MEDIA: Cyborgs in the NYTimes

Roderick A. Carder-Russell (
Wed, 26 Feb 1997 16:34:36 -0500 (EST)

February 26, 1997


The Cyborg as Warp-Speed Evolution

Thirty-six years ago, Manfred E. Clynes and Nathan S. Kline,
two medical researchers at
Rockland State Hospital in Orangeburg, N.Y., published a
paper in the journal Astronautics
that proposed a fascinating and strange solution to some
difficult problems of long space flights.

Clynes and Kline believed that trying to maintain a perfect
environment in a space ship was both difficult and dangerous
because of the fragility of a capsule and the enormous demands
of the body for oxygen, food and water.

Millions of years of evolution created human bodies that are
well adapted to Earth. But space posed a whole new
environment to which humans were poorly suited. In space,
people were fish out of water.

As a solution, they suggested slightly changing the human body
so that it would be better suited to the rigors of space. They
believed it was time to tinker with evolution.

"Space travel challenges mankind not only technologically but
also spiritually, in that it invites man to take an active part
in his
own biological evolution," the two researchers wrote.

Clynes, the chief research scientist at Rockland, and Kline, the
director of research at the hospital, wrote in their 1960 paper
that devices embedded in the body could automatically alter
certain body functions and regulate them in the same way that
the body does now. Through the use of drugs and other means,
these devices could lower body temperature, heighten radiation
resistance and even prevent future astronauts from feeling
bored, depressed or sexually deprived on long flights.

With these devices there was the possibility of human beings
living in space qua natura -- a native of the cosmos. To
describe this new being, they coined the
term "cyborg," that is, a cybernetic organism. Included with
their paper was a picture of a white
mouse with an osmotic pump over its tail -- the first cyborg.

Ever since the publication of "Cyborgs and Space" in 1960, the
concept of the human-machine
being has entranced scientists and laymen alike. NASA even
published several reports on possible
cyborg research, although it quickly abandoned the term in favor
of the more scientific sounding
terms like "teleoperator" or "human augmentation."

Some people argue that a simple type of cyborg now makes up
about 10 percent of the
population, a figure arrived at by adding up everybody with a
pacemaker, prosthetic device or
other electrical or mechanical body component. Some have even
stretched the definition to include
all those who work at computer terminals or some other form of
close linkage between humans
and machines.

But the advanced cyborg envisioned by Clynes, Kline and others
-- one that enhances human
abilities and totally merges with the body -- has largely
remained a denizen of science fiction,
known to the public through characters like The Terminator or

In the past decade, however, the cyborg has begun to emerge from
the world of fiction and
assume a position of significance in the minds of sociologists,
historians and others as a symbol of
the dissolving boundaries between humans and machines.

For millennia, human beings have protected the sanctity and
unity of the body. It was the filter
through which our world was perceived and understood. It was the
element that defined our role
and place in society. It defined our evolved position as the
masters of this planet.

But the technological cataclysms of the past
century have gradually jarred
that view. We are no longer masters but
rather ants once again. Space
exploration has certainly placed human
existence in a new context. You
can feel the sense of smallness now. We no
longer perceive ourselves as
the center of the cosmos but as mere dust in
a vast universe.

Even here on Earth, the development of powerful technologies
like nuclear weapons and the
computer have pointed out the inadequacies of homo sapiens. We
still excel in many areas, yet
cannot compete against some of our own creations. The pace of
our body's evolution is too slow
to adapt to the environment we have created.

In the past, humans have used tools and machinery (self-powered
tools) to overcome certain
physical and mental weaknesses. But virtually all of them
required conscious action to manipulate.

Kline and Clynes believed that the solution lay in forging an
intimate connection between machines
and the human mind below the conscious level. They proposed
automatic devices that required
little monitoring by their human hosts. For example, an embedded
osmotic pump could be used to
sense high radiation levels and then provide drugs that could
increase resistance. They also
suggested using automatically administered drugs to lower body
temperature and thus to reduce
the need for food and fluid.

One of my favorite examples is the use of an implanted drug pump
to combat psychotic episodes.
The pump could be triggered remotely from earth or by the poor
fellow's crew mate in case of

In many ways, the key concept behind Clynes and Kline's cyborg
was the linking to subconscious
functions. Only then did humans and machines operate as one --
just as the words cybernetic and
organism had been collapsed into a single term. Clynes was far
more expansive in his definition of
a cyborg, saying that even a person riding a bicycle could be
considered one because of the close
link in operation between machine and rider.

In the years to follow, Clynes continued to develop the concept
of the cyborg, coming up with a
Cyborg II, III, IV and V.

Cyborg II involved the manipulation of human emotions through a
series of mental exercises. III
involved genetic alterations to enhance the human emotional
range, while IV involved deeper
genetic changes and V brought the separation of mind from body.

What is fascinating about Clynes and his cyborgs is that he
believed that even with these extreme
modifications to homo sapiens, there would be no change to the
fundamental essence of humans.

Clynes said in an interview published in 1995 in the "The Cyborg
Handbook" that these emotional
and physical changes had in no way altered the ability of these
beings to experience emotions --
"no more than riding a bicycle does, and even more importantly,
it hasn't altered their essential

It seems strange to think that even minor modifications to the
body and mind -- the filters through
which we perceive reality -- would not result in fundamental
changes. What if the blind could see
or the weak become strong?

Perhaps there is some protected essence that can never be
changed. But what relevance does that
have when something as radical as gender, mental capacity,
strength, emotional range and other
aspects of life have been altered? Marshall McLuhan, who
insisted that electronic media were
extensions of human senses, made a career out of dissecting how
just television and mass media
brought about fundamental changes in how we perceive reality.

In the past few decades, the science of cyborgs has moved
slowly, but the imagery of the modern
Frankenstein has captured the interest of sociologists,
historians and philosophers. For them, the
image of a changeable, hybrid body and mind has come to stand
for a transformation of all the
structures of the past, including race and gender dynamics, that
have grown out of the particular
form of our bodies.

The cyborg is beginning to destroy the hard boundaries not only
between humans and machines
but also between humans themselves. It is, as the science
historian Danna J. Haraway wrote, a
reinvention of nature.

NEXT WEEK: Cyborgology

SURF & TURF is published weekly, on Wednesdays. Click here for a
list of links to
other columns in the series.

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Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company

Roderick A. Carder-Russell
Student-Computer Science, Philosophy
Specializing in Man-Machine Symbiosis
Suspension Member-Alcor Foundation
Information Systems Consultant-Technology Syllogistics