The Psychology of Communication


10.3 What Kind of Cyborg Do You Plan To Be?

There has been much focus recently on the cyborg. This entity - part-person and part-machine - lies somewhere along this dubious dimension between person and machine, and thus challenges the dichotomy of person and machine. It has been a staple of science fiction for some time, especially in the sub-genre of cyberpunk. However, it is beginning to appear more and more in popular culture. A spate of feature films have 'starred' various cyborgs - for example, Terminator, Robocop, Cyborg, Lawnmower Man, Johnny Mnemonic, Solo.

Even scholars have shown some recent interest in cyborgs under various aliases - e.g. post-human [HAYLES] or micromen [PASK & CURRAN] or metamen [STOCK]. Kevin Kelly proposes a "new biology of machines" [KELLY]. We even have a Cyborg Handbook [GRAY ET AL] and a Cyborg Manifesto [HARAWAY]. Of course, the fact that the academy has 'discovered' the issue could mean - as some cynics say - that it is passé! However, this academic for one thinks the cyborg issue will be with us for some time, and that the cyborg will become a major metaphor of this millennium.

During a conference in Baden Baden, Germany, I argued that we are all cyborgs. We can 'look forward' to becoming more and more cyborgian as we age and require glasses, false teeth, a hearing aid, insulin shots to control our diabetes, a pacemaker to charge up our heart, perhaps even an artificial limb or two. The machine parts we may require as we age are, of course, prosthetics to replace malfunctioning organic systems. While perhaps inevitable, this may not be the type of cyborg we aspire to be. I suggested that we replace the perennial question What do you want to be when you grow up? with the question What kind of cyborg do you plan to be?

If we turn for inspiration to the fictional characters in cyberpunk novels and in the films mentioned above, we note that they have positive prosthetics. That is, whereas they may replace missing organic parts, they are superior to those parts and, in some cases, they are added to a perfectly functioning body. For example, whereas our eye-glasses merely return our failing sight to normal, the goggles, worn by Hiro, the hero of Snow Crash, expand his sight beyond the visual spectrum [STEPHENSON 1992]. We have now all seen such goggles in action in the recent Operation Iraqi Liberation (OIL).

The prosthetics may be positive but they are not necessarily used in positive ways. The characters in the Matrix Trilogy (Neuromancer, Count Zero, Mona Lisa Overdrive) by William Gibson have positive prosthetics which are usually weapons necessary to survive in his apocalyptic vision of the near future [GIBSON W 1984, 1987, 1988]. Eve, the eponymous heroine in Eve of Destruction, has a nuclear bomb in place of a womb and must therefore be treated very carefully. Let us focus on prosthetics which are positive in both senses - constructive rather than destructive tools.

The argument that we are all cyborgs sensitizes us to the bewildering smorgasbord of cyborgs we encounter in day-by-day life: a courier on a bicycle, a kid on a skateboard, a middle-aged man reading a book, a teenager carrying a boom-box, a cybernaut with goggles and gloves exploring cyberspace, and so on. Those are all temporary cyborgs who pick up and put down their appendices or, in the case when they wear their appendices, put them on and take them off. From time to time, someone advocates they be permanently implanted. Younger people, who have no qualms about tattoos and body piercing, may find this option of implanted intelligence interesting. Indeed, there seems to be no shortage of candidates with a "desire to be wired" [BRANWYN].

Whether carried or worn or implanted, the various appendices are of two types - those which expand the body as an energy system (bicycle and skateboard) and those which expand the mind as an information system (book, boom-box, goggles-and-gloves). The former are of little theoretical interest. The bicycle and the skateboard are means of getting the person from point A to point B. If the trip is uneventful, the person is essentially unchanged at the destination. The latter are more interesting, since the person is changed by the acts of reading the book, listening to the music, exploring cyberspace. Let us focus, therefore, on the latter - on systems involving bits rather than atoms [NEGROPONTE].


The decision to focus on positive prosthetics which extend us as information systems leads to a consideration of media - the 'machines' which store and transmit information. I argued above that the co-evolution of the person and media is the Big Story of historical time. The conception-day gift of memory and speech is adequate only for a hunter-gatherer society. Over historical time, we had to extend our nervous systems by storing and transmitting information outside our bodies to manage the transitions to agricultural, industrial, and now information societies. That is, history is the story of the cyborgization of the person. How do you plan to use those extragenetic and extrasomatic tools? What kind of cyborg do you plan to be?

Each of those generations of media extends us as information systems, since they enable us to share information with other people. The fourth generation - in which information is stored electronically in disks and transmitted electronically through the informatics infrastructure of computers interlinked by telecommunications - is, however, particularly powerful, because it is more integrative and interactive. Since numbers, text, images, sounds can all be reduced to a lowest common denominator of 0s and 1s, the products of the generations can be integrated in electronic storage. Since the person can interact intimately with this electronic information, the person and the machine can be tightly coupled. This rich feedback between person and machine creates a cybernetic organism (cyborg) as the term was originally intended. We now have a positive prosthetic which is a perfect fit.

We usually consider media as mediating between people. However, they can also be considered as mediating, within each person, between the subjective map and the objective world. The subjective map could be considered as composed of a perceptual map and a conceptual map, corresponding roughly to the thing and the word in the objective world and to text- and image-based media, as depicted in Figure 7-1. It is a useful metaphor to consider the perceptual map as a function of the right hemisphere and the conceptual map as a function of the left hemisphere. Within this metaphor, the computer could be consider as the corpus callosum. This captures the two basic characteristics of computer-based media - integration and interactivity. The corpus callosum links the two hemispheres, as the computer integrates text and image, and it links the cerebral cortex with the rest of the body, as the computer provides interactivity between thought and action.

We finally have a medium which represents the whole nervous system, a positive prosthetic which fits, a three-dimensional tool which mediates between our three-dimensional brain and our three-dimensional world, we have to reconsider our current dependence on one- and two-dimensional tools, and our continuing use of the computer as a box to bury old one- and two-dimensional media. We typically use the computer as a typewriter to do one-dimensional word-processing. It is necessary to proceed to two-dimensional idea-processing, in which the computer is used to generate the hierarchical structure of thought underlying the sequential presentation of language, and to three-dimensional multimedia, in which it is used to nest more nodes within any node and to link any two nodes within the hierarchy (Figure 10-2). This three-dimensional structure is isomorphic with the cognitive structure of the subjective map, viewed as concepts with relationships between them, and with the informatics infrastructure of the objective world, viewed as computers interlinked with telecommunications (Figure 10-3).

Each of us fortunate enough to have a few thousand dollars to spare has, at our fingertips, the power available only to multinationals for millions of dollars only 40 years ago. One way to realize this power is to use multimedia to create a conceptual self-portrait, a sort of expert system of oneself. The Siliclone - that is, a silicon clone of oneself - is a primitive prototype. My Siliclone has evolved from a HyperCard-based filing cabinet of one's favorite quotes, anecdotes, images, sources, and so on to a website at, as depicted in Figure 10-4. Person-machine synergy can be explored as the appropriate division of labor between your natural intelligence and the artificial intelligence in your satellite brain, or, more precisely in my case, between Scot and Siliclone. As in any partnership, the division of labor is based on the competencies of each partner.

One view of the division of labor is that Siliclone deals with content, setting Scot free to deal with context. That is, data is placed in context to yield information, information in context to yield knowledge, knowledge in context to yield understanding, understanding in context to yield - God forbid - wisdom. This is how value will be added to raw data to generate wealth in our information society. This data-wisdom hierarchy is not as clear as it seemed then. Wisdom is more of an inside-out process, based on the unfolding of the human potential in the zygote from the inside out rather than on the contextualization of data from the outside in.

A second view is in terms of clutter and complexity. Information overload is often described as the basic problem of the post-industrial society. In the industrial society, we had too little energy; in the post-industrial society, we have too much information. However, this is like surveying a huge smorgasbord and complaining about overload because we can not eat it all. In our outside-in education, in which being educated is viewed as stuffing oneself full of facts, we are overwhelmed by the fact that we could not even assimilate the contents of our local library in our lifetime. The inside-out teacher, who views education as growing from the inside out, welcomes our enriched environment. One of the few conclusions we psychologists have reached is that so-called stupid people grow up in impoverished environments and so-called smart people grow up in enriched environments. Beneath the pseudo-problem of information overload, however, there lurks a real problem of management of complexity. Our enriched objective world enables us to build a subtle, sophisticated subjective map of it. However, true complexity must be distinguished from mere clutter. The siliclone can be viewed as a means of removing the clutter of content so that one can see more clearly.

A third view is in terms of means and ends. The 'sili' in siliclone was originally seen as referring, of course, to silicon. However, it is beginning to carry an additional 'meaning'. We are all familiar with people who are not so much stupid as silly. Silliness refers to ends whereas stupidity refers to means. Silly people use perfectly good means to trivial ends. The Siliclone is 'silly' in this sense. It has powerful means but no worthy ends. The capacity for meaningful ends is the domain of natural intelligence. We should subsume means to ends by sub-contracting out means to our respective siliclones.


Andy Clark (1957- ) argues that our human destiny is, paradoxically, to become a cyborg [CLARK]. Our very plastic brains are designed to merge with media. The really important media mergers are thus not AOL with Warner or even Google with YouTube but the merger of the mind with media. We think quite literally outside the box. The system which does the thinking is not the brain, as most cognitive psychologists have assumed, but the integrated system of the brain and its various extensions.2

Merlin Donald argues that the mind is assumed not only to be empty (tabula rasa) but to be isolated (tabula isola). That is, we tend to think of thinking as the function of a single mind [DONALD]. However, whether language and thought evolved because we were hunters or because we were hunted, it evolved in a social context. Language and thought evolved to serve the group. It evolved for cooperation not conflict. Our cognition subsequently was adapted to serve the individual, and to fuel conflict between individuals. However, we must recognize its positive social origins.

Andy Clark challenges the tabula isola assumption in another sense. Over historical time, we have invented extrasomatic tools to extend the nervous system by storing and transmitting information outside our bodies. Thus, the cultural evolution which has recently supplemented the biological evolution involves the mind "thinking" with its extensions. The brain is relatively inept on its own. I can multiply two one-digit numbers "in my head" only because I have memorized the multiplication tables. When confronted with a problem as simple as multiplying two two-digit numbers, we find ourselves reaching for pen and paper.

Clark would thus agree that the Big Story of historical time, as told above, is the co-evolution of the person and media as extensions. However, whereas I view this process as the piggy-backing of cultural evolution on biological evolution and thus we do not differ essentially from our hunter-gatherer ancestors, Clark suggests that we are different from them. During the long period of infant dependency, our brains are molded by the media available to us. Our minds are not hunter-gatherer minds in new technological clothing, but are primed to merge with what media they find and what media they themselves create. Media do not simply extend minds but they change minds.

William Calvin wondered why brain damage affected the reading ability of his father. Surely reading, unlike speaking, is acquired culturally rather than biologically, and thus could not be affected by damage to a particular area of the brain? He concluded that "-- reading abilities are wired up on the fly during childhood -- as we say, they are 'soft-wired' during development rather than hard-wired in the manner of instincts" [CALVIN, Page 141]. Perhaps the various extrasomatic tools we have acquired over historical time have been so "soft-wired" into our nervous systems as extragenetic tools. They thus become part of the processing system rather than just part of the content which is processed. We learn to read and then we read to learn.

Clark proceeds to document some interesting features of the latest element in this integrated person-media cognitive system - what I have presented as the fourth generation of media, Multimedia and Internet. The internet is traditionally viewed as an anarchist system which works amazingly well despite the fact that there is no central control. Clark points out that it works well BECAUSE there is no central control. And thus it is free to organize itself. It thus joins the self-organizing systems designed by Mother Nature rather than by our limited selves. Google works better than the search engines which preceded it because it is based on this self-organization rather than by superimposing our clumsy key-word system on it. It is based on the trails left by the millions of surfers on the internet. Thus it takes you to where the best information on your topic is located, based on the fact that other people interested in this topic voted with their fingers for the best websites.

Clark uses a number of examples like this (Figure 10-5a and Figure 10-5b) to illustrate that, without our extensions, we just get the gist of a situation. We just record five face cards and do not notice that ALL the cards have been changed, and thus whatever card we chose is gone.


My ten top reasons why the virtual world is better than the real world are listed in Figure 10-6. I was just joking. Steve Mann is serious. He has lived in the virtual world for 20 years [MANN & NIEDZVIECKI]. Every morning he dons his wearable computer (wearcomp) apparatus before he opens his eyes and takes it off again in the evening after he closes his eyes. After graduating from MIT, he came home again to Canada, where he is a professor at the University of Toronto. His apparatus has got less and less cumbersome over those 20 years and his wife Betty has joined him in cyberspace.

He would add a number of other reasons to my top 10. One is that the virtual world is relatively less explored than the real world and he can thus, as a scientist, be a pioneer in learning about it. In described the mobile movie-studio-cum-theatre of the mind, I said that the movie theatre has only one seat. I therefore have to learn to write to tell you about my home movie.

Steve's theatre is not as limited. His wife can watch his home movie along with him. He can show as well as tell. Betty can see the world as Steve sees it. Advantages range from the trivial - they can shop together when she remains at home - to the profound - she can empathize with him as they share experiences. Another limitation of Steve's unaided nervous system is that the record of his experience is accessible only to himself. Wearcomp can record what Steve sees and Betty can relive his experience later.3 This record is more accurate than the record previously available to the natural brain, which is subsequently "edited" to tell a better story.

We are all participant observers in our own lives. There's a need for balance between being too much a participant (The unexamined life is not worth living) and being to much an observer (The unlived life is not worth examining). Does Steve's strategy push him into the latter extreme? Is he watching his own life as if it were a movie rather than living it? Is he volunteering to be the eponymous hero of his own version of The Truman Show - The Mann Show? Or does he gain MORE autonomy, as he claims, by being able to edit and annotate his environment, being able to survey the surveillers, and being able to learn by being as well as by doing?


Kevin Warwick is a cyborg. On 20 April 1998, he had a silicon chip inserted into his arm. It is contained in a glass capsule 23 millimeters long and 3 millimeters wide. In conjunction with some equipment built into his house, the chip greets him as it opens his door, turns on lights when he enters a room and turns off lights when he leaves it, and keeps a tally of the mail in his e-mail box [WARWICK].

Before that date, Kevin Warwick was relatively obscure, despite the fact that, as a professor of cybernetics at the University of Reading, England, he had acquired over 4 million dollars in grants and had written over 400 papers. He is now famous. Many of his academic colleagues are critical of his fame. It's okay perhaps for a scholar to be a visionary but he is suspected of becoming also a missionary. Scholars don't like the missionary position.

On 14 March 2002 at 8:30 a. m., Warwick moved into the next phase of his research (code-named Cyborg 2.0). This time the chip is not only implanted but linked to his nervous system. This time, his wife Irena will be similarly equipped. This time, they want to explore various questions previously considered only in scifi novels. Can emotions such as intoxication, anger and lust be read by the computer in terms of patterns of nervous excitement? Can states like intoxication and sexual arousal also be read? Can these recorded emotions and states be beamed back to the chip in the body and experienced all over again? Can those emotions be communicable between two people? Warwick plans to go to New York to see if the desire he experiences in New York will be felt by his wife back home in London? Will they be able to read one another's mind and communicate by telepathy? Will the dream of direct communication with no mediation even by first generation of speech be realized? Will it change forever what it means to be human? Will this spell the end of the faked orgasm?

It is difficult to find out what answers are emerging from this research. We would assume that Kevin Warwick has a huge presence on the internet. However, his official web site - - has disappeared into cyberspace, leaving no forwarding address. There is no shortage of places to go to read about him - Kevin Warwick Watch makes sighting forms available to keep track of his activities, Register documents the adventures of Captain Cyborg, and there are countless interviews of him and articles on him in the various hip magazines. They alas have axioms to grind. It's weird to be wired.

Kevin and Irena have two children, neither of whom have as yet been fitted with a chip. However, a family in Florida has [GROSSMAN]. Pets have been fitted with chips, so that you can avoid quarantine by demonstrating that they have had the required shots. Also they help find them if lost. Next obvious step is to have chips inserted in children, so that they can be found if lost or kidnapped. A chip could also contain a medical record so that appropriate medical procedures can be used in an emergency. This is the thin edge of the chip which could lead to chips being more acceptable.

2   This is why I never note any half hour period devoted to "pure" thinking when I keep a record of time spent communicating. There is always some accompanying communication act. This is why I don't know what I think until I hear what I say or read what I write.

3   Philippe Ramsay-Lemieux, one of my students, went to Boston to interview him. Later, Steve showed Philippe the interview from his point of view on his computer - he had been recording Philippe as Philippe was recording him.