Issues to Put on Your Intellectual Radar Screens: Cyborg Rights

By Benjamin Wittes
Thursday, February 28, 2013, 7:28 AM

Over at Slate, Torie Bosch has an interview with a cyborg about, well, cyborg rights. It's very interesting, and it goes to an issue I've been thinking about for a while. We think of cyborgs as inherently requiring physical connectedness between human and machine. But if we're all carrying around smart phones all the time and they're doing basic tasks for us all the time in all of ours lives, does it really matter if they are not---yet---implanted within us biologically? In other words, aren't we all already cyborgs? At a Brookings event some time ago, Tim Wu posed the question of whether many of our current debates about data and privacy and surveillance were really something else: "even though it seems like a science fiction hypothetical [we're at] the very beginnings of sort of understanding---and I  hesitate to use this word but I’ll say it anyway---cyborg law, that is to say the law of augmented humans." After all, he pointed out, if we think of the human-smartphone entity as one entity, rather than two, it's striking that the human part of that cyborg has rights. The smartphone part does not.

Excerpt from Slate's cyborg interview with Neil Harbisson, who was born without the ability to see color:

First, tell me a little about your “eyeborg.” What does it do for you?
Color is basically hue, saturation, and light. Right now, I can see light in shades of gray, but I can’t see its saturation or hue. The eyeborg detects the light’s hue, and converts it into a sound frequency that I can hear as a note. It also translates the saturation of the color into volume. So if it’s a vivid red, I will hear it more loudly.

How has being a cyborg changed your life?
It has changed the way I perceive the world. Color is everywhere, so everything has changed. I still can't see color, but I can perceive it. I can experience it in a way that allows me to be a part of this reality, which I was excluded from before. Thanks to the eyeborg, I’ve made a career by combining music and art. I do concerts where I plug myself into a set of speakers and play the colors of the audience back to them. And I also started to perceive sound as color. Telephone lines became green; Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” song seemed red and pink. So I started to paint using the sounds around me. I’ve made pictures of pieces by Vivaldi, Beethoven, and Mozart among others. Now, we are developing a bag that you will be able to customize with your favorite song (using the same pattern I do with the artworks).

What does the word cyborg mean to you? 
I believe that being a cyborg is a feeling, it's when you feel that a cybernetic device is no longer an external element but a part of your organism. One can start feeling cyborg by simply attaching an infrared sensor at the back of the head, a sensor that vibrates when someone gets close to you. If you wear the sensor attached to your body permanently, the brain will gradually accept the new feeling as an extra sense that can enhance your own perception of the surroundings.

You call yourself a “cyborg activist.” What challenges do cyborgs face that the rest of us might not be aware of?
There’s no legal protection for cyborgs. In 2010, I started the Cyborg Foundation to defend our rights. Cyborgs have been kicked out from several places because they are seen as a possible security threat. I've been kicked out from places such as Harrods, Casino Montecarlo, and many supermarkets. Most cinemas don’t let me in because they think I’m going to record the film. Some countries don't allow you to appear with any electronic equipment on passport photographs. In 2004 I was allowed to appear with the eyeborg in my passport photograph, which has made things a lot easier in airports.