The Cyborg Gaze: Why We May Already Be Cyborgs and What That Means for the Future of Society



One of the great things about SXSW is that there is an influx of powerful thinkers and sub-genre leaders.

Often, they’ll present a reality that culture has no way to prepare for. One of the primary themes this year is about digital privacy, surveillance and “sousveillance”—a termed coined by Professor Mann. You may remember him as the one who was assaulted for wearing digital glassesa few years back in a Paris McDonalds.

I had the opportunity to see Professor Mann speak previously at TED, so was abreast to his countercultural imperative that people should protect themselves by maintaining a living record of their experiences. Watching the watchers, so to speak, to indemnify oneself against a prospectively abusive system.

The theme proposed today by his contemporaries was that of “Cyborg Gaze.” If we accept that a cyborg vision, in the loosest definition, is human vision aided or interpreted one+ step(s) removed (and one or more of those steps may be augmented), then with the aid of our smartphones, we’re all modern cyborgs. We add to (and benefit from) a massive pool of documented and live data for the enhanced world around us.

As with many advancements in technology, it’s not the thing itself that poses the dilemma—computer and enhanced vision is here to stay and will only become more prevalent—the issue is the ethics in play. Fortunately, I was young many years ago; the most permanent historical record of my adolescent misadventures are the stories that friends still laugh about now (with years blunting the ugly/naked realities of the circumstances). Today’s youth aren’t nearly as lucky. Instances of suicides related to cyber bullying are on the rise across North America.


Does owning a smartphone render you a modern cyborg?


Most people have untagged themselves from “incriminating” photos—you know, the ones that would ruin a political career, but in a computer vision world, people won’t often have the luxury of even that meagre level of protection. With persistent and widespread enhanced vision documenting the world, getting a grasp on the primacy of data ownership and protections therein is critical.

A cyborg from the audience (wearing full head apparatus) succinctly pointed out that we’ve got some protection as citizens against the acquisition and usage of surveillance data by the government, but only the loosest jurisdiction over ourselves by private industry. Virtually none from the citizenry. Think about that a moment: imagine an enhanced world where mistakes follow you in perpetuity, the enhanced access predators may leverage, and the depths by which malice can haunt people. As one of the presenters put it, he had such an argument about the morality of enhanced/public vision that a colleague would’t talk to him for 10 years. The follow up note, however, was that the majority within the community want the technology to become pervasive first, assuming relevant laws and cultural norms would follow.

The cyborg gaze represents a reality that few of us understand the implications of as yet, but like most things of its nature, the genie is out of the bottle now. Time will tell how responsible we are—individually, culturally, and politically—with this new depth of data and vision.