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Cyborg Culture Shock?

The cyborg has always been a powerful presence in my consciousness.  Ever since I was young, I’ve been intrigued by the concept of blurring the line between man and machine, partially because I would not have grown up the way I did had it not been for my exposure to technology – or more specially, to the internet- and partially because I sense a growing feeling of alienation between different generations as technology becomes more and more advanced.  As various aspects of advanced technology are fused into our daily lives and we come to depend on them to a great extent, our perceptions and ideologies seem to be undergoing a transformation.  The difference between my generation’s view of themselves and of world and that of the generation before us is a far greater gap than, for example, the difference between how my grandparents viewed the world and how my great-grandparents did.  The cohesiveness between different generations seems to be lessening, and there appears to be a widening culture gap between technological youths and the older generations of their families.  Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” addresses this feeling.  By inviting the image of the cyborg, she presents a “postmodern feminism” that sidesteps the constricting boundaries of identity, and instead focuses on a fluidity between man and woman, natural and artifical, human and machine.  This is an idea that I, a twenty-one year old immersed in a world of new technology, can relate to all too easily.

One of the many sources of conflict between my parents and I is the amount of time that I spend on the Internet.  This ongoing fight stems from the vast difference in our relationships to the computer.  To them, it seems to be multiple accessories rolled into one convenient package.  They sparingly use the Internet as a source of entertainment when they’re in the mood for it, but mostly, they see it as a quick and efficient method of communication.  They use E-mail very much the same way my grandparents use snail mail.  They write letters to college friends and distant relatives, and communicate to their coworkers through both E-mail and instant messenger.  When they come across an unfamiliar English word, the computer serves as their dictionary.  When they take pictures with their digital camera, the computer serves as their photo album.  To me, the computer is much more than an accessory.  It is my antenna, which I extend into unfamiliar parts of the world as I build my partially internet-based network of friends.  It is my third eye, which I use to explore places, ideas and people I am unfamiliar with.  It is a unique language which I use to express my thoughts when adequate expression is not possible or appropriate in the world outside the monitor.  Moreover, it is the medium through which I express and acquire bits and pieces of what could be roughly called my “identity”.  Most of my friends are the same way, and most of their parents are more similar to my parents, though it would be unfair to say that this is necessarily a generational gap.  Still, generalizing differences may be a good way to look at a transformation of consciousness on a bigger scale.

I think my generation is more likely to relate to Haraway’s “cyborg” than that of our parents.  We use sites like LiveJournal and Facebook to stay in touch and to define our presence in the world, and we use forums and chatrooms the same way someone else might use a “real life” social gathering or bar.  Moreover, we have online communities like MMOs and Second Life that actually gives us the chance to create “virtual lives” and “alter-egos”.  Our parents and grandparents easily draw the line between “online” and “real life”, but more often than not, when one of my online friends refer to life outside the Internet as “real life”, they do it with what seems to be a bit of sardonic humor, or, like me, they put quotation marks around it.  Perhaps this is only a coincidence within my personal social circle, or perhaps, like Haraway says, traditional definitions of boundaries between human and machine no longer hold as well as they used to.  We certainly seem to have a greater amount of skepticism toward the assertion that what happens online “is not real”, or that online friendships are artificial rather than natural.

I don’t think it’s so much a matter of necessity versus convenience.  My physical needs are the same as those of any other human being in history: I need food when I’m hungry, water when I’m thirsty, a bed to sleep in when I’m tired, clothes to keep me warm, and shelter to keep me safe.  I can strip my life down to those essential needs and still live to a grand old age.  But to do so would be akin to cutting off a few fingers, or gouging out an eye; I could certainly survive with a less dextrous hand or decreased peripheral vision – it would just be extremely uncomfortable.  Advanced technology is no longer an accessory for me, so much as it is an additional appendage.  I guess my Internet personas are, in a way, my eleventh finger, which I use to touch and communicate very much the same way as all my other fingers, but in a way that somehow transcends physical and material barrers.  And if I become severed from it, I would have to cope with living without it the same way I imagine one would cope with missing a couple of fingers (maybe not important ones like a thumb or an index finger, but certainly a pinkie, a ring finger… maybe even a middle finger on the left hand).

Essentially, I identify with Donna Haraway’s postmodern view of self a lot more than my parents probably do, and in a way, I think that my own feeling of alienation would be somewhat lessened if my parents adopted this view of fluidity between identities, and of affinity, rather than identity.  I think as advanced technology continues to transform our relationships, our perceptions and our idealism, acknowledging the idea of this “cyborg” is crucial to understanding “human” behavior.

Works Cited

Donna Haraway, “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century,” in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (New York; Routledge, 1991), pp.149-181.