Robots, Robots, Everywhere – A Field Guide to Cyborg Anthropology

My attempts at writing about the subject of Cyborg Anthropology have always resulted in long texts. This attempt is no exception.


Cyborg Anthropology is a set of mental models that can be applied to the examination of the interaction between humans and comptuers, and how the capabilities of our bodies are extended when they are uploaded into hypertext.

Invisible Robots

The traditional manifestation of robots is vastly different from the real robots we interact with in our everyday lives. The traditional robots that are locked in the collective consciousness of the general public range from behemoth, terrorizing giants that destroy cities — to smaller, equally intense characters (such as the Terminator). Now we have little robots everywhere, giving us our search results and our mail.

One of the questions that Cyborg Anthropology has a real power to approach is the question of what our lives will look like in the future.

Currently, we are duplicating ourselves every time we or others associate a page or profile with our identity. Projections of ourselves are capable of accessing and being accessed by multiple individuals at a time. The extension of ourselves into the online space is transforming our social interactions into relational, dynamic social profiles.

What is Cyborg Anthropology? When did it come about?

Cyborg Anthropology was officially founded when Gary Lee Downey, Joseph Dumit and Sarah Williams presented a paper titled “Cyborg Anthropology” at the 1992 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco.

Paper Excerpts

“Cyborg anthropology offers new metaphors to both academic and popular theorizing for comprehending the different ways that sciences and technologies work in our lives-metaphors that start with our complicity in many of the processes we wish were otherwise”

“Cyborg anthropology is interested in the construction of science and tech-nology as cultural phenomena. It explores the heterogeneous strategies and mechanisms through which members of technical communities produce these cultural forms that appear to lack culture, for example, scientific knowledge that is objective and neutral, the product of only empirical observation and logical reasoning.

“Cyborg anthropology is interested in how people construct discourse about science and technology in order to make these meaningful in their lives. Thus, cyborg anthropology helps us to realize that we are all scientists.

“That is, by reconstructing scientific knowledge in new contexts, including across na-tional and cultural boundaries, we all do science. Since the practice of “doing science” is no longer reserved for scientists, studying science becomes both more amenable to ethnographic investigation and more important as a topic of research” (Downey, 265-266).

Cyborg Anthropology Author(s): Gary Lee Downey, Joseph Dumit, Sarah Williams Source: Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 10, No. 2, Anthropologies of the Body, (May, 1995), pp. 264-269 Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of the American Anthropological Association Stable URL: Link to JSTOR Article.

A Cyborg Curriculum

Since I made my thesis on Cell Phones and Cyborg Anthropology available online, I’ve been contacted by numerous professors wishing to compare notes and course curriculum for educating their students on the field of Digital Anthropology.

It is due to these requests that I’ve decided to create a reudimentary list of questions and resources that may aid the beginning professor in his or her course preperation. In a world of open source technologies, it is important to , it is I’ve If you are a professor tasked with the job of bringing new ways of thinking into your classroom, this may be a valuable resource to you. Please feel free to alert me of any additional items you’ve used in your courses. Or, if you are a student of Cyborg Anthropology, please let me know what articles and books you’ve been assigned.

Potential Drawbacks of a Technosocial Future

A recent conversation with Todd Kenefsky, board member of Legion of Tech, brought up some interesting points on the future of human-computer interaction. “As a species we tend to test the borders and boundaries of what we can do”, he began, “and if we go too far we get smacked backwards. Maybe with cyborg technology — going too far would have far greater repercussions. Maybe we could get terminal viruses that wipe out the human race”.

He made a good point. Cyberspace and reality do not exist exclusively — the online space is influences offline places, and the offline the online.

We are still detached from actually touching and interacting with data. We still cannot touch the data of the Internet with our own hands. We are still forced to input data into interfaces via keyboards, trackpads, and mice. We cannot access data ubiquitously, and RSS is limited to global RSS systems.

We cannot yet continuously update our location and subscribe to data relative to the needs of our immediate environment. We still have boundaries between the ecosystem of the Internet and the ecosystems of our own bodies.

But we are making progress. We can walk while communicating with others around the world, and sounds from elsewhere travel across long distances to get to our ears via iPod. We have blogs, Wikis, and microblogging services like Twitter.

Discussion Questions

Let us think of electronic devices as objects, and then those objects in a system of greater objects.

Online there are temporary autonomous zones — fluid spaces that come and go. Objects placed there can change meanings quickly. Personalities, social engagements, and power capabilities change. Objects change their value based on their environment, or the system around them which acts on them as objects. Objects change meanings once placed in different systems.

Consider the system in which the object exists.

  • What kind of a system is the object a part of?
  • How is the object birthed?
  • How is the system that the object is birthed in different from the eventual system it inhabits?
  • How is the birth of a tree and its eventual location different from that of a child?
  • A piece of clothing?
  • A piece of data?
  • What systems exist inside the object?
  • What about complex objects with multiple systems?
  • How can these systems be visualized across time and space?

Systemic Friction

Online, friction is less prevalent than offline. Iterations, or software releases can happen more quickly than the equivalent revolutions in real life. In the analog sphere, interactions based on growth in response to systems happen at a slower rate. A tree is constantly in co-production with its environment. What the tree does influences the system, which in turn influences the tree. The network of trees acting together influences a wider system.


Maureen McHugh wrote that “soon, perhaps, it will be impossible to tell where human ends and machines begin”.

How is the digital accessed? How are different environments accessed? What separates them? How do the qualities of these separations affect the experience of the environment? How can the digital and the analog be intersected in non-traditional ways? Are there spaces that the analog and the digital blur?

Constructions of Mobility and Capability Online

Let us, for a moment, consider the construction of mobility in online communities. What makes a powerful/respected user on a social network? Each type of space allows a different creation of power.

Social Networks as Bases of Social Interaction

Different individuals are using different social networks as bases. The social network base they use influences how they communicate with others in real life. The shape of the digital affects the shape of the social.


  • On Facebook, identity and value is constructed through image, wall posts, addins, and updates.
  • On Flickr, identity and value is related to interest and topic. It is also indexible and searchable.
  • On Linkedin, power is constructed through history, recommendations, and connections, and sharing data/experience. It is the ’emptiest’ vessel of many of the social networks available, and thus it can share data in the largest variety of ways.
  • On Twitter, power is constructed through text, retweeting, link exchange, content, avatars, background images and followers.
  • On Myspace, power is constructed through music, pictures, blog posts, and wall posts.

What types of cultural constructs allow objects to take on different values? How can a system of representation (the Disney store, the end aisles in a shopping market vs. the inner rows) bring power to an object? How does the ‘psychology of space’ make people act in a different way than they would place?

“The…area of study is a broad critique of the adequacy of “anthropos” as the subject and object of anthropology. In this respect, cyborg anthropology poses a serious challenge to the human-centered foundations of anthropological discourse. The term “cyborg anthropology” is an oxymoron that draws attention to the human-centered presuppositions of anthropological discourse by posing the challenge of alternative formulations. While the skin-bound individual, autonomous bearer of identity and agency, theoretically without gender, race, class, region, or time, has served usefully and productively as the subject of cul- ture and of cultural accounts, alternate accounts of history and subjectivity are also possible” (Downey, 2).

“The autonomy of individuals has already been called into question by post- structuralist and posthumanist critiques. Cyborg anthropology explores a new alternative by examining the argument that human subjects and subjectivity are crucially as much a function of machines, machine relations, and information transfers as they are machine producers and operators. From this perspective, science and technology affect society through the fashioning of selves rather than as external forces. For example, the establishment of anthropological sub-jects and subjectivities has depended upon boats, trains, planes, typewriters, cameras, telegraphs, and so on” (Downey, 4).

“How the positioning of technologies has defined the boundaries of “the field” as well as the positioning of anthropologists within it has been a notable silence in ethnographic writing. It is increasingly clear that human agency serves in the world today as but one contributor to activities that are growing in scope, that are complex and di-verse, and yet are interconnected. The extent of such interconnectedness has been made plain both by the decline of challenges to capitalist hegemony and by the empowerment of information technologies, the latter through the combined agencies of computer and communications technologies” (Downey, 4).

“A crucial first step in blurring the human-centered boundaries of anthropo-logical discourse is to grant membership to the cyborg image in theorizing, that is, to follow in our writing the ways that human agents routinely produce both themselves and their machines as part human and part machine. How are we to write, for example, without using human-centered language? And if writing is a co-production of human and machine, then who is the “we” that writes?” (Downey, 5).

-Downey, Gary Lee “After Culture” Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation.

The Relational Self

The psychologist Kenneth Gergen suggests that “we may be entering a new era of self-conception. In this era the self is redefined as no longer an essence in itself, but relational” (1991:146). “The concept of the individual self,” he continues, “ceases to be intelligible. At this point one is prepared for the new reality of relationship. Relationships make possible the concept of the self. Previous possessions of the individual self—autobiography, emotions, and morality—become possessions of relationships” (p. 170) in the New Superorganic (468).

As Lucy Suchman has put it, “humans and artifacts are mutually constituted. . . Agency—and associated accountabilities—reside neither in us nor in our artifacts, but in our intraactions” (in Hanson, The New Superorganic, 469).

The increasingly intimate connections between humans and nonhuman entities such as prosthetic devices and machines (especially computers) and our growing dependence on them are resulting in a similar kind of splicing that transforms us into cyborgs: new kinds of beings partly organic and partly mechanical. Far from the stable, clearly defined, and bounded units that populate the traditional worldview, cyborgs are hybrid, indeterminate, and ambiguous (Haraway 1991; Dumit and Davis-Floyd 1998:1) in (Hanson, the New Superorganic, 469).

“In Melanesia, aboriginal Australia, and elsewhere, the person is defined as much by position in a network of social relations as by individual traits” (Strathern and Stewart 1988, Wagner 1991, Myers 1986) (in Hanson, the New Superorganic, 468).

David Gunkel holds that communication, which “involves multiple individuals and is often mediated by
electronic or other technological devices, has always been the province of recombinant cyborgs” (2000:340).

In Hanson, “. . . Borg subjects float, suspended between points of objectivity, being constituted and reconstituted in different configurations in relation to the discursive arrangement of the occasion” (Hanson, 345).

Similarly, Mark Poster perceives that, “in the shift from written to electronically mediated
communication a change in the subject from “an agent centered in rational/imaginary autonomy” to one
that is “decentered, dispersed, and multiplied in continuous instability” (1990:6). For example, the notion of the unique author is fading as technological developments such as word processing and hypertext make it easy to modify written texts. These blur distinctions between original author and readers, who are coming to be seen as jointly exercising the role of author (Poster 1990:114–15; 2001:91–94; Landow 1997:90), in Hanson, the New Superorganic, 469.


“The New Superorganic” Current Anthropology Volume 45, Number 4, August–October 2004 by The Wenner-Gren Foundation for Anthropological Research.

“…Today’s children readily think of digital entities as alive and are comfortable with indeterminate
boundaries between organism and machine” (Turkle, 1998).

Profiles of Cyborg Anthropologists

I’ve had numerous people ask me how many Cyborg Anthropologists there were in the world. I’ve generally given the answer of seven, but there are actually quite a bit more than that. From Donna Haraway’s seminal article, A Manifesto for Cyborgs, to Manfred Clyne’s coining of the term ‘Cyborg’, the following people have be closely involved with Cyborg Anthropology since its inception.

Sherry Turkle

Sherry Turkle is Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT and the founder (2001) and current director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, a center of research and reflection on the evolving connections between people and artifacts. Professor Turkle received a joint doctorate in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University and is a licensed clinical psychologist.

Seminars at the Initiative on Technology and Self led to three edited collections, all to be published by the MIT Press, on the relationships between things and thinking. The first volume, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With, was published in Fall 2007. The second volume, Falling For Science: Objects in Mind, will appear in Spring 2008. The third volume, The Inner History of Devices, will follow in Fall 2008. Professor Turkle is currently completing a book on robots and the human spirit based on the Initiative’s 10-year research program on relational artifacts.

Sharon Traweek

Associate professor in the History Department at UCLA; on the faculty of the Anthropology Department at Rice University and the Program in Anthropology & Archeology and to the Program in Science, Technology, & Society at MIT. Has held visiting faculty positions at the Mt Holyoke Five College Women’s Studies Research Center, the Anthropology Department at the University of California at San Diego, and the Program in Values, Technology, Science, and Society at Stanford University. Received my Ph.D. in 1982 from the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California at Santa Cruz.

Lucien Taylor

Assistant professor of visual and environmental studies and of anthropology and director of the Media Anthropology Laboratory. Teaches “Sensory Ethnography”, a collaboration between the departments of Anthropology and Visual and Environmental Studies. The course began last spring semester as students with varying degrees of artistic experience and ethnographic training met to learn video and audio production techniques, as well as to experience and discuss existing work in nonfiction media.

Allucquere Rosanne Stone

Academic theorist, artist, and performer, currently Associate Professor and Founding Director of the Advanced Communication Technologies Laboratory (ACTLab) and the New Media Initiative in the department of Radio-TV-Film at the University of Texas at Austin. Concurrently she is Wolfgang Kohler Professor of Media and Performance at the European Graduate School EGS, senior artist at the Banff Centre, and Humanities Research Institute Fellow at the University of California, Irvine. Stone pursued successful multiple careers in film, music, experimental neurology, writing, engineering, and computer programming.

Paul Rabinow

Professor of Anthropology at the University of California (Berkeley), Director of the Anthropology of the Contemporary Research Collaboratory (ARC), and Director of Human Practices for the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Center (SynBERC). He is perhaps most famous for his widely influential commentary and expertise on the French philosopher Michel Foucault.

His major works include Marking Time: On the Anthropology of the Contemporary (2007); Anthropos Today: Reflections on Modern Equipment (2003); Essays on the Anthropology of Reason (1996), Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology (1993); French Modern: Norms and Forms of the Social Environment (1989); The Foucault Reader (1984), Michel Foucault: Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics (1983) (with H. Dreyfus); Reflections on Fieldwork in Morocco (1977 & 2007).

Constance Penley

Professor of Film & Media Studies, UC Santa Barbara
Co-Director of the Center for Film, Television and New Media

Professor Penley’s major areas of research interest are film history and theory, feminist theory, cultural studies, contemporary art, and science and technology studies. She is a founding editor of Camera Obscura: Feminism, Media, Cultural Studies. Her most recent work includes NASA/TREK: Popular Science and Sex in America and The Visible Woman: Imaging Technologies, Science and Gender (ed. with Treichler and Cartwright). Her collaborative art projects include “MELROSE SPACE: Primetime Art by the GALA Committee” and “Biospheria: An Environmental Opera,” on which she was co-librettist.

Deborah Heath

Associate Professor
Lewis & Clark College

Also my Thesis advisor.
Collaborated on Cyborgs & Citadels Anthropological Interventions in Emerging Sciences and Technologies

Donna Haraway

Currently a professor and chair of the History of Consciousness Program at the University of California, Santa Cruz, United States. She is the author of Crystals, Fabrics, and Fields: Metaphors of Organicism in Twentieth-Century Developmental Biology (1976), Primate Visions: Gender, Race, and Nature in the World of Modern Science (1989), Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature (1991), Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleMan©Meets_OncoMouse (1997), The Companion Species Manifesto: Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness (2003), and When Species Meet (2008).

Deborah Gordon

Presented the original paper on Cyborg Anthropology at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco in 1992.

Manfred Clynes

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism (i.e., an organism that has both artificial and natural systems). The term was coined in 1960 when Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline used it in an article about the advantages of self-regulating human-machine systems in outer space.[1] D. S. Halacy’s Cyborg: Evolution of the Superman in 1965 featured an introduction by Manfred Clynes, who wrote of a “new frontier” that was “not merely space, but more profoundly the relationship between ‘inner space’ to ‘outer space’ -a bridge…between mind and matter.”[2] The cyborg is often seen today merely as an organism that has enhanced abilities due to technology,[3] but this perhaps oversimplifies the category of feedback.

Gary Lee Downey

Center for the Study of Science in Society
Virginia Tech

Joseph Dumit

Program in the History of Consciousness
University of California at Santa Cruz
Also presented the original paper on Cyborg Anthropology at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco in 1992.

Sarah Williams

Women’s Studies
Also presented the original paper on Cyborg Anthropology at the Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association in San Francisco in 1992.


The following is a list of resources that I’ve found useful to my study of Cyborg Anthropology. They’ll be reviewed individually at some point in the future.

Augé, Marc 1995 Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. New York: Verso.

Bauman, Zygmunt 2000 Liquid Modernity. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Beck, Ulrich 1995 Ecological Enlightenment: Essays on the Politics of the Risk Society.

Benedikt, Michael, ed. 1991 Cyberspace: First Steps. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press. de Certeau, Michel, Luce Giard, and Pierre Mayol 1998 The Practice of Everyday Life.

Berman, Marshall. All That is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. NY: Penguin, 1982.

Best, Kellner, “Deluze & Guattari, Schizos, Nomas, Rhizomes,” pp.76109.

Durkheim, Emile, ed. 1951 Suicide, a Study in Sociology. Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press.

Goffman, Erving 1982 Interaction Ritual : Essays on Face-to-Face Behavior. 1st Pantheon Books ed. New York: Pantheon Books.

Goffman, Erving 1963 Behavior in Public Places; Notes on the Social Organization of Gatherings. [New York]: Free Press of Glencoe.

Gray, Chris, ed. 1995 The Cyborg Handbook. New York: Routledge.

Haraway, Donna 1987 Donna Haraway Reads National Geographic. Video.

Haraway, Donna, Jorge Hankamer, and Gary Lease 1999 Between Nature & Culture Cyborgs, Simians, Dogs, Genes & Us.

Horst, Heather, and Daniel Miller 2006 The Cell Phone: An Anthropology of Communication. New York: Berg.

Ito, Mizuko 2004 A New Set of Social Rules for a Newly Wireless Society. Japan Media Review 2(4).

Latour, Bruno 2005 Reassembling the Social: An Introduction to Actor-Network-Theory. New York: Oxford University Press.

Moore, Gordon E. 1965 Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits. Electronics Magazine.

Oulasvirta, Antti, Sakari Tamminen, Virpi Roto, and Jaana Kuorelahti 2005 Interaction in 4-Second Bursts: The Fragmented Nature of Attentional Resources in Mobile HCI.

Plant, Sadie 2004 On the Mobile; the Effects of Mobile Telephones on Social and Individual Life . Motorola.

Poster, Mark, “Consumption and Digital Commodities In the Everyday,” Cultural Studies. 18, 2/3 March/May 2004, pp. 409-423.

Schivelbusch, Wolfgang 1986 The Railway Journey: The Industrialization of Time and Space in the 19th Century. Berkeley, Calif.: University of California Press.

Sennet, Richard 1978 Fall of Public Man: On the Social Psychology of Capitalism. .

Turner, Victor 1967 The Forest of Symbols; Aspects of Ndembu Ritual. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press.

Weiser, Mark 1993 Ubiquitous Computing. Computer 26(10).

6 thoughts on Robots, Robots, Everywhere – A Field Guide to Cyborg Anthropology

  1. Mindblowing article. Like the way you tossed “Disney Store” randomly as applied to cultural constructs and system of representation. WE like to think it has an impact!

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