Reflections on cyborgs, the cognisphere and social exchange

by Jesper Magnusson

Materialities, Cluster 11: Posthumanist Philosophies

”A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction.” (Haraway, 1991, p.149)

Donna Haraways´ cyborg concept can be regarded as an upgraded variation of the assemblage concept. Notions on the cyborg concept appear to suggest a very close amalgamation between humans and objects. As I understand Haraway humans become cyborgs through an intimate unification with high-tech communication and information devices. “Communications sciences and biology are constructions of natural-technical objects of knowledge in which the difference between machine and organism is thoroughly blurred; mind, body, and tool are on very intimate terms. “ (Ibid, p.165)

To put the cyborg concept into work in a spatial context I construct a framework where I label the cyborg objects first-hand artefacts. The first-hand artefacts are private, attached to the body and carried around. In the everyday spaces we move there are other artefacts that we interact with and through, even form assemblages with; these I label second-hand artefacts. The second-hand artefacts in this framework are detached from the body and generally belonging to a public domain, e.g. benches, bollards, lampposts, edges, canopies etc. These two categories of artefacts effect human behaviour and social interactions; they heavily influence the networks that are being produced in urban public domain. The agencies of first-hand artefacts interact with the agencies of the second-hand artefacts and of course with the agencies of human actors.

For instance, the use of mobile phones can make us search for shadow to be able to see the screen properly, we try to escape disturbing urban noise to be able to hear better and we sometimes search for spots with better connection to telephone networks. Occasionally we need to put down an electronic device, a bag or a rucksack, to be able to use both our hands when handling it. Then we look for horizontal surfaces in suitable heights, as low walls, bollards, building socles, window ledges etc. Cyborgs also look for places to charge the batteries of their machines. Attractive second-hand artefacts gather cyborgs and thus become objects of appropriation and of possible social exchange, i.e. actants with obvious networking capacities.

My point is that the cyborg is a prime socio-material actor with multiple and integrated agencies. The cyborg gets further complicated by the interference by a set of second-hand material agencies. This makes the analysis of socio-material agency and social exchange a complex mission.

The privateness of cyborgs
To be private means having a conceptual idea of what it is to be public. Today we are private everywhere. Owing to advanced information technology, extensive communication networks and individual, portable electric media devices we can be private everywhere.

Thomas Whalen (2000) introduced the concept cognisphere to denote “the Internet but also networked and programmable systems that feed into it, (…) the globally interconnected cognitive systems in which humans are increasingly embedded.” (Hayles p.161) The cognisphere have a huge impact on our everyday lives, in private as well as in public domains. As cyborgs in cognisphere societies we can be located, contacted, talked to and heard everywhere. We are filmed, tapped, registered and even addressed by semi-intelligent machines in most public domains. As cyborgs we are constantly connected to people, information systems and spaces in spatio-temporal other-wheres.

But as cyborgs, connected to the cognisphere, we can always disconnect from the immediate context and turn our focus to other places, humans or media. Our electronic devices are by all means connective but they are also disconnective. We can use them as shields against public life and protection from the mundane practises of interaction with strangers.

High-tech media devices call for attention. In public domain the auditive or visual senses can simultaneously be devoted to in different realities, due to the agencies of portable media devices. Walking on a street and talking to someone in another space (and maybe in another time zone) over a mobile phone, watching a film on an IPad in a café or skyping on a train change the perception of the space we are in and the way we relate to others in that space. Strangers can easily be ignored and friends shut out.

Cyborgism and the cognisphere have obvious implications on social behaviour and exchange in public space.

Donna Haraway, ‘A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century’ in Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, New York: Routledge, 1991.

N. Katherine Hayles, ‘Unfinished Work: From Cyborg to Cognisphere’ in Theory Culture Society 23; 159, 2006.