Last week’s lecture made me realise that cyborgs go far beyond what I thought they were. My idea of cyborgs was pretty simplistic: On the one hand it makes me think of people with prosthetics or some other mechanical or technical thing that helps them in their daily life, but has no further influence on the individual. This is the more real kind we see in the world. On the other hand it made me think of a not completely human being, a human enhanced (but at the same time corrupted or replaced) by technology; a human part is replaced something mechanical and in this way something human is lost. This image of the cyborg likely comes from science fiction movies and other digital media. Cyborgs are pretty common in the cinematic universe, especially in sci-fi, but I realised that there are a lot of people in movies that I had not considered as cyborgs before who fit the definition of the term cyborg.
“A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction.”Haraway, A Cyborg Manifesto
This made me see that cyborg are actually portrayed pretty diverse and there are a lot of interesting plot options surrounding cyborgs. So I thought it would be fun to look at a few examples in movies and series that I watched.
Arcane (League of Legends)
Victor from Arcane fits quite well into the standard or even stereotypical image of a cyborg. He starts out with medical problems that cause him trouble in his daily life. As a scientist he finds ways to help himself with these problems by using unpredictable and dangerous technology. He believes that humanity must evolve through cybernetics to survive. He seeks to eliminate all sources of human error, which he believed to be the root cause of failure in society. This creates an interesting tension between the human and machine components.
Ghost in the Shell
This movie is a classic in the cyberpunk genre and while it at first seems to be about the typical battle between man and machine, it ends up in a synthesis of the two. It has interesting philosophical material relating to cyborgs. The movie questions what a human truly is, introducing Motoko Kusanagi, who has her human soul placed in a synthesized body and the Puppet Master, a technological being or thing that attained sentience. Kusanagi doubts if she is truly human and if she is a real being or manufactured in this scene.
Here (warning: nudity) the Puppet Master tries to convince people conscious technology can have the same value as human individuals and can be just as human. It makes you think about the limits between technological and human intelligence and if they can be equal.
Pinokkio (Guillermo del Toro version)
Pinocchio is not the first thing I would think of when I hear the word ‘cyborg’, but I do think he falls in this category. If it was a tree that comes to life he would not be a cyborg, but a crafted puppet is a mechanical thing. He starts off as a lifeless wooden doll, but he is given human consciousness or a human soul. I think this could be seen as a metaphorical exploration of the cyborg-identity. In this case the mechanical does not support the human consciousness but the soul gives life to the mechanical. It raises the question what makes a real human being and whether something that has a crafted human consciousness is human in the same degree as we are? A scene with a death entity goes a little bit into this theme.
Pinocchio himself behaves like a real boy and also feels like one, but by his surroundings he is often not perceived as a fully human being or he is by lack of empathy for his emotional suffering misused for his special abilities.
White Christmas (Black Mirror S2 E4)
The black mirror episode ‘White Christmas’ introduces to cases of cyborg tech. The cyborg elements in the episode are a lot closer to the things we already use nowadays like our phones, but it does take it to a next level. In this dystopian version of our own world the limits between humans and technology have blurred and technology is ever-present in everyone their lives.
First we have the Z-eyes. They are neural implants that make it possible to message or call people, take photos and videos, has a connection to the net and can block certain people in real life with the result that they cannot communicate with you and can only see you as a grey silhouette. This tech creates some problems for the users. It raises concerns about the consequences technological progress can have on our privacy, identity and our social life.
The second cyborg element are the cookies. A digital copy of themselves is used to regulate everything in the house to the persons personal interests. The copied human consciousness is treated in dehumanising way. In the end of the episode it is also used as a way to get people to confess crimes. The confession of the cookie is gotten in a very unethical way and the actual person gets punished based on this confession. This debates how human a digital consciousness could be.
Thinking more deeply about cyborgs has made me see cyborgs everywhere. With these more obvious examples it is clear that cyborgs in movies and tv-shows are powerful tools to reflect on the complex interaction and balance between humanity and technology. The narrative often explores questions of identity, consciousness, and existence. This encourages the audience to rethink preconceived ideas about the limits of being. I think the movies and tv-shows in general paint a pretty nuanced image of cyborgs, but because only a certain group is given this label it can still be a bit skewed.
If you lately became aware of an atypical or interesting cyborg in a movie or series, please share in the comments!
Apart from the movies/ series I listed and last week’s lecture I used A Cyborg Manifesto (1985) by Donna Haraway for information and interesting debates surrounding cyborgs.