Just in time for Cyborg Month! (Well, every day is Cyborg Month around here, but you get the idea.) Recently, M1k3y and I had the chance to have a talk with our favourite Cyborg Anthropologist, Amber Case. We covered the history of cyborgs, the impact of her accident and subsequent surgeries, games, anthropology, the past present and future of CyborgCamp and a few other things.
You recently came close to what most people think of a Cyborg as a
result of your accident at SXSW, correct? How has recovery been, and
has actually having implants – of a fairly mundane but important kind
- refined your ideas regarding Cyborgs?
On March 17, 2010, I slipped on a slippery deck in Austin, Texas on the last day of the SXSW conference.
The image above is an X-ray of what the orthopedic surgeon put into my ankle. The surgery was originally supposed to take 45 minutes, but when they opened up the sides of my ankle, they realized that all the bones had splintered into tiny pieces. The surgery ended up taking 4 hours. A lot of hardware was required to stabilize the bones while they healed back into place.
When I woke up from the surgery I was on so much pain killer that I couldn’t think or speak straight. I realized, as I lay in bed for the next 2 weeks, sleeping 20 hours a day, that there is a very important piece of time that is lost in the digital world. This piece of time is the time of nothingness. Of being alone with thoughts. Today, a lot of the space between moments is often filled with mobile devices. If you’re waiting in line for something, chances are, you might pull out your phone to distract yourself. This instant fix of connectivity happens all the time, so much so that your brain becomes used to non-stop stimulus and craves it when information turns off.
I couldn’t use a computer for a month after my surgery. Except for a few tweets here and there, and some E-mail on my iPhone, the rest of the day was spent in silence. Instead of living one moment to the next, I used the time to understand and plan for long term things, not just short term things. In short, getting injured provided me with a break and a completely different view on the world. I highly suggest it.
Another thing I discovered was that moving around in a wheelchair is an amazing experience. It’s slower and puts things at a completely different eye-level than usual. I found myself noticing the world around me, not just the digital world. I also gained a greater appreciation of Twitter. Even though I could barely move, I was still connected. From the 18th-20th centuries, advances in transportation were concerned with the physical self. Planes, trains and automobiles became faster and more efficient. The computer age advanced the ability for one to transport the mental self. Geography is annihilated.
How does it feel to be the name – besides Donna Haraway – that most people think of when they hear “Cyborg Anthropologist?”
In the early 90′s Donna Haraway proposed what she termed a “cyborg anthropology” to study the relation between the machine and the human, and she adds that it should proceed by “provocatively” reconceiving “the border relations among specific humans, other organisms, and machines. But Haraway wasn’t the first to discuss Cyborg Anthropology. In fact, concepts of human and technological interaction have been seriously examined by anthropologists since 1942, with the initial focus being the use and effects of feedback. These discussions led to the Macy Conferences in the 1940′s and 50′s. These were no ordinary conferences. They were attended by academic and technological luminaries such as Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, John von Neumann and Norbert Weiner, inventor of the field of Cybernetics.
Though Haraway’s “A Cyborg Manifesto” was published in 1991, it wasn’t until 1993 that the idea of a “Cyborg Anthropology” was formally proposed at the Annual Meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) by Joeseph Dumit and Robbie Davis-Floyd. Robbie’s interests were in human reproduction, which is one of the first fields that the study of cyborg anthropology was seriously applied to. If you think about it, the modern birthing process is extremely cybernetic. There are all sorts of machines that allow a doctor see what a baby looks like inside the womb. If a baby has a difficult time being born, a Caesarean section can be preformed with minimal risk to the mother. If a baby is premature, it can be hooked up to an incubator, the equivalent of an external cybernetic womb.
I studied the anthropology of Internet marketing when I first left college. I knew that if I didn’t quickly make a career for myself, or be findable, I’d never survive. I wrote my thesis early and spent the last semester of college inventing courses for myself to take with titles like “Corporate Information and Power”. Then I went to conferences on marketing and business and met people. It was that networking that brought my degree to life, and it was the title cyborg anthropologist that made people stop and ask me what that meant, vs. simply being a marketer or consultant. I expected the field of Cyborg Anthropology to develop over time, and was surprised that there were not more cyborg anthropologists out there. Technically, anthropologist danah boyd’s research on teenagers and social networks falls into the field of cyborg anthropology. I’d also recommend the work of Sadie Plant (specifically her essay “On the Mobile”, and MIT’s Sherry Turkle, who wrote and edited dozens of books about humans and technology far before technology was ubiquitous as it is now.
Do you have any thoughts on on recreational cyborg-ery; the move of home gaming systems towards more physically interactive designs and the nascent field of AR gaming?
The Internet as Playground and factory is the best phrase I’ve found to describe what’s going on in the virtual and physical worlds. Foursquare makes it so that every venue in real life has a point value. Yelp makes it so that every place is an experience that can be reported on and shared. Facebook and Twitter turn everyday interactions into historical text.
But each moment of play is also a moment of work. Each additional review, each status update, and every Foursquare check-in is work. Because it is fun, there is no friction to contributing. But it is still work. The Facebook database is updated by millions of unpaid workers every day, voluntarily contributing their content in order to receive responses and content and the release of oxytocin that comes with a community’s response to their contribution. The more one contributes to Facebook, the more information Facebook has on human interests and behavior. And the more information Facebook has on human interests and behavior, the more advertiser on Facebook pay for access to demographic data.
Reality is boring. Waiting in line at the DMV suck. Real life takes time. Digital life is more instantaneous. In real life, the time and space between goals and accomplishments is often large. For some, it is physically impossible to achieve certain things, like purchasing a Ferrari or rising above middle management in their career path. Online gaming, especially sites like Farmville step in to take care of that void. Whereas one doesn’t have the money, time or room for a real garden, Farmville provides one without the back aching labor. All reality is replaced by small icons, and time is compressed so that goals and accomplishments are right next to one another. Everything has a point value and a reward. When real life takes so long to reward someone, online gaming is often a better and more enjoyable alternative.
In the future, hybrid reality, or life which is both a game and real, might blot out the mild dystopia that we all live in. Or it will make us more intolerable of the space between reality. And for those who spend a lot of time in reality, Foursquare is a good add-on for making the mundane exciting. To be crass, one might say that Foursquare is kind of like dogs pissing on fire hydrants and having other dogs come along and sniff them to see who’s been there. The dog with the most potent urine is mayor of the fire hydrant.
Some of the current hybrid reality games involve players getting +1 followers, and +1 likes. In an RPG, you might battle creatures with similar stats, or team with them. On Twitter, you might talk or argue with those who have similar stats. These stats are not new. They always existed in some form or another in real life. The Internet is not building these stats, but is making visible stats that people already have between each other. (See Paul Adam’s brilliant slides on this subject). The web also offers the opportunity for people in different geographies and times to connect with one another based on stats. In a reputation economy, one levels up or down after gaining or losing friends or followers. How much one levels up depends on the quality and actual connectedness of a friend or follower.
When I think of reality and mobile technology gaming I often think of the Tamagotchi. The Tamagotchi was one of the first major virtual pets to hit the market. Since its introduction in 1996, over 70 million Tamagotchis have been sold. The toy is simple. Children and teens feed, train and clean up after a virtual pet through a few buttons on the screen. In return, the pet grows older. Teens took to the toys in school and became obsessive about maintaining them. Why? The virtual pet on the device exhibited signs of life – it had needs, grew, and died. Each of these aspects caused toy owners to become mentally attached to them, responding to the stimulus with the correct series of button presses.
Real life relationships are complex. They must be maintained, or they fade away. The cell phone, like the Tamagotchi, is a virtual way to feed relationships. Friends may be fed by button presses, and looked after. A mobile phone cries, and it must be picked up and soothed back to sleep. When it runs out of battery power it must be fed. Because the mobile phone requires attention, it too resembles a living creature. Cell phones now live in our pockets and wake us up in the morning. They are our dashboards for interfacing with friends, family and appointments. They connect us to the database on which we now live.
I think one of the best people in this field is Jane McGonigal. I’d highly suggest watching her talk on “Saving the World Through Game Design” from the 2008 New Yorker conference. or reading the paper she wrote on “i love bees”, an excellent massive alternate reality game with thousands of participants. Another great resource in this field is Mary Flanigan. She studies games and wrote a wonderful book called Critical Play that combines a view of games from 3,000 years ago, modern use of games in Art movements, and digital games.
Do you see a lot of currently externalized technologies such as cell-phones and portable entertainment platforms becoming internalized in our lifetimes? For that matter what do you think the odds are of viable and substantial life extension in the near future?
One of the risks of internalizing technologies such as cell phones is that human bodies are prone to viruses, and software and hardware devices are just not good enough. They fail all of the time. They’re full of bugs. They’re full of security risks and faultly code. This is not the problem of code, but of the messy conditions in which much of the code that runs mainstream devices is created. Marketers, managers, investors, board members, programmers – those with bad documentation practices – those who leave in the middle of a project, changing protocols, communication between devices, software updates, legacy software, production practices, pricing, cutting corners – all of these things prevent implantable hardware from functioning as well as one might like it to. There’s also a problem with upgrading hardware once it is implanted. The decision to purchase a cell phone is already a difficult one. The decision to have an operation to implant something in your body something a quite a bit more involved than that.
Feed by M.T. Anderson is an adolescent fiction book that deals with a lot of these concepts, specifically issues of class status, consumption, and faulty electronics. The premise of the book is quite simple – everyone gets an implant when they are young that allows them to connect to the “Feed” (this book was written before the idea of the Facebook feed, and before the concept of Feeds in general). Those with less money have faultier feeds than others, and this is what I expect might happen when people begin getting implants. They’ll need to be updated every few years, or less. Even today, those who do not update their external prosthetic devices experience those devices turning against them. Hang on to an old computer or car for too long, and it’ll break. If you don’t have enough money to upgrade to the next technology, bad things happen.
I guess while we’re talking about advancing technologies, I’m contractually obligated to ask about your stance on the Technological Singularity – Where do you fall in regards to Extropianism or the Singularity?
I think the Singularity has happened already – but only three times. The first time was the Earthquake in Haiti. The second was Micheal Jackson’s death, and the third was the World Cup. It’s a snarky reply, but it’s the one I’ve been giving recently. Everyone was with technosocial access was connected in each of those situations, and everyone was following along. A more serious reply is not going to fit in this blog post, as I only barely touched it in my thesis on cell phones and technosocial sites of engagement.
What’s the quick summary of the CyborgCamp concept?
CyborgCamp is an unconference about the future of the relationship between humans and technology. We discuss topics such as social media, design, code, inventions, web 2.0, twitter, the future of communication, cyborg technology, anthropology, psychology, and philosophy. It’s a small conference that attracts around 120 participants, slightly less than Dunbar’s Number. The speakers and sponsors generally come from the local community. In 2008 we had Ward Cunningham, inventor of the first wiki. He gave a fascinating speech on Seeing that left the audience stunned. Ward does not think in the same way that anyone else thinks. His approach to problem solving is an incredible thing to watch.
In my experience with the “unconference” structure, sometimes themes develop organically from the participants – was there a particular theme that struck you as emerging from CyborgCamp Seattle?
CyborgCamp Seattle had varying themes and people from many different backgrounds giving speeches. My favorite one was an extremely in-depth speech on the history of cybernetics. The CEO of a security company demoed his upcoming TED talk on the use of shovels in developing countries, and I gave a talk on non-visual augmented reality with SMS and GPS. At one point, a number of us got into a passionate discussion on the effect of technology on education. That one was the most unexpected and organic, and it was fun to discuss.
Have previous CyborgCamps spawned projects or offshoots of their own?
Yes, the first CyborgCamp in Portland, Oregon and it helped a local videomaker get his business off the ground. There will be one in Brazil in the next year, and there was one in Seattle a few months ago.
CyborgCamp Seattle is now in your rear-view mirror, and with CyborgCamp Portland and Brazil coming up, are there any takeaways from Seattle that you think will inform the next Camps this year? Any thoughts on Camps further abroad than Brazil?
Each CyborgCamp takes on the unique flavor of the location in which it is planned. There is no way to predict what each one will be like before it occurs.
It’s been fantastic talking with you – is there anything you’d like to leave us with?
Thanks! It’s been a good time. If you’d like to learn more about Cyborg Anthropology, this site is slowly developing http://cyborganthropology.com/, as well as this webcast: http://cyborganthropology.com/O%27Reilly_Webcast. I’m also on Twitter at @caseorganic. There’s also a great project called 50 Posts about Cyborgs that people who like cyborgs will probably enjoy.