborg, he is also a professor, artist and media critic in his own right.
Lynch agrees with this assessment. "He set up a new kind of paradigm", he says of the experience of filming Mann. "The subject is armed with his own camera. It's the great equalizer."
Overall, Lynch sees current society as "already enslaved by the technological world." Yet even though Niedzviecki feels that the wearable computer represents "a dangerous foe and your new best friend," at the same time, he also believes "we have to explore this myth and move forward."
Neither will deny that in their respective work, both have encountered problems with Mann. "He really is an island on his own," says Niedzviecki. "In that sense, he's his own worst enemy. He just doesn't relate to people very well." Lynch recalls how, because of Mann's personal camera, "It took quite a long time for us to get on the same sort of journey."
However, both also recognize the work he has done to further the use and understanding of technology today. "He approaches technology in a more anarchistic way," says Lynch. Niedzviecki agrees, stating that he is creating "liberation from technology by repurposing and returning it to the individual.
"This is a life lesson in living with technology," Black states. "It makes immediate reference to us. We aren't aware of the technological changes in our environment, we just adjust, we just accommodate."