Cyborg Anthropology

Amber Case

Cyborg anthropology is the discipline that studies the interaction between humanity and technology from an anthropological perspective. The topic originated as a sub-focus group within the American Anthropological Association’s annual meeting in 1993. The sub-group was very closely related to two other academic disciplines, STS (Science, technology and society) and the Society for the Social Studies of Science.

Historian and feminist Donna Haraway’s 1985 ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ could be considered the founding document of cyborg anthropology by first exploring the philosophical and sociological ramifications of the term. More recently, Amber Case has been responsible for setting up the Cyborg Anthropology Wiki.

The object of study for cyborg anthropology is the cyborg. Originally coined in a 1960 paper about space exploration, the term is short for cybernetic organism. A cyborg is traditionally defined as a system with both organic and inorganic parts. In one sense, the use of any tool that functions as an extension of one’s abilities qualifies one as a cyborg, but cyborgs are more narrowly understood to have actual, physical technological extensions or prostheses. Thus in the narrowest sense, examples of cyborgs would include people with pacemakers, insulin pumps, and bionic limbs. In the broadest sense, all of our interaction with technology could qualify as a cyborg (since a cyborg system’s border has no inherent limits, the universe could qualify as a cyborg). The narrowest sense of cyborg does not let us grasp the steadily expanding field for the practice of cyborg anthropology or investigate the surprising synergies of the human-non-human splices, while the broadest conception runs the risk of being so broad that the discipline cannot be defined. Thus cyborg anthropology studies humankind and its relations with the technological systems it has built, specifically modern technological systems that have reflexively shaped notions of what it means to be human beings.

Another way to think about cyborgs is through the discipline of cybernetics. Originally the study of control, communication, and information, cybernetics has mutated into a host of other disciplines that fall under the general label of informatics which includes robotics, artificial intelligence, bionics, nanotechnology, genetics, artificial life, cognitive science, neuroscience, and the variety of sub-fields. They share a historical link with cybernetics and an implicit metaphor of organism-as-machine, machine-as-organism, and everything as information.

The history of science, as the name implies, tends to focus on the development of science/technology and their influence upon history. As a subset of history, the history of science concerns itself with the origins of scientific knowledge. So for example, it will explain the origins of modern science in Galileo, the Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and other notable moments when science and technology had transformative effects upon society and culture. STS actively employ systems analysis (with the concepts of homeostasis, positive and negative feedback loops, and information) to understand society. It is directly situated within the paradigm that cyborg anthropology studies, and seeks to use this paradigm to study society as a cybernetic system. In this sense it is closer to sociology than anthropology. This being said, STS is perhaps the closest analogue to cyborg anthropology.

Technology has always been implicated in the question of what it means to be human, but since World War II and the proliferation of informatic disciplines this question has gained whole new dimensions and horizons. Technology is radically changing the way we interact—faster than any other point in history. Traditionally, the central unit of analysis in social and cultural anthropology is the ethnography, a synchronic snapshot of how a culture functions as a whole (often with some recourse to the notion of the ‘structure’ of a culture, a metaphor that is steeped in connotations of unchanging stability). In this sense anthropology often leaves the diachronic analysis (the study of change) to historians, and instead tries to understand how the culture functions as a whole. Cyborg anthropology seems different in this respect. Because technology and interfaces are changing so fast, cyborg anthropology is much more likely to note the changes over time in culture and use this diachronic analysis to understand the ramifications of our cybernetic condition. The ‘rhizome’ (a cybernetic, feedback-looping, adaptive, decentralized network) is the metaphor that replaces static structure. Insofar as cyborg anthropology is the study of phenomena that have little cultural precedence, it seems to be inextricably tied to diachronic analysis and theories of interface evolution.

Questions of subjectivity, agency, actors, and structures have been of perennial interest in social and cultural anthropology. In cyborg anthropology the question of what type of cybernetic system constitutes an actor/subject becomes all the more important. Is it the actual technology that acts on humanity (the Internet), the general techno-culture (Silicon Valley), government sanctions (net-neutrality), specific innovative humans (Steve Jobs), or some type of combination of these elements? Actor-network theory (ANT), as proposed by STS scholar Bruno Latour, is a popular theory that underlays accounts of how these different elements work together to produce techno-cultural phenomenon. Latour situates actors/subjects as actor nodes that function within larger distributed networks of mutual interaction and feedback loops. Through this approach, Latour avoids the two extremes of a purely materialist system in which humans have no agency (exemplified in Mintz’ ‘Sweetness and Power’) and a radically anthropocentric approach that mitigates any agency of supra-human elements (humans are the only agents).

Donna Haraway’s 1985 ‘Cyborg Manifesto’ celebrates the cyborg as the ultimate postmodern boundary-defying chimera  She specifically uses the example of sex and gender to show how the cyborg can be utilized to break down our conceptions of gender/sex as physically determined and instead offers a wonderfully grotesque utopia whose technologies (virtual avatars, artificial insemination, sex change, AI, etc.) break down the notion of gender to the point of irrelevance. Haraway’s uses gender as her central example, but also writes extensively on the many other dichotomies that will collapse in our postmodern cyborg condition. Insofar as gender is concerned with identity, body-politics, collapsing gender/sex distinctions, post-feminist theory seems to find a natural compliment in cyborg anthropology.

One of the central questions of cyborg anthropology is the relationship between scholarship and technological implementation. Anthropology was originally practiced in the context of colonial expansion. Early scholars (claiming objectivity) would analyze a foreign culture, only to find their analysis utilized by the colonial powers to further colonialism, religious conversion, and/or oppression. Anthropology was the intellectual arm of colonial machine, and still survives in this sense with anthropologists working side-by-side with the military in Afghanistan and Iraq. This dynamic still haunts some in the discipline, and whole libraries have been written on the relation between the anthropologists, their object of study, and the range of interactions resulting from studying a culture. The same dynamic exists in cyborg anthropology. Haraway’s idealism for our postmodern cyborg future is admirable, but does not address the fact that the some of the most advanced cyborgs are in the US military. Cyborgs themselves are morally neutral, but specific applications of cyborgs can cause great harm or good. Cyborg anthropologists are always in danger of writing an analysis that is implemented by forces that they disagree with. Again, this is a danger inherent to all of anthropology, but given that technology is specifically concerned with implementing ideas in material form, this dynamic is all-the-more prevalent.


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