What Am I? Wearable Tech and the Human Question
Bzz bzz, you have a new email. Bzz bzz, your stress level has increased since you started reading those Facebook comments. Here are some breathing exercises for you. Bzz bzz bzz, another telemarketer has spoofed your area code and is trying to call you. Bzzzzz, you reached this absurdly low step goal, which we had to keep lowering every day so you could actually reach it for once! Bzzzzzzzz, congratulations, you cleared your move alert because you finally got off your lazy ass and walked your dog, who for the record, has been asking you to go outside for the last 20 minutes.
Like so many of you, I began 2021 with ambition. The year 2020, for all that it was, left a lot to be desired as far as personal progress goes. What better time than a new year to make some adjustments? So, yeah. I bought myself a fitness tracker/smartwatch for Christmas, but at this point, I’m not so sure it was actually a gift. It now seems like my days are filled with the moments in between the buzzes.
I grew up in the Facebook generation (well, technically it was the MySpace generation first, but I'm trying to block out that time of my life). Facebook is pretty #toxic, so unless my mom is sending me a cute dog video, I'm rarely on it. However, every once in a while, for unknown reasons, I find myself in the black hole that is the comment section. You've been there. You know how it feels. You know the draw of it, like a moth to a flame. So last week when my smartwatch warned me of my increased stress level while I was reading the 5000th comment about how wearing a mask during a pandemic is stifling our freedom of speech, I couldn’t help but laugh. Sure, I probably would have caught myself eventually, I could feel the tension in my jaw, but my smartwatch knew before I did what was happening to my body. How bizarre, right? That little bzz bzz knocked me out of my teeth-grinding fury and suggested some breathing exercises to lower my stress. How could I not laugh at that? It turns out that laughing incredulously at yourself for being controlled by technology also lowers your stress level quite a bit. Who knew?
So, here's the question: with the addition of this little technological device, which knows my body better than I do, what exactly am I? What does it mean for how I think about my body and its capabilities? To be clear: the technology of the smartwatch, something that is non-biological, is augmenting my anatomy. That which makes up my physical body is extended. The device is connected to my body, physically through a strap and sensors, and intellectually through the data that it is collecting. It is intelligent, but it is unnatural. It is simultaneously a part of me and apart from me. While the addition of something synthetic to our bodies may, on the surface, appear to make us less human (certainly not in a moral sense, but rather in a physical sense), maybe the act of augmenting our bodies is offering a way to expand our conception of what it means to be human. Maybe it is giving us an opportunity to look beyond what has previously been possible.
In my first contribution to the Science & Tech segment, I explored the question of who we are and the role that technology plays in shaping our social identities. With the ever-increasing permeation of technology into our everyday lives and into our bodies, it is essential that we also ask what we are. What does it mean to be human? Where do humans and machines intersect? And what happens when the boundaries between the biological and the technological begin to blur?
Cyborgs and Androids and Transhumanism, Oh My!
The intersection of human and machine has long been a theme in the science fiction genre in literature, film, and television. By exploring the worlds of artificial intelligence, androids, cyborgs, and biological enhancement, for centuries, storytellers have been examining the question of what it means to be human and what it means to transcend our bodies. Such themes harken back to the larger philosophical movement of transhumanism, which seeks to use technological advancements to augment the human body.
One of the earliest representations of transhumanism in literature is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (also often argued to be the first science fiction novel), where Victor Frankenstein’s Creature is a reflection of our inclination to test the boundaries of the human body. While Dr. Frankenstein discovers a way to bring life to an inanimate being, the monster he creates longs for purpose and companionship. Yet despite containing elements of the human body, the Creature is rejected by humans time and time again. While asking the question “what makes us human?” is interesting in a philosophical sense, from the standpoint of storytelling, it also sets up a more contentious narrative: if we can determine who is human, we can ultimately decide who is not human and who therefore does not deserve to be treated like a human; a classic story of us vs. them.
Drawing a boundary between human and machine is often the central premise in stories about androids, which are robots made in the likeness of humans, almost to an indistinguishable degree. In Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? bounty hunter Rick Deckard is tasked with finding and “retiring” a group of highly intelligent and partially organic androids. Because their true android-ness can only be confirmed by an invasive bone marrow test, Rick and his fellow bounty hunters rely on advanced empathy tests to determine whether or not an individual is an android and can legally be killed.
After one particularly frustrating interaction with an android (who he mistakenly believed to be human), Rick begins to wonder if fellow bounty hunter Phil Resch could also be an android. While Rick himself is not typically bothered by the nature of his work (he sees it as a necessary job), he is taken aback by Phil’s enjoyment of killing androids. Rick is hopeful that an empathy test will prove that Phil’s lack of empathy is a result of him being an android. However, when Phil is revealed to be human, Rick is met with the disturbing realization that he no longer understands the line that separates androids and humans. Evidently you don’t have to be an android to enjoy killing. In fact, it is Phil’s lack of empathy for androids that makes him such a successful bounty hunter. Rick begins to wonder if he himself is developing empathy for that which he is meant to be hunting.
This particular journey is common for characters in science fiction stories: they begin with a black and white view of who is and is not human, but as time goes on, it becomes more difficult to draw that line. Early in Androids, Rick’s wife calls him a “murderer hired by the cops” in reference to his work as a bounty hunter. His reply? "I've never killed a human being in my life." In the beginning, there is a clear distinction between killing an android and killing a human , but as the story progresses, our protagonist begins to wonder if maybe androids have a little bit of human in them after all...
This line between human and machine becomes even more precarious when we consider a second type of hybrid being explored in the science fiction genre: the cyborg. While androids are robotic in nature, cyborgs are humans that have been augmented or enhanced with technology. They are a blend of the organic and inorganic.
The main premise of cyborg fiction is pushing the boundaries of what the human body is capable of becoming and how far the line between the biological and technological can be blurred before the cyborg is no longer considered human. In cyborg fiction, there is also often a direct connection between the cyborg and the military industrial complex, with a thematic focus on enhancing the human body into a “super-soldier” (e.g., Terminator, RoboCop, Inspector Gadget, Iron Man, and the Six Million Dollar Man).
The very first science fiction book that I ever read, Anne McCaffrey's The Ship Who Sang, explores a world where human consciousness can be implanted into spaceships. In this world, the parents of babies who are born with severe and life-threatening physical disabilities can request to have their children’s brains encapsulated in ships (i.e, “Brainships”) rather than face euthanasia. The Brainships, who must then pay off their debt to society, are partnered with a “brawn”, a human who serves as a pseudo-pilot of the ship.
McCaffrey’s story, which she eventually expanded into a multi-story novel, was written as fun, speculative science fiction, which unfortunately, means that it missed an opportunity to critically examine the moral and ethical implications of using individuals with disabilities in such a way. In fact, the Brainship series, and the science fiction genre more broadly, has received considerable criticism (in my opinion, with good reason) from disability rights activists for focusing too heavily on creating a future where disabilities can be “fixed” with technology rather than imagining a future where the world is more accessible to and inclusive of those with disabilities. Despite its missteps, McCaffrey’s Brainship series remains a foundational piece in the cyborg conversation. The main character throughout the stories, a Brainship named Helva, is living proof that her human-ness exists beyond her body. Her existence is the ultimate intersection of human and machine.
What Are We?
Why do so many stories in the science fiction genre focus on the boundary between human and machine? Why does the human question really matter and why are we so curious about finding the answer? The truth is that, in many ways, the speculative future of cyborg fiction is already upon us.
Since the 13th century, humans have been enhancing their bodies with medical technology, most notably, eyeglasses. While glasses, and the contact lenses that followed, are not mechanical in nature, there is no denying that they are a method of augmenting our bodies with a synthetic device. As a long-time wearer of glasses and contacts, correcting my vision with this type of technology has always made me feel a little bit like a cyborg, especially because I am so highly dependent on these synthetic devices for everyday functioning. It still blows my mind that I can place this piece of curved silicone hydrogel (yeah, I had to look that up) on my eyeball and suddenly I can see clearly. Every time I take out my contacts or remove my glasses I am immediately reminded of the physical limitations of my body without those devices. We have since added to our medical repertoire even more advanced items such as prosthetic and bionic limbs, pacemakers, hearing aids, fall-detection devices, and continuous glucose monitoring patches. When considering the ways that technology can augment the human body, why stop there?
There is the obvious joke that some people seem to be “attached to their phone”, but is it really that outlandish to view our smartphones and smartwatches as extensions of our bodies? If your immediate response is, “No, smartphones and smartwatches are not extensions of our bodies,” I urge you to sit with the question for a little bit longer. What are the potential implications of accepting or not accepting these devices (and all technological devices) as parts of us? On the surface there appears to be a monumental difference between tech that is attached to or embedded in our bodies and tech that is augmentative and can be removed as desired, but is the difference between the two actually that clear cut?
With a smartwatch, I can now pay for things with my wrist. How different would it be to have a microchip implanted beneath my skin that can allow me to do the same? At one time that may have sounded like something straight out of science fiction; now it sounds relatively basic. Yet, while an implanted microchip has its benefits: there is little chance of misplacing it, having it stolen, or it running out of battery, you cannot remove a microchip in the way that you can take off a smartwatch. I fully expect that will see the widespread availability of implantable bio-microchips at some point in the next few decades, and when that time comes, we will have to reckon with what that means for the human question.
Even with a fairly clear distinction between devices that we can remove and those that we can’t, I would argue that we should view our relationship with these types of technologies on a continuum. For example, I can easily survive without my smartwatch, although my quality of life would change (for the better or worse still remains to be seen), and I can live without my glasses/contacts, but my quality of life would worsen significantly. Other forms of technology vary in the degree to which they are necessary to sustain life. Additionally, with devices such as prosthetic limbs and hearing aids, not everyone who is eligible to use them chooses to do so. The act of augmenting our bodies with technology is a deeply personal and individual decision, and one that has been advocated for fiercely by disability rights activists. Likewise, I am not arguing for a universally accepted cyborg identity. In fact, referring to ourselves as cyborgs still feels very much like something out of a science fiction story, but I don’t think we’re actually that far off from such a thing becoming our reality.
A few years after I began reading android and cyborg fiction, I came across Neil Harbisson, an artist and transpecies activist who is widely considered to be the first person legally recognized as a cyborg. Colorblind from birth, Neil invented, and had medically implanted in his skull, an antenna that allows him to hear color by translating the color into audible vibrations that he can sense through his occipital bone. As a co-founder of the Cyborg Foundation, Neil advocates for cyborg rights, which includes demonstrating to the world that his antenna is a part of his body rather than just an electronic device that he wears.
If you haven’t yet explored the transhumanism movement, it is truly fascinating. I’m a relative novice, so we can take the journey together, but the movement’s connection to the science fiction genre is unmistakable. We barely understand the intricacies of the human body as it is, and we’re already wildly curious about how we can move beyond it…
Envisioning a Cyborg World
The way that we conceive our humanness as we fuse our bodies with technological devices is an interesting philosophical question, but what are the practical implications of cyborgism on the world that we live in today?
My smartwatch does not just make me a cyborg, it also connects me to a networked society. It sends real time data, through Bluetooth, to an app on my phone, which is stored as “big data” in a company’s database. While the makers of smartwatches ensure privacy and protections, there is still a lot of uncertainty when it comes to the legality of selling biometric data to third-party vendors and the potential implications of data breaches.
In the first article of this series, I raised concern that people in positions of power often control language as a way of controlling people, but I think we should also be concerned with how those in positions of power use information as a form of control. When we control our own biometric data, we hold the power, but what happens when that data belongs to, and is used by, someone else?
A common element of the android/cyborg story is ownership. If androids are classified as (non-human) technology, then presumably, they can be owned by corporations. Androids have no bodily autonomy. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, androids are specifically produced and sold by corporations to be slaves and laborers. The androids that Rick Deckard is hunting have escaped their servitude on Mars and are living illegally on earth disguised as humans. In Androids, the distinction between human and machine can have fatal consequences. Now consider cyborgs: if the mechanical or synthetic portion of the cyborg body is classified as technological property (rather than as an integrated part of the body), how does that change the way that the world treats the cyborg? Likewise, if our cyborg tech is transmitting data (such as the case with my smartwatch or Neil Harbisson’s antenna), and corporations have some form of ownership of that data, do they own a part of the cyborg as well? Do they own a part of me?
I’m still reckoning with what it means to identify as cyborg (and how that identity speaks to the human question), but I am quite certain that my relationship with technology has evolved in unexpected ways over the last year. Yes, I feel more connected to my devices than ever before, but I never could have imagined how much they would become connected to me. It is within this interconnectivity, a biometric data feedback loop, that a new kind of cyborg begins to take shape. As new technologies are integrated into our bodies, and as the line between human and machine continues to blur, we will be asked to consider just how closely related we are to the androids and cyborgs of our science fiction stories. Maybe we’re not as different as we once thought.
So tell me, what should I read next? What’s your favorite story that pushes the boundaries of what it means to be human?
JL Snyder’s Android/Cyborg/Transhumanism “Need to Read” List:
I, Robot, Isaac Asimov
The Mechanical, Ian Tregillis
The Nexus Trilogy, Ramez Naam
Rifters Trilogy, Peter Watts Rifters
Ancillary Justice, Ann Leckie
The Man That Was Used Up, Edgar Allan Poe
Cyborg, Martin Caidin
The Clockwork Man, E.V. Odle
Augmented, James D. Prescott
References and Further Reader
Brashear, Regan. (Director and Producer). 2013. Fixed: The Science/Fiction of Human Enhancement. [Motion Picture]. New Day Films.
Dick, Philip K. 1968. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? New York: Doubleday.
McCaffrey, Anne. 1969. The Ship Who Sang. New York: Del Ray Books.
Shelley, Mary.  2009. Frankenstein. Oxford University Press.
Singh, Sarwant. 2017. “Transhumanism And The Future Of Humanity: 7 Ways The World Will Change By 2030.” Forbes, November 20.
Wittes, Benjamin, and Jane Chong. 2014. “Our Cyborg Future: Law and Policy Implications.” Brookings, September.
- JL Snyder
Other Contributed Work by JL Snyder:
Online Interaction, Social Surveillance, and the Looking Glass Emoji, JL Snyder
Where Am I? Consumerism, High Fantasy, and Longing for Reciprocity with the Earth, JL Snyder