Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'
Erickson (Mark)
Source: The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 29, No. 3 (Summer, 2004), pp. 471-473
Paper - Abstract

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Excerpts

  1. What does it mean to be a "natural-born cyborg"? asks Clark in this popular science account of recent trends in the world of the cyborg. His answer, which is firmly stated and located in the realm of cognitive science, is simply to be human. We have a natural proclivity for tool-based extension, and this, coupled with the development of recent smart technologies, explains why we are beginning to resemble the cyborgs of fiction. Our lives are becoming increasingly connected to "non-penetrative cyborg technologies," and these are poised on the brink of a revolution, becoming smarter. This will allow us to have a more focused and enhanced relationship with technology in the future.
  2. […]
  3. This is a strange and partial text, written from a distinctly one-sided perspective. Clark's analysis of cyborg technology and its relationship to the human mind comes from positivist cognitive science. At no point does Clark offer any kind of social, cultural, political or economic analysis of cyborgs, nor does he take time to consider why it is, if we have always been cyborgs, we are only just noticing now. This gives his book a rather breezy, cheery feel. Technology just happens, and this technology that is emerging now just happens to be really good technology. It's all great fun, as we think about how we can use the internet to enhance our research skills, our mobile phones to help us to communicate and our PDAs to extend the range of cultural choices available to us. Making sense of cyborgs and what "cyborg" means in contemporary society, from this perspective, is largely a matter of understanding the rather neat devices that are popping up all over the place. Although Clark promises that "this is not primarily a book about new technology" (7) it is. Cyborgs, from this line of analysis, don't exist; what does is "cyborg technology" which means, ultimately, gadgets that we can deploy in our everyday lives. It would appear that understanding cyborg culture is largely a matter of keeping up to date with developments in new consumer technologies: toys for boys, cyborgs for boys.
  4. […]
  5. This is certainly an interesting, readable book and one that may be of some use in cataloguing recent trends in ICT and other technological developments. However, Clark's avoidance of any social, political or cultural theory, his avoidance of feminism (whether cyber- or otherwise) and a general lack of any contextualisation provides a very meagre read for those interested in understanding technology and what it means to be (post)human in contemporary society.

Notes
  1. The above excerpts are just top and tail, with a fairly random passage from the middle. I could have reproduced the lot.
  2. The reviewer basically objects that the author – Andy Clark – is a “positivist1 cognitive scientist” rather than a sociologist. It seems that Clark misses off all the important social stuff. But the reviewer also omits all serious engagement with Clark.
  3. Clark also omits mention of Donna Haraway and her A Cyborg Manifesto, thereby side-stepping feminist post-humanism. What a loss. The reviewer had earlier complained that all this “non-penetrative” cyborg technology lauded by Clark is just “toys for the boys”. As far as I’m aware, mobile phones are used as much by “the girls”, and are far from “toys”, though I doubt they make us cyborgs in a meaningful sense.
  4. The reviewer complains about “the startling omission of almost all of the major themes of analysis that other writers have encountered when considering cyborgs: key concepts such as hybridity, nature-culture, the body, identity are hardly mentioned.” I’ll have to wait until I’ve read the book before commenting on this, but note that Chapter 7 “Bad Borgs?” deals with “Some of the spectres that haunt these hybrid dreams. They include Inequality, Intrusion, Uncontrollability, Overload, Alienation, Narrowing, Deceit, Degradation and Disembodiment2.” It’s the last chapter, and maybe an afterthought rather than the focus of the book, and currently I don’t know quite what’s being considered, but it looks more than “positive science”. However, I would like to see some discussion of most of the topics mentioned by the reviewer.
  5. The reviewer also complains “Cyborgs are combinations of the biological and the technological, but they are also much more: they are transformations of what being human, and being non-human, means. The cyborg breaks boundaries, challenges assumptions and categories, breaks rules and confronts our prejudices. In Clark's analysis none of this is visible; quite the reverse.”. It is probably the case that Clark sees his role as descriptive rather than prescriptive, and isn’t interested in all this revolutionary activity. Good on him.
  6. See "Shipley (G.J.) - Review of Andy Clark's 'Natural-Born Cyborgs'" for a more “positive” appraisal!

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Footnote 1: Footnote 2:

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