“It’s in our Nature to want to rise above our limits. Think about it. We were cold, so we harnessed fire. We were weak, so we invented tools. Every time we met an obstacle, we used creativity and ingenuity to overcome it. The cycle is inevitable… but will the outcome always be good? I guess that will depend on how we approach it.“
- Adam Jensen, Deus Ex: Human Revolution.
Cyborgs are organisms composed of both organic and mechanical parts. Even today we can see the beginnings of cyborgism – patients wear prosthetics, receive artificial organs or take on implants such as hearing aids. These are the early pioneers of cyborgism.
In cyberpunk works, the entwinement of man and machine is much deeper. Cyborgism is far from exceptional in the cyberpunk society. It is a common part of life, which brings both obvious benefits and hidden complications. Technological advancement in cyberpunk worlds often reaches such heights that there is no scarcity of people whose bodies are mostly mechanical.
The degree of cyborgism
This raises the question: How many mechanical modifications can one person take on and still remain human? This is the main theme of Musamune’s Ghost in the Shell. The ghost here is nothing else but the concept of our own humanity. As long as you keep your ‘ghost’ close to you, it doesn’t matter how much of your body you replace with technological implants. But the very concept of the ghost, or soul, is abstract, and this leads to uncertainty in the protagonist about the potential loss of his human nature.
Reasons for cyborgism
Why do people become cyborgs? This is another frequent theme in works of the cyberpunk genre. Injuries, work requirements, social prestige are just a few possible reasons. But, behind augmentation as a practice, there is invariably also some kind of social isolation surrounding the subject – if not before, then certainly after the transformation. For instance, Alex Murphy, the protagonist of RoboCop [directed by Paul Verhoeven; 1987], can only become a cyborg after his own murder, which of course represented the termination of his natural and social existence. Less stigma, we understand, surrounds changing the dead into cyborgs than it does changing the living.
In the game Deus Ex: Human Revolution [Eidos Montreal; 2011], the adoption of cybernetic implants becomes a social necessity because ordinary people have grown inferior. Above all, they are less capable in the labor market. Interestingly, the cyber implants in Deus Ex are not fully compatible with the human body. All implant bearers are forced to use expensive medications to ease the negative impact of their implants on their bodies. The entire narrative of the game stands as an artistic inquiry into cyborgism and the dilemmas associated with it.
Different forms of cyborgism
Cyborgism can of course take on many forms. Nanobots (artificial “machines” in size no bigger than atoms or molecules) are some of the most advanced. For example, in the cult-status first installment to the Deus Ex series [Eidos Interactive; 2000], nanobots are applied to the human body to give it superhuman abilities such as dark vision, rapid regeneration and muscle enhancement. The subject in this way becomes a nanobotic cyborg – still a cyborg, just the artificial implants are scaled down to such a degree that they are carried in her bloodstream. But whatever form of implant is used in a cyberpunk story and no matter how powerful the subject becomes, the question of what it is to be human always remains.