Cyborg Anthropology and the Prosthetic Impulse

@caseorganic says: my apologies. I've been under the weather all day and have missed the second day of BarCamp. Here are notes I've created to give you an idea of what may have been discussed.

Maureen McHugh once said that “soon, perhaps, it will be impossible to tell where humans end and machines begin”. We’ve been a prothetic culture ever since we picked up the first tool.

Cyborg Anthropology is the study of the interaction between humans and computers, and how the capabilities of our bodies are extended and uploaded into hypertext.


  1. Think of the system in which the object exists.
  2. What kind of a system is the object a part of?
    1. How is the object birthed?
  3. How is the system that the object is birthed in different from the eventual system it inhabits?
  4. How is the birth of a tree and its eventual location different from that of a child? A piece of clothing? A piece of data?
    1. What systems exist inside the object. What about complex objects with multiple systems? How can these systems be visualized across time and space?

Visual Technologies as Cognitive Prostheses

Lev Maovich's “Visual Technolgoies as Cognitive Prostheses: A Short History odf the Externalization of the Mind” tracks how over the last century and a half visual technologies - from photography and film to contemporary experiments in computer-image systems, cognitive psychology, and neuroscience – invent or fabricate models through which it becomes possible to “externalize the functions of consciousness.” (10).

“The far-reaching implications of this trajectory, proposes Manovich, are that this very esite to objectify the psyche- – to imagine or visualize the mind itself — gave birth to modern imaging technologies such as photography, cinema, and virtual reality” (10).

In Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents, his words suggest “a possible future in which the magnificence of humans as prosthetic gods is tempered by the ill-fitting and troublesome nature of their auxiliary organs (11).

(Pictures of cars, bad phones, bad design).

In the same way, our external organs sit angrily attacked in office cubicles, in airports – in all of the interface exchanges we encounter during our daily lives – such as the ATM machine, the coin dispenser, ect. The copiers, printers, scanners, faxers. The software inside our computers. The computer itself. We're beginning to have prostheses inside of prostheses. Interface inside of interface, malfunction compounded by poor design and the decay of time.

Planned obsolescence has given us machines that must be constantly updated and refreshed Good experiences are guaranteed as long as one stays on top of the purchasing wave. Once one falls behind, the prostheses become worrysome –gives us more and more friction when dealing with reality. To upgrade generally decreases this friction – lubricates us to glide more freely through the rigors of society.

Systemic Friction:

Online, friction is less prevalent than offline. Iterations, or software releases can happen more quickly than the equivalent revolutions in real life. In the analog sphere, interactions based on growth in response to systems happen at a slower rate. A tree is constantly in co-production with its environment. What the tree does influences the system, which in turn influences the tree. The network of trees acting together influcnes a wider system.

Interfaces: How is the digital accessed? How are different environments accessed? What separates them? How do the qualities of these separations affect the experience of the environment? How can the digital and the analog be intersected in non-traditional ways? Are there spaces that the analog and the digital blur?

Online there are temporary autonomous zones – fluid spaces that come and go. Objects placed there can change meanings quickly. Personalities, social engagements, and power capabilities change. Objects change their value based on their environment, or the system around them which acts on them as objects. Objects change meanings once placed in different systems.

Let us, for a moment, consider the construction of power in online communities. What makes a powerful/respected user on a social network? Each type of space allows a different creation of power. Different demographics are attracted to different social networks because of their capabilities to think of it as a power construct.

What type of person or object can have identity power or non-power in a social network? How is that power constructed?

Digitally: Facebook: Identity and value is constructed through image, wall posts, addins, and updates. Flickr: Identity and value is related to interest and topic. It is also indexible and searchable. Linkedin: Power is constructed through history, recommendations, and connections, and sharing data/experience. It is the 'emptiest' vessel of many of the social networks available, and thus it can share data in the largest variety of ways. Twitter: Power is constructed through text, retweeting, link exchange, content, avatars, background images and followers. Myspace: Power is constructed through music, pictures, blog posts, and wall posts.

Questions: What types of cultural constructs allow objects to take on different values? How can a system of representation (the Disney store, the end aisles in a shopping market vs. the inner rows) bring power to an object? How does the ‘psychology of space’ make people act in a different way than they would place?

Excerpts: “Cyborg anthropology poses a serious challenge to the human-centered foundations of anthropological discourse. The term “cyborg anthropology” is an oxymoron that draws attention to the human-centered presuppositions of anthropological discourse by posing the challenge of alternative formulations. While the skin-bound individual, autonomous bearer of identity and agency, theoretically without gender, race, class, region, or time, has served usefully and productively as the subject of culture and of cultural accounts, alternate accounts of history and subjectivity are also possible” (Downey, 2).

“The autonomy of individuals has already been called into question by post-structuralist and posthumanist critiques. Cyborg anthropology explores a new alternative by examining the argument that human subjects and subjectivity are crucially as much a function of machines, machine relations, and information transfers as they are machine producers and operators.

From this perspective, science and technology affect society through the fashioning of selves rather than as external forces. For example, the establishment of anthropological sub-jects and subjectivities has depended upon boats, trains, planes, typewriters, cameras, telegraphs, and so on.

How the positioning of technologies has defined the boundaries of “the field” as well as the positioning of anthropologists within it has been a notable silence in ethnographic writing. It is increasingly clear that human agency serves in the world today as but one contributor to activities that are growing in scope, that are complex and di-verse, and yet are interconnected. The extent of such interconnectedness has been made plain both by the decline of challenges to capitalist hegemony and by the empowerment of information technologies, the latter through the combined agencies of computer and communications technologies” (Downey, 4).

“A crucial first step in blurring the human-centered boundaries of anthropo-logical discourse is to grant membership to the cyborg image in theorizing, that is, to follow in our writing the ways that human agents routinely produce both themselves and their machines as part human and part machine. How are we to write, for example, without using human-centered language? And if writing is a co-production of human and machine, then who is the “we” that writes?” (Downey, 5).

-Downey, Gary Lee “After Culture” Reflections on the Apparition of Anthropology in Artificial Life, a Science of Simulation.

People affiliated with the creation and study of Cyborg Anthropology Sherry Turkle, Sharon Traweek, Sunera Thobani, Lucien Taylor, Allucquere Rosanne Stone, Rayna Rapp, Paul Rabinow, Constance Penley, Emily Martin, David Hess, Deborah Heath, Donna Haraway, and Deborah Gordon.

Clicking on the Friendster link – Somewhere there's a rusty server spinning up.

(show image of data geology)

With Flickr, everyday experiences become documents – capable of bei ng visited again and again.

Collaboratively thinking – when you are so closely connected to others.

The ability to see a sort of frequency of light – if were able to see certain frequencies of light vs. others, we'd see the world in a very different way.

So there is also the idea – of getting a new sense – seeing something that you shouldn't see - you become sensitive to this.

Transmitting emotions - across cell phones. They had it on a mobile phone. It was tried in Italy. The chances that people keep the pace – people suddenly disappear.

Avatars Avatar means incarnation in sanskrit.

Avatari is the source of the icncarnation or incarnations.

<h3>Surface Floating</h3> I mostly “surface float” while on my computer, instead of digging deeper into the files I've stored over time. The most frequently accessed files are nearer to this surface, while the forgotten ones are buried deep in old archives.

<h3>Geology of Data in Different Environments</h3> A plane flight offers a different realm of exploration. This one is of digital exploration of what already existed on my computer. E-mails, .pdf documents, write-ups and research. I end up writing a lot more — creating my own media to entertain myself.

<h3>Coproduction</h3> In the beginning, nature forced people to adopt certain patterns of construction. This coproduction – working with external variables and working them into the structure of the architecture (paths, tree-lined drives, natural sloping paths that help with building entrances), is what makes buildings successful or not. In the same way, those online software developments and social networks that co-create a product with their audience have the greatest chance of creating greater value for themselves and their audience.

<h3>Marketing</h3> Marketing must be legitimate. It can no longer be glossed over or hyped. Marketing that is plain and simple and lets the product speaks for itself. The iPhone is the greatest example of this.

<h3>High tech gift economies</h3> A representation of a gift online is a link tweet through Twitter and its reciprocal – a “retweet”, a happy gesture. A public thanks. It is reconnecting the public sphere with chosen words. IA good hyperlink is a gift from one individual to an entire network. Whether that link contains entertainment, code, or data of personal relevance, the link is a resource for something. The Actor who shares the most valuable resources on the Network often has a higher reputation than those who do not.

Severino. Equipotential Space: Freedom in Architecture. Praeger Publishers. New York, London. 1970.

“We may say, without much contradiction, that a Japanese camera or a German car can function all over the world, regardless of local, social, political, or economic consequences.

“The same airplanes regularly serve all countries. Penicillin is equally useful for combating infections in India, Africa, and China, as well as Europe.

In these instances, a certain task has had to be preformed, a certain standard of result has been expected, and techniques and equipment have been developed to provide widely acceptable responses.

These responses are products of technology. They begin with the assumption that all peoples of the world share sameness, regardless of any local or historical factors (Severino, 27).

Then Severino goes on to define Equipotential space. The determining characteristics of Equipotential space are continuity, flexibility and articulation”.

If we apply this to the development of online spaces, we can see why some spaces have failed, whereas other have succeeded. Networks for “green” networking are inflexible, vs. general networking groups.

Twitter gives limitations, but the user is allowed to do anything he wants within the context of that 140 characters. Becuase of this, Twitter has been able to be used in a multitude of ways. Networking, texting, wayfinding, information gathering link and music sharing ect. It is because there is a global limitation but no local limitation that the user must abide by.

Because of this, dozens of third party services have given twitter users greater capaibility to maximize the value of those 140 characters – thing slike URL shortners and shorthened phrases – a whole new vocabulary has emerged that takes advantage of the limited space.

In this way, Twitter is a equipotential space. TH global limitation is the 140 characters. The local one is just the self. One can be any kind of person and take value from Twitter – topic clustering by interest naturally forms – just like Flickr sets and groups allow for the slow creation of similar images in sets, Twitter allows for the slow gathering of similar types of people across great distances. Those

I find that the constructions of architectural space during this ers (1970) from several authors attempt to create modular futuristic spaces as they conceive of technology's effects on space.

The issue here is that the future architectural spaces are not analog spaces.

Some of these spaces begin to resemble spaceships, or pods interlocking places suited for either one number of occupants or many.

But are digital ones, and it is these digital spaces that are modular and resemble spaceships, protecting us from he liminalities and harshness of outer space that is the Internet. Vast interconnected architectures are only accessible by certain interfaces, and the architecture of these interfaces is not being constructed by traditional architects any longer, but rather programmers, interaction designers, sociologists, , information architects, user interface designers, software architects, spaces people – even those who inhabit the space.

If, in 1970 Severino said that future spaces needed flexibility, continuity and articulation, digital spaces are just that .They are flexible in meaning, continuously carry inhabitants/users from one region of space to another, and articulate themselves through others and their environments.

“In developing a new approach to deal with the problems described, we must clearly articulate a concept and begin applying and redefining it on the level of the mass society.

What space is to size, time is to value – Plato.

1jr.txt · Last modified: 2009/05/03 02:38 by caserorganic