No, let's not stop the cyborgs

March 10, 2013

I found Stop The Cyborgs through someone on Twitter (I forget who). It’s the “official blog of the pro-human movement”, “fighting the algorithmic future one bit at a time”.

Cyborg is “a human who has certain physiological processes aided or controlled by mechanical or electronic devices” (as defined in The Free Dictionary). This includes people with implantable cardioverter-defibrillators, pacemakers, cochlear implants, various brain implants, hip replacement implants and other prosthetics. You probably know a few cyborgs, but I doubt you think of them as such. They’re just your friends, family, coworkers, neighbours.

One of my best friends is a cyborg, and it helps her stay alive. By saying “let’s stop the cyborgs” the “pro-human movement” is essentially saying to me that I should not be allowed the company of my close friend. The contributors to the blog acknowledge that there are different kinds of cyborgs, and especially those living with medical devices are not the problem, until the devices themselves are networked:

This type of cyborg is not a problem if it is not networked and hence not externally monitored and controlled”.

Guess what? Many of them are. I have seen life-saving devices that communicate via radio with diagnostic tools which can control them, and with networked stations that send data to the device manufacturer, who then shares some of it with the medical care provider. The wearer of the device has no control over this process, and doesn’t necessarily know what data is being collected, shared, how and with whom.

This rhetoric of criticising cyborgs, rather than technologies themselves is not only not helpful, it’s actually damaging. Healthy criticism and skepticism towards technologies and their impact on society is necessary, but framing it in a way that discredits all people with body and sense enhancing technologies is othering. Yes, Stop The Cyborgs do so with caveats, but these aren’t obvious. The title is Stop The Cyborgs, not Stop Technologies That May Have Really Bad Unforeseen Consequences That We Should All Worry About.

That’s my main point — let’s talk about how various uses of technologies can affect our society, but let’s not shift the focus to people who sometimes may have no real choice whether to accept these enhancements or not (it’s not really a choice if not having an externally controlled pacemaker means a certain death for example). It’s a bit like blaming foreigners for the failure of councils to increase capacity of systems to match population growth required to maintain cities.

It’s also important to remember that technologies themselves aren’t always ethically questionable. It’s what we do with them that can be positive or contribute to suffering and misery. Sometimes the same technology can be used to help people and to simultaneously ruin lives for profit.

Cyborgs and algorithms aren’t the problem, the problem is who has control over cybernetic systems and control over design and manufacture of technology that becomes pervasive. Many things that Stop The Cyborgs talk about worry me too, surveillance and privacy being the most pressing issue. Again, these concerns have less to do with people who are aided by technology, and more with political imbalance of power between the technology users and technology owners, who retain control over tools and systems and can use them to curtail freedoms and consolidate their existing powers.