Until now, we have imagined the coming cyborgs as physical amalgamations of humans and machines; of flesh and tech. But the power of the cyborg concept as it pertains to the future of work is not restricted by these physical pairings. Instead, the virtual world of Cyberspace enables the construction of cyborgs that are better imagined as assemblages.
It is tempting to imagine the cyborg as Schwarzenegger’s ‘Terminator’ or as a near future being wearing Google Glass, Fitbit trackers, GPS, a pacemaker and a designer limb. While there is enormous mileage in these ideas we have to keep ourselves challenged by the knowledge that the new frontiers are not physical, but are billions of virtual networked nodes that don’t exist in space.
What example can we use to understand what this means?
Imagine a doctor in Amsterdam, Holland and a child in Asmara, Eritrea. The child has an accident in which she suffers trauma to the left side of the skull resulting in a section being destroyed. By putting on a pair of networked gloves and eye goggle cameras, the nurse in Asmara is able to become the ‘hands’ and ‘eyes’ of the doctor in Holland. As the doctor moves her own gloves, the movements are replicated by the nurse’s and pressure signals are fed back to Holland to enable the doctor there to examine the patient.
Following the initial examination the doctor requests a 3D x-ray scan of the child’s skull which is sent electronically from Asmara to Holland and printed out in a life size form on a 3D printer. This enables the doctor to see and better understand the nature of the damage.
The software that was used to scan the skull can also ‘repair’ the virtual image by assessing the gap and providing a computer generated image of the missing piece. This is printed out again – but this time in Titanium in Asmara. The doctor then brings in a surgeon who again borrows the nurse’s hands to perform the surgery. Throughout the surgery the normal observations and recordings are undertaken by computer which is constantly comparing the actual data against anticipated data and can alert the surgeon if there is data he may be interested to see.
We are left now with three possible cyborg assemblages:
1) The nurse whose ‘hands’ and ‘eyes’ are operated by more than one person.
2) The doctor or surgeon physically detached from the hands and eyes being used to treat the patient (but mentally attached).
3) The child who is now part organic and part titanium.
Are we happy with this idea of cyborg assemblages? Perhaps it is easier to accept that the nurse in Asmara has become a cyborg but not the medics in Amsterdam? Maybe we think a small piece of metal is not enough to say that the child has become a cyborg.
Wherever we stand on this question, we have to keep focussed on the reality that in cyberspace connections, limbs and extensions can operate across thousands of miles and, if this concept of the cyborg is to be at all useful, we have to keep challenging it in this way.