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Cyborg Anthropology: Writing about Man and Machine

May 24, 2017

Buildus, a planet named by outsiders who couldn't speak their mathematical language, has one survivor who the people of the galaxy call The Builder. Alone for centuries, his mind bordering on madness for a time, he began to build synthetic beings. He himself became less and less organic as he built new parts as he aged. As he became more machine, his children became less machine until the two met in between. The question becomes, what qualifies a being as alive and aware?


Recently, I discovered a branch of anthropology that had been missed during my years of anthropological study. So as we return to the world building and anthropology series, I want to discuss how cyborg anthropology could redefine how people in your stories might see or interact with machines. Sorry, fantasy writers, this one might cater a bit more to the scifi crowd, though you might find it fascinating nonetheless or useful if you have modern technology in your fantasy.


What is it?


Cyborg anthropology studies the interactions people have with technology and machines, particularly focusing on that line between self and other. Does technology act upon us or do we act upon technology? Who's really in charge?


As technology grows, so too does it's influence on our daily lives. Most people feel naked when they leave the house and forget their cell phones. Why is that? It's because we are more connected more than ever. It has become a part of who we are. Some may argue that the cell phone and devices like it, we see it as an actual part of our selves.


More basically, there is technology that some people really do consider a part of them. An amputee with a prosthetic leg will likely see the prosthetic as a part of themselves. If you were a jerk and kicked their prosthetic leg, wouldn't the proper thing for them to yell at you be, “Hey, asshole! You kicked my leg!”


That leg is a device, made and built in a factory. But it is still a part of their perceived self.


So where do we draw the line between a thing or something that is a part of self? That line, as we become more and more connected, is becoming blurry. That blurry line then forces us to redefine other aspects of ourselves and how we see things.


If you feel like defining a cell phone as a part of yourself might be a bit of a stretch, think about this: A person you trust gets on your cellphone and looks through it. Do you feel violated? But you personally weren't assaulted, were you? But you were. A part of you, your mind, your internet/cyber self presented in texts and on social media, was looked at without permission. It's almost as violating as if someone took a peek into your mind in some cases.


The Blurry Line


Once we start to define things like a machine attached to us, pacemakers, prosthetic, and even the more distant objects like a cell phone, we begin to redefine other aspects of what it means to be alive. What is self?


That avatar on your social media platform or game, that's you, isn't it? When you look at that avatar that represents you, if you watched it running around on a YouTube video someone took, wouldn't you say “Hey! That's me!” And it is. A digital extension and expression of yourself.


Technology begins to influence our definition of things once thought purely organic. For instance, what about making babies? Is that a purely organic process? Not always. When couples can't, those who can afford it can try inviter fertilization. Technology allows us to redefine how life is created. What about our gender? Technology isn't perfect but for those who want it and can afford it, we now have technology which can help us become who we want to be. It's not an implausible idea that technology may make, according to some scholars, the very idea of gender and sexuality that we carry now obsolete. We will be able to make children with whoever we want and become who our minds say we are.


And we project onto technology all the time human concepts, going the other way. Is Wall-E a boy? Is Eve a girl? Someone programmed them with those kind of voices but are they really? The line between human and machine becomes complex and fuzzy.


Cyborg Anthropology in Writing


So, what can we incorporate into our writing from cyborg anthropology?


In stories set in the distant future, you may find your main characters less stingy about topics like gender and sexuality. You may even find (you know it'll happen) people in love with robots and machines. In the far distant future, why would they see much difference? How does this impact the culture and the hot issues at stake on the political stage?


True, there will be a transition period where the mindset begins to change and redefine technology. Questions surrounding this period will be things like: When is a machine considered aware and alive? Are children born between a pair of men in a tube as healthy and equal to those born in a surrogate? What rights to machines have? What rights to people have in their usage of machines who do not wish to be used by those people? Whom is master over whom?


Can you imagine if a person purchases a visor with a built-in AI and the AI disagrees with the user using them to commit a crime? Does that machine have a right to deny its functions to such a person, maybe even report or sue them for misuse? Do they have to agree with the idea of working with that person to begin with as opposed to being purchased like a slave? What if the visor is the criminal and the user is innocent? Does the user get prosecuted if the visor sent data without their knowledge? What if the data is malicious to its user, posting nude pictures of its user all over the networks? Law and rights would become a muddy mess!


Artificial intelligence brings in a plethora of questions of agency. Agency is the freedom to act of your own accord. What your people may need to define, (or you the author, if you're far enough into the future that you're past the transition phase where people are still trying to answer these questions) is what criteria needs to be met before machines deserves agency to have their own rights? When are they alive? At what point is it murder to turn them off?


Robot Friends


In some distant futures, you might see a culture arise among the robots or cyborgs of your world. Humans (or dominant species) may interact with them as freely as the guy next door. You see this kind of relationship somewhat in Star Wars. While droids are owned, they're given quite a bit of autonomy. People befriend them and care for them. It'd be a hard argument to make that C-3PO is incapable of emotional feeling and even though you never hear R2D2 speak, you know he's giving 3PO what for in several scenes.


This maybe something else you want to think about in developing your world. How do people treat the non-organic? Are they able to be their friends? Lovers? Or are they masters? Are the non-organics simply fancy tools with a familiar face?


Questions to Think About


Here's a few questions that might get your brain going in developing the relationships of your people and machines.


Does society consider machines to be alive?

Do they grant machines the ability to act on their own/agency?

Are there any laws that non-organics have to obey that humans don't?

What features defines being alive?

How does your main society(s) feel about integrating technology into a person?

Are cybernetic enhancements regulated/banned by the government?

Why or why not?

If people are allowed to integrate cybernetic enhancements, how much percent of their body can be replaced before they are no longer considered human?

Switch! If a robot/sythoid found a way to integrate grown organic parts, what percent of their body makes them no longer a machine?

How do people interact with the non-organics?

Is it accessible to be a friend with them?

Is it accessible to be in love with them?

What about make a half-human half-machine child?

Would such a child be seen as an abomination, a wonder of science, or normal enough nobody thinks anything of it?

How does art produced by inorganics differ from human art?

Do cyborg people have their own subculture?

If so, what kind of slurs, slang, and lingo do they use that outsiders might not understand?

What kind of discrimination does a cyborg or inorganic being face, if any?

How is gender defined? Is it something that is easily changed and nobody thinks much of it or are they assigned, even to the machines?



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