Neil Harbisson was born with a severe form of colour blindness meaning that he could only see grey-scale. He has developed an antenna that allows him to perceive visible and invisible colours such as infrared and ultraviolet via sound waves. He can also receive images, videos, music or phone calls directly into his head via external devices such as mobile phones or satellites.
Harbisson performed a TED talk which explained his experience and his perception of life, and it’s amazing to listen to. It reminds me of Synesthetes trying to describe their sensory experience, except this time Harbisson designed his own perceptions, in a way.
Harbisson has never seen colours so he cannot understand what they look like, however his antenna allows him to appreciate different colours in his own way; through sound. As you can see, once Harbisson had become used to the sound of colours, it became a perception for him, in other words, he didn’t have to translate the notes anymore, he unconsciously understood what they meant. He then began to associate the different sounds with feelings, and soon felt like the device and his body were indistinguishable.
The software extended his knowledge of the world. First it enabled him to understand the different colours, something which those around him also had the capability to do. Then Harbisson exceeded the abilities of others when the software was designed to allow him to perceive UV, infrared, pick up calls and receive videos and images. His embodied experience of the world changed because his perception of the world widened. He now officially identifies as a cyborg because he defines his antenna as an extension of his brain. If it were removed his perception of the world would narrow, changing his embodied experience.
Cyborg: a living being whose powers are enhanced by computer implants or mechanical body parts.
(Collins online dictionary).
This raises many questions about what it means to be human, and whether we will even distinguish between humans and ‘cyborgs’ in a future where many people’s bodies may be integrated with machines. Even now, phones, smart technology and organ transplants enhance human functions and realms of perception, therefore changing our embodied experiences.
Do we consider these advancements to make us cyborgs? According to many common definitions of cyborg, we could consider a phone to enhance our abilities (or ‘powers’) because the way we think and our realm of knowledge is affected by commonly interacting with a phone.
What do you think? Maybe what we define as human and what we define as cyborg may have to change to become more integrated in the near future.
This also makes me question how the perceptions of body and mind as a dualism may change when technology becomes more widespread. Susanne Küchler discusses wearable technology and its increasing integration with the body in her work titled, “Technological Materiality: Beyond the Dualist Paradigm”. She states that wearable ‘smart’ technology was designed to be more efficient than the embodied mind, and to be distributed, “across surfaces external to the embodied mind,”. Küchler questions how wearable technology will change the way people conceive the mind and body, and whether the constant tracking of the body ‘s condition with this technology will have an influence on our lived experience and the way we think about ourselves, our embodied mind and our ‘wearable mind’.
Ana Viseu also focusses on wearable computers and perceptions of the self. She states that wearable technology will result in a more informed self. The data it feeds back to us about our body may make us more aware of our embodied experiences of the world, or may make us consider them in a more mathematical or technical way.
Maybe the technology will be seen as the ‘external mind’, whilst the body and mind are seen as one, thus making the Cartesian split occur between the technology and ourselves, rather than the traditional split between our physical bodies and our ‘conceptual’ minds.
Or, like Harbisson’s antenna, will the technology completely integrate into our bodies to become an unnoticeable part of our embodied experience?
“Within these intensified informational regimes a body that knows itself becomes an informed body with a responsibility to act within intensified self-knowledge, self-improvement and bodily control”.
I’m just speculating here, because it is interesting to anticipate the influence wearable technology will have. Already, mobile phones have changed many aspects of what we expect from human communication.
What I find interesting is that once you are exposed to using a particular framework, for example a smart phone, you begin to think in terms of this framework more and more often, until you rely on it. For example, I have an app on my phone that allows me to detect what song is playing. Instead of relying on my own knowledge, I use the phone. In this way, the app has become an extension of my knowledge like Harbisson’s eye, because it allows me to access information that I otherwise wouldn’t be able to access.
Do you interact with modes of technology that affect your embodied experience?
Küchler, S. (2008). Technological Materiality. Theory, Culture & Society, 25(1), pp.101-120.
Viseu, A. (2003). Social dimensions of wearable computers: an overview. Technoetic Arts, 1(1), pp.77-82.
Collins Online Dictionary: https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/cyborg
The video I used is a TED Talk from TED.com.
Here is Neil Harbisson’s wesite- http://harbisson.com/