Self-identity of a cyborg:
I am Frankenstein's monster
In Minds, Brains & Science, John Searle argues that artificial intelligence is an impossibility. He does this by defining intelligence in terms of what humans do, and having got away with that, he has no difficulty proving that non-humans will not do what humans do.
At present there are still no machines which have a sense of self. Searle argues that a special condition of human consciousness is the way in which each of us is separately and subjectively self-conscious.2 Each of us is the centre of our own perceived universe. In existentialist terms we perceive other humans as "Other" because we are cut off from having a first hand appreciation of the internal processes of another human.
This is an essay about what I am and where I come from. It would be absurd therefore to write my essay in the third person according to an academic convention of quasi-objectivity. I am writing for an imagined reader who, if he or she has consciousness, is given this opportunity to assess my subjective points on their merits.
My self is not located in my cerebellum, although the matter of my brain is central to the structure and function of my consciousness. Searle concedes that he is not a ghost in a machine.3 His self is the sum of the effects of all the physical processes going on in his body, and all the sensations and effects of that existence.
The "mind-body problem" became nothing more than a language game once educated discourse abandoned God, and with Him the notion of a soul which exists independently of matter. With the death of Freudian orthodoxy we may lose the id-ego problem. Nevertheless, my mind (my self) is a manifestation of various feedback loops, most of which involve my central nervous system and certain parts of my brain.
But my consciousness is also to a large extent the outcome of a relationship between my biological systems and the tobacco smoke that I inhale, the jugs of black coffee that I drink, and all the various input and output peripherals that I interact with. Being a touch typist I can write this without being aware of the connection between my fingertips and my computer keyboard. The old WWII Spitfire pilots used to speak of being "as one with the machine". This computer is as much a part of me as the surgical steel ring in my left nipple, or the corrective lenses in my spectacles.
Although Searle is wise to the mind-body problem, he has fallen hook, line, and sinker for the organism-machine problem, a very similar false dichotomy.
It is my contention that my actual "self" (as perceived by any independent observer) is a complex amalgam of the "natural" organic parts of me in concert with the technological "cybernetic" items. From my personal viewpoint (as a bona fide human I can have no other) I shall describe here some of the social and biological developments which created my cyborg self over the last two hundred years.
Culturally and genetically I am the the true descendent of the gothic cyborg as conceived by Mary Shelley in her novel, Frankenstein. I am Frankenstein's "monster".
A conception of the cyborg in Romanticism
All I know about my great-great-great-great grandmother is that her name was Helen and she died in 1805 shortly after giving birth to William, whom Lord Byron regarded as his illegitimate son.5
In his 1807 poem To My Son, Byron wrote "Why, let the world unfeeling frown, must I fond Nature's claim disown? Ah, no -- though moralists reprove, I hail thee dearest child of love..."
Byron lived in a society where male sons were seen by the aristocracy as a genetic means of surviving mortality. 6 Stendhal's The Red and The Black describes the eagerness of the the newly emancipated bourgeoisie to make much of any blood connection with the aristocracy. Feudal rule had claimed orthodoxy on such bases. A serious part of the new capitalist class saw no harm in emulating the same values.
It is believed that, in 1807, William was given to the Marshall family in Wiltshire.7 "A brooding sense of guilt accompanied by a conviction that life had been laid waste before it had properly begun, was an outstanding symptom of the Romantic syndrome...or was it Byron who gave romanticism its special direction?" 8
The circumstances in which Mary Shelley began her novel, Frankenstein, are legendary. In 1816 the Shelleys were staying in a Swiss castle with Byron, and she wrote the first draft on the night when each of the party was competing to write a horror story.
Frankenstein has endured as a modern myth because it has a potency that resonates on several levels. The Shelleys, while in London, had attended scientific debates where physicians argued about the possiblity of enlightenment science actually creating life, and thereby encroaching on God's preserve. To the church, such investigations were a blasphemy. But it was a distinctive feature of Romantic thought that nature was a big fascinating monster to be controlled. Byron's 1807 poem, Manfred, depicts the eponymous Promethean hero defying God in the definitive Romantic pose.
Mary Shelley must have drawn something from real life when she created Baron Frankenstein. After all, the sixth Baron Byron was her husband's best friend. Although Byron's maiden speech in the House of Lords had been in support of the Luddites of 1809, in some other respects he seems to fit the bill.
There is a feminist critique which sees a metaphor for illegitimacy in Frankenstein.9 The creature is disowned and doomed to wander as a fatherless freak, in a way similar to the casting out of a bastard from social recognition. Victor Frankenstein's intended is murdered by the creature and at that time it was too common for women to be killed by childbirth. The creature reads the notes which he finds in Victor's overcoat and this tells him the horrible truth of his own origin.
This may represent the trauma that the Freudians assume a bastard son experiences on discovering from written records that he was born outside wedlock. Victor Frankenstein was determined to create life by scientific means. The Baron Byron was notorious for going about this in a more traditional manner. 10
The Marxist case with a Freudian twist
There is also a political metaphor to be found in Frankenstein. Like some mad scientist, the industrial revolution had created a new political class. The urban proletariat was certainly later seen, by Marx, as a synthetic class formed literally from the bodies of the rural poor.
But although this worker was brought into being by the needs of industrial production, the means of production brought alienation.
From the outset there is a contradiction between the interests of the proletariat and those of the bourgeoisie. But when the working class collectively finds "consciousness" through combination, it takes its ideology from an alien class (Marx and Engels being of the bourgeoisie) -- like the creature reading the notes from Victor Frankenstein's overcoat.
Marx predicted that the proletariat would be the 'gravediggers' of capitalism. But members of the early 19th century ruling class were already alert to the threat of their creation rising up and overthrowing the masters. In 1824, George Canning, in a House of Commons speech opposing the freeing of the slaves, referred to Mary Shelley's book as "that recent novel" when he said, "They would have bodies with no souls." 12
Byron's genetic legacy
Byron died aged 36 in Missolonghi in 1824. He had taken up the cause of Greek independence against the Turkish occupation. Probably he believed that contemporary Greeks had something in common with the ancient civilisation he had studied at Harrow School. The Byron peerage passed to a cousin because the only legitimate heir was a daughter, Ada (1815-52).
If Charles Babbage is now taken to be the father of the modern digital computer, then Ada Lovelace (nee Byron) was undoubtedly its mother. She pioneered the concept of the first computer program. In her honour a high-level computer language commissioned in the late 1970s by the U.S. Department of Defense and designed by a team at the French company CII- Honeywell Bull was named Ada.
"There is nothing about being 'female' that naturally binds women. There is not even such a state as 'being' female, itself a highly complex category constructed in contested sexual scientific discourses and other social practices. Gender, race, or class consciousness is an achievement forced on us by the terrible historical experience of the contradictory social realities of patriarchy, colonialism, and capitalism."13
But the original Frankenstein monster, William, a man with no name, took the surname Marshall and settled in London near the Borough Road in London SE1 as a dairyman. His daughter Hannah used to walk the cows to pasture at Camberwell. Hannah was my great- great-great grandmother and she lived in shame of her father's illegitimacy until she died in 1934 aged 98.14
Hannah had eleven children.And she lived to see her great-grand children become the quietly humorous Edwardian folk that I remember as my grandfather, my great uncles, and my great aunt Alice -- a congenital cripple who wore metal leg braces all her life and made a respectable career for herself in the civil service. "We are all cyborgs"15
"Cyborgs are not just in SF. You don't have to be the Terminator, Chief Engineer Geordi LaForge of ST:TNG, or Steve Austen in The Six-Million Dollar Man: "There are many actual cyborgs among us in society. Anyone with an artificial organ, limb or supplement (like pacemaker), anyone reprogrammed to resist disease (immunized) or drugged to think/behave/feel better (psychopharmocology) is technically a cyborg. The range of these intimate human machine relationships is mind-boggling. It's not just Robocop, it is our grandmother with a pacemaker. Not just Geordi but also our colleague with the myloelectric prosthetic arm. Not just the cyberwarriors of a hundred militaristic science fiction stories, but arguably one whos e immune system has been programmed through vaccination to recognize and kill the polio virus. Not just the fighter-bomber pilot in the state-of-the-art cockpit who can target enemies with the eyes, fire missiles with a word, and use computers to monitor his or her own body and to create a disembodied 'God's Eye' view of the battle, but also the potentially billions of humans yet unborn who will be the products of genetic engineering."16
The unstoppable war machine
"'The story I have to tell,' wrote Nietzsche, 'is the history of the next two centuries.' He predicted (in Ecce Homo) that the 20th century would be a century of 'wars such as have never happened on earth', wars catastrophic beyond all imagining. And why? Because human beings would no longer have a god to turn to, to absolve them of their guilt; but they would still be racked by guilt, since guilt is an impulse instilled in children when they are very young, before the age of reason. As a result, people would loathe not only one another but themselves. The blind and reassuring faith they formerly poured into their belief in God, said Nietzsche, they would now pour into a belief in barbaric nationalistic brotherhoods: 'If the doctrines...of the lack of any cardinal distinction between man and animal, doctrines I consider true but deadly' -- he says in an allusion to Darwinism in Untimely Meditations -- 'are hurled into the people for another generation...then nobody should be surprised when...brotherhoods with the aim of robbery and exploitation of the non-brothers...will appear in the arena of the future.'" 17
The modern nation state has a history which runs parallel to that of manufacturing capitalism and industrial technology. Their intertwined development produced international conflicts of increasing horror and alienation. In 1871 the Franco-Prussian War delivered production-line death to the battlefield in a way that had never been envisaged before Bismarck's particular cocktail of nationalism, industrialism, and bureaucrac efficiency set a trend for every other developed economy to follow.
In 1916 Frederick William Lanchester published Aircraft in Warfare, a mathematical proof of the first aerodynamic theory of the airoplane -- one year before most people realised that powered flight was even possible. He observed how the new technologies made a significant difference by enabling killing from a distance. In primitive times both sides would lose combatants at roughly the same rate. Modern warfare changes this fundamentally. Firepower can be concentrated on a given position from a great distance.
Lanchester's model of conflict showed that in modern warfare there is a changing casualty rate as the opposing side gets smaller and its firepower also gets smaller. According to his 'N Square Law' the decisive factor in all conflicts is overwhelming firepower brought to bear by sheer force of numbers. In other words, Nelson intuitively got it right at Trafalgar when he divided the French fleet.
Modernism in the early 20th century adopted Charlie Chaplin as the model for alienated man. Petty bourgoisois considerations of high birth were out of fashion. As the ideas of Freud and Marx were driven west by the Nazis, the predominant consensus favoured nurture rather than nature.
"You can do anything you put your mind to", was taken as truth. True for individuals in the West. True for the collective in the East. Fascism, socialism, and democracy as we know it. Each lost its credibility when it sought to impose a 'truth' which opposed material reality.
Necessity of war production in advanced capitalist nations accelerated movement towards the emancipation of women. Advances in manufacturing methods and use of new materials provided more prosthetics to cater for many combatants maimed by the factory-like methods used in the battlefield. An extreme example of this cyborg war machine might be Douglas Bader who became a national hero flying, without legs, in a slightly modified fighter aircraft.
In the same war Alan Turing played a decisive role, working with computers at Bletchley Park to break the German Enigma code. There is a view that computer science is still building on the foundations which Turing laid down in the 1940s and '50s. His untimely death can almost certainly be blamed on the harrassment he suffered from the machinery of the British state. "Whatever else it is," says Donna Haraway, "the cyborg point of view is always about communication, infection, gender, genre, species, intercourse, information, and semiology."18 Irrational laws prohibiting homosexual activity in fifties England refused to accomodate this world-class cyborg's transgression of the homosexual taboo. Ironically the response of the Ministry of Defence was to have Turing dosed up with oestrogen during his ground-breaking work on artificial intelligence at Manchester University.
Modern contraception and IVF treatment allow us to be sexual cyborgs. The link between sex and procreation has been severed at both ends -- and this necessarily alters our society in a fundamental way. Gender orientation becomes a matter for personal taste. Decreased child mortality removes the need for a woman to give birth eleven times.
Ever since Le Corbusier, the seminal Bauhaus architect, declared that the house is "a machine for living in", our cyborg selves have been assimilating the proliferation of mod cons into our social exo-skeletons. On the battlefield an APC, or armoured personnel carrier, is a machine for fighting in. When commanding a Saracen APC, with a skilled driver plus well-trained eight man infantry section in the back, I was truly part of a collective organism which covered its tactical tasks, its signals procedures, and its arcs of fire on a twenty-four hour basis. The seamless co-ordination of individuals working, resting, and eating, so efficiently had a science fiction feel to it. We could almost have been astronauts.
Post modernism and all that jazz
When the developed world was in the grip of modernism there at least seemed to be a point to it all. God may have been dead, but at least science produced certainty. The science which created skyscrapers and ocean liners was so obviously on track for all the answers that it could afford to equip the dystopian cinema -- which ungraciously responded by producing Frankenstein movies depicting the scientist as a megalomaniac who has to be stopped by a torch-bearing rabble from the village.
When the repercussions of quantum physics became widely known, Heisenberg's uncertainty principle let Schroedinger's Cat out of the bag and the jig was up. Even science cannot provide absolutes, and humanity is faced with Nietzsche's unpalatable truths with no plausible belief system to take away the taste. An understandable concern for the environment drives some of the rabble to reach for the burning torches and charge the castle. But the cyborgs of the world show no sign of uniting to overthrowing capitalism and establish a rational future.
Science, for all its shortcomings, cannot be halted. No future will be found in some past golden age. Individuals choose, consciously or not, to either learn to cope with diversity in a world of compromise or we turn to superstition in despair. The real humans can be found on the everchanging interface where cybernetics meets organism -- a concept as subtle as the 'fluid front-line' which was so successful in Desert Storm.
"Freudianism and Marxism -- and with them, the entire belief in social conditioning -- were demolished so swiftly, so suddenly, that neuroscience has surged in, as if into an intellectual vaccuum. Nor do you have to be a scientist to detect the rush."19
Advances in genetic research have swung the pendulum back to nature rather than nurture being the more significant factor of existence. But a prevailing culture of diversity brings the superstitious and the paranoid to the ethical debate of whether the gay gene should be isolated and eradicated from the species. But those in favour of genetic homophobia are giving voice to a set of values which come from a bygone age.
In 1995 when Christina Hardyment reviewed Susan Normington's book Byron's Children in the Daily Telegraph, the article was expanded into a feature about me, my father, Geoffrey, and our alleged genetic link with Byron. A significant number of Daily Telegraph readers presumably share with Geoffrey that anachronistic petty bourgeois hankering to underpin their legitimacy by uncovering some ancestral link with aristocracy
Referring to me, Hardyment wrote, "Geoffrey's son Michael, author of verses about Brixton's bedsit land, may be able to claim a genetic link with one of England's finer Romantic poets. (Michael's poetry, however, makes no attempt at finesse, the Byron genes may have suffered in their dilution down the generations.)"
Surely her reference to a poetry gene is a tiny academic joke. But later in the piece, she quotes four lines from a 100-line narrative poem called The Victims, which I had written in the 1980's. It describes two junkies and a prostitute having a bad day. This she compares with Byron's "soft seraphic cheeks/ Crimson as cleft pomegranites" and "Isles of Greece/ where burning Sappho loved and sung", two fragments she snatches from Byron's complete works as if the bawdy old rascal had made his reputation as a writer of romantic poetry with a small "R".
She follows this with an invented quote from me saying, "I certainly haven't inherited a genius for poetry" to ram home the surprising contrast between two different writers addressing two different subjects in two different ages.
Byron was four years dead when he was my age. The Romantics knew how to live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking corpse. My allotted span has denied me the opportunity to be a gravedigger of capitalism, but I must have done some significant spade work in the years I spent organising the non-stop picket outside London's South African Embassy for the release of Nelson Mandela from his apartheid jail.
If that was me throwing eggs at Michael Heseltine on BBC2's Newsnight in 1993, I did it for the miners. I exist for thousands of people in five continents by means of the internet. I am therefore to a very large extent a virtual organism known as Byronik. I am not Byron's clone. I am cyborg. I am Frankenstein's monster.
1. Donna Haraway, A
Cyborg Manifesto Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth
© Michael Burgess 1997