Thursday, June 07, 2007

I'd Rather Be A Cyborg Than A Goddess

As technology evolves, we are presented with more choices and more opportunities to override our genetic code. In the process, the boundaries between artificial and natural, human and machine, meat and metal, male and female are blurred. Technology gives us a god-like power to transform ourselves. Biology, it seems, is no longer destiny.

Today's headlines announce smaller, smarter and more intimate biotechnologies: computers to be implanted in the human body, wires beneath the skin of the skull to shock us out of depression, nanobots to repair tissue damage, genetic manipulation to improve the quality of humankind, in-vitro fertilization for asexual reproduction, embryos frozen for possible later use. Microsort, a more recent reproductive technology, offers sex preselection. Artificial Life Inc. invents the virtual girlfriend.

Some theorists say technology, not political ideology, is what drives social change. As the celebrity academic Marshall McLuhan famously declared: "We shape our tools and thereafter they shape us."

But it seems technology has always had its own ideology because machines can't design themselves and people are political creatures.

According to feminism, technology has a sexual politics. How technology is designed, and who gets to use it, is determined by unequal relationships of power between the sexes.

According to the old-school feminists, control of science and technology is the last bastion of male power, domination and intimidation. Some say the "culture" of cyberspace is more like the men's change room at a football match - not the most female-friendly environment. In this view, Bill Gates is a kind of evil patriarch maintaining a male monopoly of technological skills and designing more "toys for the boys".

However, this argument is slowly dissolving with the emergence of a new generation of computer-savvy girls quite at home in cyberspace. Women may be gaining ground in an age where power is defined not by brute force but by the mastery of technology.

New technologies have certainly made possible new configurations of politics. The 1990s, for example, saw the emergence of so-called cyber feminism - a school of feminism that sees technology as more liberating than oppressive.

This view says technology allows women to break out of their prescribed gender roles. More than this, high technology encourages us to confuse the very categories of gender. In cyberspace no one knows your "true" gender - you can make yourself up as you go along. Whereas old-school 1960s feminists (allied with ecologists and anti-nuclear activists) saw science and technology as mostly dangerous and threatening, '90s cyber feminism embraced technology. Whereas '60s feminism claimed an intuitive connection to Mother Earth and the natural world, the new feminism rails against nature.

Today, the boundary between the artificial and the natural is dissolving and according to cyber feminism that's a good thing. As the American academic Donna Haraway put it: "I'd rather be a cyborg than a goddess."

Haraway's Cyborg Manifesto welcomes a future where we will all be part human and part machine.

Haraway's writing is ridiculously complex. I find Marxist literary criticism hard to follow most of the time. And Haraway, in that same Marxist-academic-literary critic circle, is similarly very opaque and sometimes impenetrable. Popular culture has also explored the relationship between people and technology through science fiction and film - from the female cyborg in Metropolis (1927) to femme fatale replicants in Blade Runner (1982) and Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003). (Remember Arnold's monotone lament? "I'm an obsolete design", when surpassed by the stronger, deadlier female terminator.)

The real beauty of the cyborg is that it pushes the boundaries of our ideas about gender and identity. The cyborg has no natural origin - it is made by man, not God. Gender, sex and sexuality can be constructed and reconstructed at will. Accordingly, in the age of the cyborg, the old male/female distinction will be irrelevant. The most radical of new movements spawned by new technologies might be transgenderism.

With technological and medical support, the transgenders construct a gender of their choice, unfettered by biological sex. A loose alliance of transsexuals and intersex individuals, the Transgender Movement sees advances in plastic surgery and endocrinology as the pathway to liberation and self-determination. They argue both gender and sex should be optional and one should be able to demand sexual reassignment. They see the very categorisations of "male" and "female" as rigid and obsolete.

This line of thinking has unsettling but exciting consequences. If the physical body can be transformed or transcended at will, then everything is open to change. The body is an increasingly artificial object. There is no more natural way of being a man or woman, only different styles, images and appendages. On the upside, beliefs about the "natural" abilities of the "opposite" sex are now obsolete.

The downside is that our technological knowledge has exceeded our ability to use it wisely. The best-case scenario may also be the worst: a future without limits. So the time has come to ask political, moral and philosophical questions of these advancing technologies.

In the 1968 science fiction novel, which provided the basis for the film Blade Runner, Philip K. Dick asked: do androids dream of electric sheep? Perhaps the quintessential question for the 21st century should be: do cyborgs dream of creating a better world? Personally, I think the cyborgs dream of being free.

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