On August 5, 2010 I gave an hour-long webcast called Cyborg Anthropology: A Short Introduction. The event was free and had roughly 500 signups. It was a really fun way to quickly share a lot of the concepts I’ve been thinking about for the past few years. A lot of it was condensing down a lot of what I’ve begun to explore on CyborgAnthropology.com. I’ll be giving a 20 minute version of this speech at a TED conference in December. You can also watch the webcast at O’Reilly.com. The webcast is 60 minutes long. Start 5 minutes in for best results (the first part is an audio check).
Cyborg Anthropology is a way of understanding how we live as technosocially connected citizens in the modern era. Our cell phones, cars and laptops have turned us into cyborgs. What does it mean to extend the body into hyperspace? What are the implications to privacy, information and the formation of identity? Now that we have a second self, how do we protect it? This presentation will cover aspects of time and space compression, communication in the mobile era, evaporating interfaces and how to approach a rapidly changing information spaces.
A Short History of Cyborg Anthropology
Haraway proposed what she termed a “cyborg anthropology” to study the relation between the machine and the human, and she adds that it should proceed by “provocatively” reconceiving “the border relations among specific humans, other organisms, and machines”
Based on this essay, and many other instances of needing a methodology to understand and describe rapidly changing sociocultural systems affected by technology, the idea of a “Cyborg Anthropology” was proposed at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) in 1993.
What is a Cyborg Anthropologist?
A cyborg anthropologist looks at how humans and non human objects interact with each other, and how that changes culture. So, for instance, we have these objects in our pockets that cry, and we have to pick them up and soothe them back to sleep, and then we have to feed them every night by plugging them into the wall. At no other time in history have we had these really strange non human devices that we take care of as if they are real, and we’re very dependent upon them. That’s one of the aspects that I’m studying; the idea of mobile technology and its effect on one’s relationships. Another aspect of cyborg anthropology is the idea of individuals extending themselves into a second self in the online space, through a Facebook page, avatar or profile. Studying how people interact with each other through these little technosocial interactions, versus just the analog interactions, is another aspect of cyborg anthropology.
Cyborg Anthropology vs. Traditional Anthropology
What happens in traditional, analog anthropology is this: You go to another culture, and you look at all the people. You see how they interact with each other, how knowledge is created and so on. You see kinship, you see rituals, you see all these different pastimes and hobbies. You see what people eat. And often the anthropologist goes over to another country and says, “Oh, look how fascinating these people are. They’re so strange. Look at all their weird customs. Look at how different they are from us!” There is this definite aspect of the other, of going out and studying something else. But the problem is that many people are not studying world that they live in right now, their own culture. There are a few anthropologists who have begun to really study the effects of technology on everyday life. It is the study of this everyday life that offers the most insight.
Call phones have become so ubiquitous that they no cause one to think about them. One does not think about having a cell phone or not having one – one’s time is spent choosing which external prosthetic device they are going to be using next. Facebook has become very normal. Twitter has become quite normal. Cell phones have become very normal. So my job as an anthropologist is of someone that comes in and says, “Oh my God, how fascinating. Look at all these strange things people do. They’re posting on each other’s Walls. They’re editing each other’s external online selves. Their identity is increasingly made up of text and points and technosocial interactions.” What I do as a Cyborg Anthropologist is take the traditional anthropological toolset and apply those tools and methodologies to the digital space. I’m always trying to take both the embodied and thousand foot view, because it allows me to ask questions such as “What is really going on?”, “What’s next in technological development?”, and “Has anything actually changed with the onset of technology, or are people just bringing offline behaviors to the online space?
More on Cyborgs and Anthropology
If you liked this webcast and want to learn more about cyborgs and Cyborg Anthropology, you might want to look at CyborgAnthropology.com, a site still very much in development as I stitch my research together from the past 7 years of study.
If you happen to live in Portland (or need an excuse to visit) and like cyborgs, you should come to CyborgCamp Portland on Oct. 2nd, 2010. It’s a hybrid unconference on the future of humans and machines. We’ll be talking about cyborgs, interface design, government, transportation, science, anthropology and humanity from 9Am-6Pm. Tickets are exceedingly cheap ($10) and you can get one now if you’d like.
50th Anniversary of the term “Cyborg”
Also, September 2010 is the 50th Anniversary of the coining of the term ‘cyborg’. Over the next month, the site 50 Cyborgs, Curated by Tim Maly of Quiet Babylon (another site on Cyborgs that’s worth a good long look), will update 50 times with links to material celebrating 50 years of one of the 20th Century’s more enduring concepts. Then it’ll go dark. I highly suggest reading it before it disappears. But if you miss it, you can always check it out on Archive.org.