What Cyborgs can do for us

In the 1990s, Donna Haraway’s “Cyborg Manifesto” (1991) made an argument for an alternative perspective in thinking about science, technology and feminism. The cyborg figure was expressed through popular films in the late 1980s and early 1990s like Robocop (Verhoeven 1987), The Terminator (Cameron 1984) and Terminator 2: Judgement Day (Cameron 1991). Despite being written two decades ago, Haraway’s argument can prove to be relevant to us today in thinking about the transgression of boundaries made available through the inventions of digital technology. Through a close analysis of Alex Rivera’s 2008 film Sleep Dealer, I suggest that the cyborg image remains productive in the way it helps us to think about the hybridity of our relationship to digital technology, the fears and awe that we hold towards it as well as its limits and possibilities. A cyborg perspective can free us from rigid and fixed ways of thinking about and understanding human interaction with technology and therefore be immensely valuable to us.

We are all cyborgs

The origin of the cyborg can be dated back to the 1960s, when the term was proposed by Manfred Clynes and Nathan Kline to refer to the use of cybernetics in helping human adapt to outer-space environment. The original definition of the “cyborg” is a self-regulating man-machine system that could “incorporate exogenous components extending the self-regulatory control function of the organism” (Clynes & Kline 1960). Extending on from this original definition, Haraway formulated the cyborg image as a being that is simultaneously both man and machine, a manifestation of “both imagination and material reality” (Haraway 1991, 291). As such, the three main characters – Memo, Luz and Rudy – can all be seen as suitable cyborgs. All three characters have “Nodes”, technological tools installed straight into their bodies, making them half organism, half machine. While both the original proposition and Haraway’s definition can remain quite broad in terms of applicability, I do not wish to focus so much on defining what is or is not a cyborg, but rather to highlight the hybridity that this term suggests to us. I argue that in Sleep Dealer the relationship between human and machine is expressed mostly and mainly through the individual’s body, where digital technology offers characters various degrees of extension of themselves and their physical actions. Through the “nodes”, Rudy connects and controls the military drone to destroy buildings in Mexico while remaining physically present in the U.S. Similarly, Memo sends his labour from Mexico to America by working in a “nodes” factory, controlling construction robots to build a skyscraper. Also through the use of “nodes”, Luz transmits her memories straight from her mind to the computer, which then uploads these to the global memory market. Through different ways and in different degrees, technology is incorporated into these characters’ experiences and consequently shapes the way they engage with others – humans and cyborgs.

Transgressed Boundaries

Haraway argued that the cyborg myth was about transgressed boundaries, powerful reappropriation and fractured identities (Haraway 1991, 295). The cyborg image therefore remains relevant to us today because of the perspective it can give us in thinking about the relationship between human’s physicality and digital technology.  Sleep Dealer depicts a world where transnational flows of labour and power are made available and easily accessible through technology, where drone pilots in America can tear down buildings in Mexico and labourers in Mexico can construct new buildings in America. The drone that Rudy controls acts as a transnational disembodied destroyer of real bodies. On the other hand, the disembodied operation of construction robots produces damaging effects on Memo’s eyes. The technology of the “nodes” facilitates and intensifies the blurring of distinction between bodily and disembodied experience. Bodies are employed to create disembodied experience, and disembodied experience in turn produces powerful effects on the physical bodies.

It is, however, a curious kind of transgression. In a geographically closed world marked off by border control, virtual exchange of ideas and transnational flows of power profess. Under the transnationalism of Sleep Dealer, Mexico and the U.S are connected through technologies that enhance digital presence, yet their geographical territories remain secluded entities. Indeed, when Rudy wants to talk to Memo face-to-face, he still has to cross the border between two countries. The transgression of digital boundaries brought about by telecommunication allows people to experience different things in different geographical settings, yet this sense of merging digital tele-presence still exist parallel to the separation of physical territories rather than completely removing them.

We’re here We’re there We’re everywhere

Technology can shrink distance and enhance presence in paradoxical ways. Virtual reality therefore replaces space-temporal reality with a tele-space-temporal world; it extends and enhances bodily functions by denying the body performing the tasks (Longo 2003, 26). Individuals’ sense of distance is significantly reduced and dislocated by denying the body’s primary senses – of seeing, touching and feeling. For a large portion of the movie, it is hard to tell if the “node workers” in Sleep Dealer are operating machines or are machines themselves. “Node workers” remain largely emotionless, their faces are covered by a headgear while contact lenses obscure their eyes, they move in a rather slow and rigid way, and do not physically engage with anyone during work. Ironically, tele-presence is produced and heightened by the erosion of intimate physical interaction. Thus, the border between Mexico and America remains unimportant so long as the workers’ bodies can be translated into disembodied, transnational mechanical labour.

As technological tools become more advanced and powerful, man and machine run the risk of becoming two ends of a spectrum, rigid clichés and opposing categories (Longo 2006, 27). However, digital technology also has significant potentials to erase existing distinctions between human and machine. Here, we can return to the hybridity of the cyborg and learn from it a different type of experience, that of inhabiting two places at once. The cyborg can give us a language to talk about a type of sensibility that is dependent upon both bodily and disembodied experience. Digital technology simultaneously creates both embodied and disembodied presence that influences each other and therefore influences us. The drone that Rudy controls is therefore not merely a flying machine that operates without leaving any effect on the operator; it takes Rudy’s view and brings it several miles away from the control room. As such, not only does the drone act as an extension to Rudy’s sight, it also allows his presence to be in two places at once – in the control room and simultaneously out on a Mexican village.

Cross at your own risk

The modern Western society has seen a shift from seeing ourselves as natural and whole to a perspective of human as lacking and incomplete, resulting in utopian dreams of infinite possibilities (Dumit & Davis-Floyd 1998, 8). This fantasy of better alternatives is expressed through Memo’s wish to get a “node” and to get away from the village. His listening in on other people’s conversations is a desire to connect the technology that is being glossed over on television. However for a large part of the film, the technology of the “node” appears to be restraining rather than liberating, where Memo has to perform low-wage, repetitive tasks to earn money and support his family. The appeal of technology lies partly in the multiplicity of choice that it presents, yet the more ubiquitous technology becomes, the harder it is to choose from non-technological alternatives (Dumit & Davis-Floyd 1998, 2). This irony is clearly illustrated by the image of the cyborg as a being always in transgression.

Thus the cyborg reveals a Freudian uncanniness that incorporates our awe and fear, our fascination and dread of what technology brings to us. This uncanny feeling is the uneasiness experienced when faced with the novel whose roots lie in the familiar (Freud 1919, 220). It is often evoked when a sign gains equal standing with the thing it symbolises, confusing the line between imagination and reality, between the alive and the not-alive (Freud 1919, 244). The cyborg is half-man, half-machine; as such it is a being simultaneously familiar and unfamiliar, alive and not alive, it is paradox symbolised and its own existence is a paradox. The conceptual coherency of the cyborg as hybridity and transgression is largely dependent upon the affirmation of fixed and opposing poles and its refusal to belong to either. It is the body doubled by the machine so indispensable and pervasive that it threatens to abolish of our origin story and the body itself (Greenville 2002, 21). Cyborgs are inherently enigmatic – they bring to life what human has always imagined, enhances our capabilities and provide assurance against fears of decay while at the same time threaten to dehumanise us, to erase our identity (Dumit & Davis-Floyd 1998, 13; Croissant 1998, 295). The existence of cyborgs begs for the questioning and reconsidering of our own identities.

The order of the day

Director Alex Rivera stated that at first Sleep Dealer was meant to be a critique of virtual capitalism and Internet utopianism, but cases like Indian call centres have suggested that what was portrayed in the film is becoming the normative (Rivera, cited in Harris 2012). The line that separates the natural and artificial is increasingly blurred and instances of symbiosis are becoming more prevalent (Maldonado 2003, 19). Moreover, technology is engaging more with individuals and the body rather than with places (Fortunati, Katz & Riccini 2003, 8). Places and spaces are experienced and their meanings negotiated by individuals through their bodily interaction with technology. The cyborg embodies a grotesque form science fiction being brought to life where technology, through biological integration is becoming a second nature, emptying as well as opening up the body as subjugation and subversion of meaning (Calefato 2003, 164).


We shape our tools and therefore they shape us


Cyborgs have largely been understood by two opposing identities: those that begin with mechanical systems are made to kill, while those with a human origin are made to live (Croissant 1998, 295). Yet the hybridity inherent in the cyborg image that Haraway suggested can provide us a way to go beyond this either-or perspective. It might prove useful for us to think of human-machine interaction as flowing in both directions, as both limiting and liberating. In Sleep Dealer, it is technology that killed Memo’s father and reduces the node workers’ sensitivity, but it is also technology that ultimately destroy the dam to set free the water and return it to Memo’s village. In the beginning of the film it is technology as forces of alienation that exercises control on characters, yet as the film progresses, technology is eventually converted into tools the serve the characters’ final act of liberation. In a rather dystopic vision of the future, hope remains and not completely erased (Rivera, cited in Holt 2010); technology has the capability to drive human apart and bring them closer. In a time of transition, the cyborg image can lend us new ways to think about the characteristics of digital technology, its limits and potentials, what it can give and what it can take.