Every Friday, my cohort and I attend HSD602, the second half of our year-long seminar on the foundations of STS. Each week, a different student leads class and has about an hour to decide what the class will do and how we’ll discuss this week’s readings. This past Friday was my week.

As a class, we spend a lot of time thinking and talking about the theories of human-machine assemblages, and talking abstractly about bodies and the boundaries between bodies (of humans, governing bodies) and technology and I wanted engage in an embodied practice for class. I thought it would be a good exercise and, selfishly, I wanted to spend class time doing less talking and more moving.

The week’s theme was “sociotechnical constitutions,” which is a really abstract and hyperacademic way to talk about the ways that society and technology overlap, push against each other and influence each other. (For what it’s worth, the class as a whole ended up defining sociotechnical constitutions as “an assemblage of written and unwritten guides/norms/practices/policies/views/etc that form the framework of the ways that a society deals with technical practices.”) I can think of few things more “sociotechnical” than the ways in which technology and physical bodies interact, so even though we weren’t doing explicit reading on cyborgs, it felt like an appropriate exercise.

I was excited to see how the class would experience the physical bodies of the dolls, whether they would include the dolls’ gender, how they would maintain the civil rights of the human while still enhancing their abilities with machines.

Here’s the class handout with the activity.

The final product:

A few observations:

The class self-formed into two teams, and after the fact, we realized that the teams were split between those with an engineering background and those without. The team without an engineering background (farm worker)did more work to make sure that the cyborg was still also a mobile and functional human body, in addition to an enhanced worker in a capitalist regime. The team with an engineering background turned the body wholly into a tool. Their creation (cyborg mermaid) would be immobile, alone on an ocean, surviving only on fish and filtered water.

The class, as a whole, struggled to include gender/age/race in their mental model of these cyborgs. The dolls are little girl dolls, and I told them that they could modify that presentation as needed. One team just decided that the cyborgs would all be naked and gender neutral (this tracks with the stripping of all human identity markers in their cyborg creation) and the other that these cyborgs would present as little girls in order to seem “nonthreatening” in their work.

Farm worker

The team that created the farm worker cyborg pictured a future in which the sterile and not-sexually-active human-machines are grown in labs/test tubes and put to work on corporate farms. The human-machines cannot live outside of the farm lands because their machine parts are administered by the corporation. They are branded with serial numbers. In essence, they created a cyborg slave class.

cyborg mermaid

The cyborg mermaid team predicted that their cyborgs would be created voluntarily - out of a desire to keep the oceans clean, individuals would sign up to have their feet bound to a propeller, a 3d printer implanted in their chest, their arm amputated and converted into a drone that docks on their shoulder and gills implanted into their face and lungs. These cyborgs would collect ocean plastic, and 3D print boats that would then be manned by well-intentioned pirates.

Class takeaways

The best part of this class was the discussion that followed about what exactly makes a cyborg. Do we have cyborgs living among us? Do people with pacemakers count? (Yes). What about people who implant magnets in their fingers? (Maybe, if it’s part of their personal identity). What about piercings? (No) Breast implants? (No. Yes. Is aesthetics a function that artificial augmentation can perform?) The discussion helped me to think through the overlaps between cyborg as an externally-assigned category and the social role it can play as part of one’s identity.