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There is little doubt that the
presence of technology is increasingly felt in the world of politics;
representatives reach constituents through web pages, citizens vote at computer
terminals, antiwar protesters organize with the help of wireless networks. In Cyborg Citizen: Politics in the Posthuman Age, Chris
Hables Gray suggests that there is a more fundamental way in which technology
is changing the face of politics. The
citizenry, he argues, has been so thoroughly permeated by technology that the
people comprising our democracy are no longer humans, but cyborgs. This shift in the fundamental unit of
democracy, he says, will revolutionize the politics of the future.
In order to develop this
provocative thesis, Gray's goals are necessarily twofold. First, he must convince his readers that
they are cyborgs. Then, he must show
that the cyborgization of the citizenry has implications for the political
process of democracy.
On the first point, Gray has a lot
to say. He notes that the term
"cyborg" commonly refers to people who have been modified or enhanced
by technology. This should bring to
mind not only the bionic man, but also women with hearing aides, children with
eyeglasses, men with pacemakers, and so on.
He is convincing when he suggests that the technologies that support and
extend our physical capabilities have become so widespread that it is easy to
forget about them. It has probably never
occurred to most contact lens wearers, for instance, that they fit even
conservative definitions of cyborg.
Unfortunately, Gray broadens his
definition to include people who interact with technology. Thus, when I drive to the grocery I am a
human-automobile cyborg. When I check
my email, I am a human-laptop cyborg.
It looks as if anyone who uses tools will fall under Grays
definition. And yet he widens it
further. In one of the silliest
passages in the book he argues, quoting Sandy Stone, that Anne Rices vampire
Lestat is a cyborg because he is a liminal creature, inhabiting the
boundaries between life and death, temporality and eternity, French and
English, gay and straight. So a
cyborg is not just a person who uses or has been modified by technology, but
any person who does not fit squarely into some category.
By defining the term so broadly,
Gray undermines his own political project.
Ostensibly, the goal of the book is to examine how technology is
altering society by discovering how it affects individual citizens. The problem is that, after Gray has all but
equated cyborg and human, issues of technology hardly seem relevant. If all liminal creatures and tool-users
are cyborgs, how can he argue that cyborgization is an important feature of the
As it turns out, Gray isnt much
for argument at all. Instead of
suggesting a thesis or defending a position, he prefers to amass observations,
occasionally suggesting interpretations, but generally leaving it to the reader
to search for connections between the observations, or connections with
politics and citizenship in general.
The book proceeds episodically, first mentioning a technology, then
giving a brief anecdotal history of it, and finally asserting that technology has
many important political ramifications.
The anecdotes are usually interesting and often provide a glimpse of
aspects of particular technologies that are not well known. Occasionally, they have clear bearing on the
larger issue of politics. The brief section
on patents, for instance, recounts the story of John Moore, whose bodily
tissues were patented by UCLA. The
issue of the patentability of biological material clearly has legislative and
social significance. Typically, though,
the anecdotes' connection to political issues is far from obvious.
From time to time, Gray makes
proposals that purport to explain the phenomena he catalogs. Too often, these interpretations do not make
sense, even on their face. For example,
after noting that many people mistakenly believe that the name Frankenstein
belongs to the giant reanimated monster, when it is actually the name of the
scientist who created the monster, Gray claims that this conflation signifies
that the doctor is monstrous in our minds... it is doctors we fear today. Such a conclusion assumes a lot. Is it impossible that the confusion arises
from the fact that a picture of the monster and the name Frankenstein feature
prominently on book covers and movie posters?
After all, Dracula refers to the vampire and The Wolf Man refers to
the werewolf. Such passages will
rightly leave readers questioning whether or not they can trust any of Grays
interpretive claims, almost none of which are better argued.
The most unforgivable shortcoming
of the book is its consistent failure to connect these amassed observations and
dubious conclusions to citizenship in any meaningful way. What do dildos have to do with
democracy? Penile implants? Cybersex?
After reading Gray's book, I have no better sense of how cyborgization
has affected politics up to this point, or how it might affect it in the
Grays two apparently original
contributions, what he calls the cyborg epistemology and the Cyborg Bill of
Rights are symptomatic of the problems that riddle the text. The cyborg epistemology, which, according
to Gray, is thesis, antithesis, synthesis, prosthesis, is never argued for,
or even explained. The need for a
separate field of cyborg epistemology is never argued for. The relevance of prosthesis to a theory of
knowledge is never explained. The
relationship between this epistemology and the bumper-sticker summary of
Hegels Phenomenology of Spirit (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) is
never explained. In fact, the apparent
debt to Hegel is never acknowledged, and the authors own reading of Hegel is
not offered. Gray simply asserts that
the cyborg epistemology is thesis, antithesis, synthesis,
prosthesis, and then refers to it later in the text as if it made any sense.
Similarly, the 10-point
"Cyborg Bill of Rights" is never explained or defended. Point one is "Citizens shall have the
right to travel anywhere, virtually or in the flesh, at their own risk and
expense." What does this right to
travel have to do with cyborgs? Is there
something distinctively cyborg about travel itself? Is our current freedom to travel threatened in world that is
increasingly steeped in technology?
What is it about technology that has rendered our existing Bill of
Rights obsolete? Gray never addresses
In the end, Cyborg Citizen
is a missed opportunity. We certainly
need a book, aimed at a popular audience, that does what Gray attempts: that draws attention to the power of
technology to shape both the individual and society, and calls on people to
spend enough time thinking about these issues than they can play an active role
in choosing their technology-entwined futures.
Cyborg Citizen, with its difficulties maintaining coherence, lack
of unifying argument, and too-frequent digressions into absurdity, is not that
2003 Ian Stoner
Ian Stoner is currently pursuing a PhD
in philosophy. His primary area of
interest is ethics, particularly Kant and virtue ethics, as well as applied
ethics and technology.
Related review: Our Posthuman
Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, by Francis Fukuyama, review by Neil Levy, Ph.D. on May 13th 2002