Let's go to cyborgs

We cyborgs! A play about people and machines

They can sing, dance, make ironic remarks and recognize when the other person is sad. Techno freaks from Silicon Valley and East Asia outdo each other in making their robots appear as human as possible. The better they manage it, the more fascinating it is for us - and the more scary.

Ultimately, they remain automatons determined by their designers. The limits of their programming are the limits of their world. The real challenge is to apply the technological developments on or in our biological body. And that brings us to the cyborg: the hybrid of living organism and machine.

The term "cyborg" is an acronym that is composed of the English "cybernetical" and "organism". It is mostly used to describe people whose bodies are permanently supplemented by artificial components. The use of complex technology implanted in the body is nothing new in medicine.

People with pacemakers, leg or arm prostheses, implants in eyes or ears (cochlea or retina implants) are cybernetic organisms according to the term. Accordingly, 15 to 20 percent of the current population are already considered cyborgs.

Connection with devices

We humans are beings who have always lived in a symbiotic connection with the technology that surrounds us. Our ability to continuously develop technical devices - from hand ax to wireless data transmission - is an anthropological defining feature.

We have been associated with devices since the Stone Age, and our development is directly related to technological development. Tools such as spears, wheels, wagons, steam engines, trains and airplanes are extensions of our body and serve to transcend the biological limits of the body and to open up new possibilities for opening up the world.

Since the digital revolution, we have been so dependent on devices in our global context that the term cyborg can no longer be limited to technologies that are implanted under the skin. The new technologies have long since expanded subcutaneous use and made us prosthetic organisms whose technological enhancements are attached to the interface between the inside and the outside of the body.

The most important device in this context is the smartphone. By combining the almost unlimited possibilities of the Internet with the techniques of audio and video phoning, it opens up a new, unprecedented relationship to those present and to the absent world.

The smartphone has become an application in our body. We haven't - yet - implemented it under the skin, but it has become an indispensable prosthesis for our perception and communication apparatus.

Love of automatons

In the romantic horror tale "The Sandman" by E. T. A. Hoffmann, the enthusiastic student Nathanael falls in love with him Vending machines "Olimpia". The artificial being appears to him as the ideal partner, and it is precisely her lack of expressiveness and her answers that are reduced to a simple "oh" that do not deter him, but rather promote and confirm his love for her.

Apart from the ironic description of male desire, which does not strive for an equal subject as a counterpart, Hoffmann gives a convincing description of the mechanism of love in his novella, which is always due to a projection of subjective ideas onto the love object. This leads to the idealization of the beloved object, which is why Freud compares the process of love to madness.

The budding poet Nathanael obsessively clings to the illusion that the beloved Olimpia, despite her mechanical movements and simple-minded responses, is a human being. When the deception is finally exposed, Nathanael ends up in the madhouse.

Irritation and uncertainty

The romantic Hoffmann tells us that there is something uncanny about our encounter with human-like automatons. The more the shape of the artificial being resembles a person, the more we react with irritation and uncertainty. Psychoanalysis draws a parallel here to the romantic motif of the doppelganger that we encounter in the digital present in the form of robots in its technological form.

Today's robots are programmed so ingeniously that they come deceptively close to the human appearance through random movements of the head, seemingly involuntary blinking and a complex system of acoustic and visual sensors. The more the artificial beings resemble us humans, the more creepy we feel. Research calls this the uncanny valley phenomenon.

In addition to being amazed at the technological possibilities, the encounter with human-like artificial beings triggers two elementary feelings in us: the fear of death and the longing for immortality. This feeds speculation about the possible abolition of death by technological means.

Human optimization

The goal of transhumanism is to overcome man in his previous form. Loosely linked to Nietzsche's utopia of the "superman", which philosophizes about overcoming suffering and pain, moral depravity and physical vulnerability, the transhumanists dream of optimizing human beings through science. They assume that the next stage of human evolution will be achieved through fusion with technology.

The complete replacement of our mortal "shell" with rot-proof technological material is the next logical step in this way of thinking. Why shouldn't the medical and technological possibilities even be further developed in such a way that we can upload our consciousness to a carrier medium other than our perishable body?

spirit and body

Such ambitions currently fail not only because of the question of how our complex thinking can be congruent with digital artificial intelligence. It is the indissoluble amalgamation of mind and body, of intelligence and sensory perception, of feelings and information that has made all previous attempts in this direction fail.

But there are already cryonics today who allow themselves to be frozen shortly before their death in order to be thawed again in the indefinite future, when the transfer of human consciousness to a new storage medium will be feasible. Around 400 shock-frozen people in the USA and Russia are in "cold sleep" at minus 196 and are waiting to be thawed again in the future.

In dystopian novels and films we meet machine beings that at some point free themselves from the determination by programming in order to develop their own will or feelings. We tend to trust machine beings to turn against us humans at some point and to want to suppress or destroy us with their technological superiority.

Such a dynamic, popular in cyberpunk, for example, must be read as an artistic parable of our human behavior. An artificial being programmed by humans will not rise up against humans. We therefore don't have to be afraid of the machines, but only of the people who program these machines.

Antenna people

In her Cyborg Manifesto from 1985, the feminist philosopher Donna Haraway creates the utopia of overcoming the boundaries between "human" and "animal" and between "human" and "machine". In their eyes, this also opened up the opportunity to dissolve the traditional binary gender.

At the University of Art in Barcelona, ​​a group of students is working on converting their bodies into cyborgs. One woman has sensors implanted in her skull in order to sense earthquakes around the world, another has magnetic implants in her ear to develop new senses of hearing and sensing.

The art students see themselves as part of an avant-garde that is working on expanding our species. One of them, Neil Harbisson, wears an antenna camera on his head, with which he, originally born color-blind, can now hear colors. In 2010 he founded the Cyborg Foundation, an international foundation that defends the rights of cyborgs and supports people who want to become cyborgs.

He has already achieved one success: his antenna, which protrudes over his head to his forehead, is recognized as part of his personality and is documented on his passport photo. He managed to get through the security checks at airports with the antenna and no longer be forced to take it off. Which is not possible anyway because it is implanted in his skull. (Bernd Liepold-Mosser, January 31, 2021)

Bernd Liepold-Mosser, born 1968 in Griffen, director and author, is the director of the Klagenfurt Festival and is currently in charge of the research project "Performing Reality" at the University of Klagenfurt.

Cyborg Sandmann, very loosely based on "The Sandman" by E. T. A. Hoffmann.
TAG Theater Vienna.
Premiere on March 25th