‘The cyborg, it must be noted, is not a singular or simple figure. To assume either of these positions is to misunderstand that figure and to neglect the nuances of its critiques and alternative articulations, or to misconstrue them. Like the notions of the human that it interacts with, the cyborg has a complex genealogy. Indeed, the label ‘cyborg’ has been used to mean various things by different commentators and at different times, in response to the numerous ways of conceiving of human-machine fusions. Problematically, however, certain understandings of the cyborg have become more commonplace than others, and consequently, we are both overfamiliar and unfamiliar with the figure overall. This is attributable largely to SF and the popularity of characters such as the Terminator and Robocop. Such characters, though, interact with pre-existing notions of cyborgs, in turn continually changing our understandings of those figures.
At a rudimentary level, a cyborg can be defined as: a self-regulating organism that combines the natural and artificial together in one system. Cyborgs do not have to be part human, for any organism/system that mixes the evolved and the made, the living and the intimate, is technically a cyborg.
Although this is a basic definition, and it has been problematised in various ways by various theorists, it is important to see the (hi)stories of the term ‘cyborg’. The cyborg is a portmanteau of ‘cybernetic organism’, and it thereby suggests a meeting between the biological – that is, the organic – and the mechanical. What remains open to interpretation here is how much the two components are fused in this meeting, and to what extent they may retain their distinctness even in spite of their amalgamation.
The cyborg emerged out of the cybernetics movement associated with the work of Norbert Wiener, who in the mid-twentieth century appropriated early Hellenistic ideas about governance and combined them with new ideas emerging in the field of computer science to form a new, transdisciplinary, approach to systems. As Davis writes, ‘cybernetics is thus a science of control, which explains the etymological root of the term: kubernetes, the Greek word for steersman, and the source as well for our word “governor”’. Cybernetic systems impose order and structure on phenomena by making self-regulating feedback loops. If criteria within a system reach certain levels, then other parts of the system are designed to be responsive in order to maintain pre-set thresholds. In these systems, more routinisation and efficiency is enabled.’
Scott A Midson is Samuel Ferguson Research Assistant in the Department of Religions and Theology at the University of Manchester, where he obtained his PhD in 2012. Specialising in religion and technology and religion and new media, he is a member of the Society for the Study of Theology, where he delivered a paper in 2016 on the topic of ‘Black Mirrors.’ Cyborg Theology is his first book.
Cyborg Theology: Humans, Technology and God is available now, and can be ordered here.