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Modern Cyborgs Aren't Waiting Around for Evolution

"We realize that we have to be willing to build the future ourselves."

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  • Photo Credit: Lars Norgaard

The Skype ring tone filled the still air of my office before the screen flickered with the image of a woman—bleached blonde hair, dark eyes, blunt bangs that stretched to the top of her ear on the left side, her temple shaved underneath.   

“Hello, Moon?” I asked the screen.  

“Hi, how are you?” She responded in Catalan-accented English.  

It felt surreal, like something out of my cyberpunk fantasies, to be speaking through a digital feed to a cyborg in Barcelona. I've admired the work of Moon Ribas since I first read about it years ago. In a time where I not infrequently have 30 tabs on my computer open at once—completely inundated with information, data, ideas that I can hardly recall hours later—the story of the woman who could feel the earth move in her body never left me. Moon Ribas is at the forefront of a movement that newly articulates the intersection of art and science, advocating for the augmentation of the human experience through, as she describes it, cyborgism. 

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  • Moon Ribas

    Photo Credit: Neil Harbisson

“We extend our senses in order to perceive reality,” Ribas explained, her image flickering briefly, then stabilizing; her voice receding through the distance between us. “We use technology … as an input, from the outside world to us.” Though she had long experimented with wearable technology that enhanced her perceptions of movement (Ribas is a dancer and choreographer, as such, her interest in movement is logical) she is best known for her “seismic sense.”

In 2013 Ribas developed a device and soon had it implanted into her arm near the elbow. Connected to online seismographs, the device works as a sensor that vibrates any time there is an earthquake on the planet. Vibrations vary in intensity based on where on the Richter scale the earthquake tops out. She uses her adaptation to create dances, percussion pieces, and sculpture, but also, though it may seem incongruous to those unfamiliar with the movement, to get closer to nature.   

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“It's very different to know the planet is moving, than to feel it, to feel that it is alive and constantly moving,” Ribas elaborated. To her, her extra sense creates empathy with the natural world in all its beauty and violence. It also powerfully iterates something that human beings often forget—that we too, are a part of that world; another organic, living element.  

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“Everyone with extended senses is more connected to the planet. I feel that it could change [humanity's] behavior … This could lead to learning how to live on our own planet and maybe stop [us from] changing our environment and become more brave to change ourselves.” There was a lull as we waited through the digital lag in our conversation. After the pause, Ribas thoughtfully added, “Think of it—if we had created night vision instead of a light bulb, we would still be able to see the stars at night, no?”  

The word cyborg has been a bit misused

Perhaps it was Ribas's poetic musings, coupled with the raw, broad implications of her work that so strongly attracted me to it all those years ago, when I sat in the basement of my university's library, briefly diverting my attention from studies to click-through a link that baited me. The headline proclaimed something like “Cyborgs are Real!". Science fiction nerd that I've always been, I wanted to know the truth of it. In the dusty stacks, their physicality feeling far from futuristic, was where I first discovered Ribas and the ethos of her brand of cyborgism.

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The suggestion that adapting ourselves instead of forcing the planet to change to meet the ever-increasing needs of humanity was a revelation then, just as it is now. In the face of dramatic, human-created climate shifts, and subsequent drought, flooding and other natural catastrophe, creating change in our species, as opposed to our habitat, seemed like gospel.   

Yet, this is not an epiphany that the majority of humanity is likely to accept any time soon, especially when attached to a term so foreign—like something from a distant, dystopian future. 

“The word cyborg has been a bit misused,” Ribas explained. “Our generation … relates it to the bad union of technology and humans, or that it is cold and distant and against nature and against other species.” In fact, however, the term “cyborg” was coined in 1960 as a contraction of “cybernetic organism”—designed to describe astronauts altering their bodies with drugs to adapt for space travel. And that kind of practical transhumanism is something our species has been practicing since we started using tools thousands of year ago, and has always been strongly rooted in self-direction and autonomy.  

Transhumanism is a concept that encompasses those pointedly human ideals. The word can be simply defined as the belief that human beings can evolve beyond what seem like the limitations of our minds and physical bodies. In the contemporary consciousness, transhumanism is most often achieved through the use of technology. In a world where artificial intelligence, cybernetics, genomics and cyborg artists like Ribas exist, transhumanism isn't the fodder of some distant sci-fi future, it is a 21st century reality. While Ribas favors the term “cyborg,” defining it not as an added ability, but as an extended sense, transhumanism can be used as a blanket term, encompassing the ever-shifting categories of post-humanism, biohacking, and the growing movement associated with the liberated practice of “grinding.”    

I imagine going to a bar in 50 years and apart from asking where you're from, you'd also ask: What sense do you have? How did you decide to perceive reality?

“[We're] not content simply waiting for the future to be provided to us by corporations, ivory tower institutions, or government agents. We realize that we have to be willing to build the future ourselves,” Ryan O'Shea, the spokesman for biotechnology startup Grindhouse Wetware wrote to me from the business's headquarters in Pennsylvania. “That means doing this work on DIY budgets within the maker and hacker communities.” 

Grindhouse Wetware, an open source biotechnology outfit founded by Tim Cannon, has been blending art and science through affordable technological augmentations since 2012, often working within the body modification community through the practice of grinding—a flavor of transhumanism that seeks alternative routes to outfitting the human body with technology, as these implants are not widely condoned in the medical world.

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Human life is already so suffused with technology, one might argue, that it is difficult to see where the stigma attached to transhumanism springs from. “When modern humans think of what it would mean to be transhuman, we often imagine advancements such as mind uploading, 3D printing replacement body parts on demand, expanded sensory perception … But what would someone centuries ago imagine a transhumanist to be?” O'Shea asked.  

What people centuries ago might have defined as transhumanist, in fact, very much aligns with the reality of the average person today. We already communicate in real-time audio and visual feeds to people all over the world, we venture into space, we fly, we replace missing body parts with mechanical versions. It's a myth that augmentation is anything new, and as ever, we are constantly accepting new technology into our lives, a practice that suggests implanting that technology won't remain taboo for long. “I certainly believe that the kinds of elective technological augmentations that Grindhouse is developing will soon be commonplace,” O'Shea summarized. And “much like previous advancements, the early adopters of this technology are the artists, the makers, the hackers, the alternative cultures.”  

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Ribas's vision of the future is similar: “I imagine going to a bar in 50 years and apart from asking where you're from, you'd also ask: What sense do you have? How did you decide to perceive reality?” Though Ribas looks entirely human, I still start to imagine something like the Mos Eisley Cantina on Tatooine. But I realize that's unfair. The future Ribas is speaking of is largely already here, not something out of a piece of science fiction. The bars occupied by those with extended senses will look just like the dingy dive around the corner from my office, the cyborgs will look like Ribas and O'Shea.  

Through the Cyborg Foundation (started by Ribas and another cyborg artist, Neil Harbisson) and Grindhouse Wetware, the cyborg-curious can learn more about extending the senses and even buy the equipment they need to evolve their own perceptions. Both Ribas and O'Shea engineer their own futures through the radical self-determination of transhumanism. They are very well at the forefront of our global evolution, announcing the very future of our species. Such conviction and self-definition, one might suggest, is, at the core, what makes us most human.   

Featured photo: Lars Norgaard

This article was originally published January 2nd, 2017.