Let’s backtrack. There are some things you need to know before we can continue. The word “cyborg,” a popular abbreviation on the sci-fi circuit, is the shorter and catchier version of the term “cybernetic organism.” Essentially, we’re talking about a being that has both organic parts and robot parts. These parts are integrated and form a functioning system. Typically, this means using robotic elements to extend existing human capabilities. Seems pretty straightforward: RoboCop is a cyborg, for example.
But what else can be a cyborg?
Backtrack, again—there are some things you need to know about me. Every winter, I change my clock forward a single hour and fall into a total despair. I lie in bed eating Dove Promises and wondering when the goddamn sun will come back out. After years of trying to pin the blame for this behavior on outside forces—El Niño! our economic situation!—it was this winter that I finally accepted the fact that I’m a victim of Seasonal Affective Disorder.
I resigned myself to the hands of University Health Services and braced for a fate of pills and extensive counseling. Much to my surprise, my treatment was prescribed in the form of a phototherapy lamp.
A phototherapy lamp is another word for a robot that plugs into an outlet and shines very bright, white light on you. When it shines on a person with seasonally mediated anxiety, depression, and lack of motivation, science and magic converge to make those feelings go away (phototherapy lamps fit into the category of phenomena that scientists know for sure work but don’t know for sure why—like dark matter, which, despite its name, has little to do with my condition).
In other words, the combination of this robot (who I now affectionately call “Lamp”) and a sad undergrad form a functioning system—one that uses robotic elements to extend existing human capabilities.
I was now part of a great tradition of part-time cyborgs. The doctor who diagnosed me, using little lights to peer into my ears and nose because her eyes just weren’t strong enough? Cyborg. The woman who booked my appointment, using a telephone to talk to me instead of just yelling across campus to try to reach me? Cyborg. I confess that I felt some Asimov-flavored robot anxiety (something Lamp doesn’t treat) when I started to wonder where machine ends and the person begins.
Meanwhile, I’ve had a lot of difficulty adapting to my new identity. This situation has raised many questions—for example, if I only use Lamp in the morning, but its effects last all day, how long am I a cyborg? How do I explain my new situation to my friends and family? What does it mean about the relationship between humans and our helpful robots that I felt the need to name Lamp?
These questions multiply, and at the end I find myself thinking about the implications of this prevalence of cyborgs within our society. Why is it that a person can be tried for a moving violation in a vehicle if they were not a human, but a cyborg, when they committed the infraction? Can the car be blamed? I think a dog can probably be a cyborg, too, but can a plant? Or does it require some sort of conscious autonomy? Where does Lamp fit into all of this? If we get the fuel that runs our robots from oil, which comes from dead dinosaurs, can they truly be distinguished from organic material? Also, is there a God?
Now, I see cyborgs everywhere I look. Some are young, some old. Some are cyborgs by choice—when listening to an iPod, when typing a term paper, when masturbating with a vibrator—but others, like me, are medical cyborgs. Some have pacemakers; I have Lamp. Although we may have a few more metaphysical dilemmas to grapple with than the rest of you, ultimately we just want to be accepted, and treated the same as everyone else. Even though we have parts that will probably outlive you, and might take over the world someday.
Sarah C. McKetta, ‘08-’09, a Crimson editorial editor, is a biological anthropology concentrator in Winthrop House.