Our imagined vision of a cyborg is sleek steel merging into perfect flesh, an insultingly naive perspective for those with genuine need of prosthetic limbs and a misleading fantasy at best. If a cyborg is a blend of technology and biology, then we are all cyborgs, complex cybernetic networks of beings and things so vast and unfathomable that we routinely fail to notice even the local clusterings that facilitate our lives, let alone the global dimensions.
For instance, how many of us appreciate that our daily shower rituals are an end node of a network that commences with vast deforestation in countries such as Indonesia? Shampoo is a gelatinous liquid we’ve used to wash our hair since 1927. For the last two decades, all of the giant corporate distributors of shampoo have been using palm oil as an ingredient – ironically to restore the natural oils you biological produce but that are stripped away by washing with shampoo. Hence we become palm oil cyborgs – we grease our hair with it, consume it in everything from ice cream to tortilla chips, and turn it in to biofuel to dilute the petroleum used to power our most popular and deadliest prosthetic, the automobile.
These kind of giant cybernetic networks are what I call in The Virtuous Cyborg ‘cybergs’, in reference to the way we can only see the surface of an iceberg while the bulk of the ice is below the surface, invisible. For the palm oil cyberg, we may notice our shiny hair, but we do not notice the rapidly diminishing populations of orang-utan, the vast releases of greenhouse gases, or the devastation of rainforests cleared to grow palm trees in order to meet the vast global demand for cheap vegetable oils.
With our imagined shiny cyborgs, we vainly fantasise about the power and elegance of make-believe metal-flesh. Yet we do not contemplate the environmental impact of producing all this circuitry and steel, we do not consider how wishing for a cybernetic arm is to fantasise about amputation, how much more troublesome it would be to have limbs that require powering and repairing next to flesh that we fuel by eating and that possesses a near miraculous capacity to repair itself. We twenty-first century cyborgs sleepwalk towards catastrophe while dreaming about grotesque scenarios that we delude ourselves into thinking are desirable.
If I may paraphrase Martin Niemöller: first we drove the Sumatran tiger to extinction, but we didn’t care because our hair was glossy. Then we drove the orang-utan to extinction, but we didn't care because we can't get enough Doritos. Then we cleared out the rainforests, but we didn't care because we were driving our cars. Then, we drove ourselves to extinction, and nobody was the least surprised. There is no need for this degree of fatalism: we may not control our cybergs, but we can influence them. Perhaps it is time to stop dreaming about shiny metal cyborgs and start becoming good cyborgs instead.
A Hundred Cyborgs, #44